Jun Palafox: Activist Architect of Planet Earth

A pioneer of green architecture in the Philippines, Architect Felino "Jun" Palafox, Jr. is known for designs now seen in skylines and landscapes all over the country and across the globe, with each stroke paying homage to the planet he calls home.

Palafox is a Spanish noble surname derived from a place where the original bearer resided or held land. This surname was first found in the district of Maresma in the province of Barcelona.  It also has traces from the Latin term “palatiolos,” meaning small “palaces” (www.HouseOfNames.com). This name must have been providential for Felino “Jun” Palafox, Jr. as he makes a global name akin to the architect of modern day landmarks.

A registered architect at age 22, Palafox earned his masters degree in Environmental Planning through a scholarship grant from the United Nations Development Program. A year later, Palafox focused on Urban and Regional Planning from the University of the Philippines (UP), referred to today as Masters in Town and Country Planning.  He then worked for a couple of years with the Philippine government under the mentorship of respectable technocrats and visionaries like former Secretary of Public Works, Transportation and Communication David Consunji, and former Secretary of Education and 13th President of the UP System, Dr. Onofre Corpuz.

Palafox considered his stint in government in the 70s, the most productive experience in his life, unmindful of working 12-14 hours a day as Team Leader and Senior Planner of the MMETROPLAN Manila, a World Bank Metro Manila Transport, Land Use and Development Planning Project that already foresaw problems today such as transportation, traffic, flooding, housing, and infrastructure in Metropolitan Manila.  He then became Project Officer of the Manila Bay Strategic Development Plan covering Metro Manila, the CALABARZON, and Central Luzon.  He also played a crucial role in designing the National Physical Framework Plan of the Philippines.  But what Palafox considered the turning point of his life and career was when the ruling family of Dubai took notice of his prowess in designing master plans for town and country.  He was then invited to Dubai as its architect and urban planner with a rank of Senior Planner --the only Southeast Asian among 20 other expatriates, and the youngest.

Aside from turning Dubai into a first-world city in 15 years or less, the ruler of Dubai also instructed to create a “Garden City in the Desert” where soil from Pakistan were imported, irrigation from Germany adopted, and flowers from Holland abloom.  Only in the 80s did the Sys and the Ayalas took notice of him and hired him back to Manila to introduce green architecture –that of creating a more livable and sustainable metropolis. About the same time, Palafox founded Palafox Associates, Palafox Architecture, and subsequently, JWFox, all companies strongly advocate urban planning and development, and architecture for humanity not only in the Philippines, but in over a thousand cities located in 40 countries.

Activist architect
Green is the “in” thing these days and creating healthy cities is here to stay.  Even the field of architecture is not spared from the green revolution –that is, giving premium to open spaces meant for safe convergence of people walking, biking, playing whatever sports or simply engaging in people watching. Palafox’s companies not only pioneered green urbanism in the country, but actually breathes it even unmindful of the possibility of losing some 30-40% of potential clients and projects when this principle is compromised.  Case in point was a multimillion-dollar project in 2009 where Palafox was contracted to render a master plan for a business complex featuring a 6-star hotel, for a whooping architect’s fee of $1M.  But when the architect activist was asked to cut down 366, 70-year old trees for the purpose, he returned the check and found himself in the forefront of the campaign against the development plan.  This act was unprecedented and to some might have thought Palafox a fool for letting go the opportunity.  As a consequence, he was slapped with a P50M libel suit and was exposed to various forms of harassments.    

Palafox was the first architect to sign up in the 2030 Challenge initiated by the American Institute of Architects; whereby, buildings designed or communities master planned by 2030 must be carbon neutral.  Carbon neutrality is achieved when fuels used neither contribute to nor reduce the amount of carbon (measured in the release of CO2) into the atmosphere; thereby, reducing greenhouse effect to zero.  Planting trees or protecting forestlands contributes to achieving that overall ecological balance.  Palafox computed that the replacement value of a 50-year old tree is at P9M each.  Computation is based on the amount of oxygen the tree has provided for the past 50 years, rain water it has harvested to prevent floods or provide commercial value to farms, tons of fertilizer generated for mother earth, the cooling effect it has provided the environment, and the beauty it has contributed to achieving a gorgeous panoramic view.

Walk the talk.  That’s what Palafox companies are made of.  They advocate preserving, recycling, and reusing of old buildings especially those designed by national artists, as against demolishing them altogether to pave way for new ones.  These approaches not only manage carbon footprint, but also preserve one’s cultural imprint.  Also, incorporated in some of Palafox masterplans are projects that require in the Design Guidelines that for every car owned, the landowner is required to plant 10 trees as in the case of Sta. Elena in Sta. Rosa, Laguna.  In Dubai, Saudi Arabia, it’s 17 trees per car.  Planting of trees would recover oxygen from carbon monoxide produced per car.

“Postcards From the Future” is another of Palafox brainchild.  This entails taking pictures of a poorly planned city and rendering various architectural perspectives on how it should look like.  It’s similar to envisioning the potentials of the city years from the present by designing its development plan with a strategic mind towards a desired vision.

Megalopolis of the Future
The Metropolitan Manila is an example of a “how-not-to-do” master plan, according to Palafox.  It is a deadlock because it has already reached beyond its threshold.  For instance, EDSA’s capacity for vehicles is 200,000 vehicles a day, but currently, it is choked with 600,000 vehicles inching through it.  Palafox added, theoretically EDSA needs some six million trees to cover for oxygen overtaken by carbon dioxide produced by those vehicles daily.  Palafox revealed that the only option for decongesting Metro Manila is to create urban growth centers outside of it that would serve as counter magnets to people attracted to urban living.

Meanwhile, Palafox strongly encouraged that new urban centers must adhere to green architecture promoting sustainable building materials and for doing so, must be given tax incentives.  Air-conditioning in the buildings must be just an option because it should observe cross ventilation, and employees must have access to natural light to make them more productive.  Green water harvesting must be adopted –that is, two water lines are installed: one is to catch rainwater from the rooftop for irrigation of gardens and cleaning purposes, and the other for potable water. This is the case in some countries like Dubai and Singapore.  Moreover, the new urban centers must be “healthy” cities, Palafox reiterated.  Healthy cities’ modes of transportation are via walking, biking, and public transit. Automobiles would only come in as last resort.   In all instances, Palafox reminded that alternative energy must be promoted.

Road design must be adopted with 1/3 of thoroughfares reserved for trees and landscaping, another 1/3 for pedestrians and bicycles, and the remaining 1/3 to other vehicles.  Makati for instance is strangulated by gated communities and cemeteries, Palafox remarked.  Big houses in the middle of the city has larger carbon footprints because they arrogate to self-prime urban land resources; thereby, preventing families to live closer to places of work and encouraging encroachment into urban forest.  Big houses must therefore go to the suburbs and people in mega cities must live in multi-family housing instead, Palafox opined.  Master plans that arrogate no less than 50% of the total project site to open space, gives value appreciation of the property to about 15 times the current market value.

When asked on how else can Metro Manila’s congestion be addressed, Palafox mentioned practical remedies, as: increasing the LRT-MRT lines to 8-9; introducing “congestion charging” where during peak hours entering congested streets warrant a fee; elevating walkways along the whole stretch of EDSA and preferably installing air-conditioning facility to encourage people to walk; and building pedestrian and bicycle bridges crossing Pasig River, San Juan River, Marikina River, and all the esteros every kilometer and 800 meters.   Palafox revealed that a Metro Manila resident only walks 400 meters a day (about two thousand steps), far below the prescribed 10 thousand steps a day due to unavailability of “walkable” pathways and sidewalks.

Palafox Legacy
Palafox embraces the thought that everyday is a new day.  His ways of doing things today may not necessarily be the ways in the future, but as he espouses, “sin of omission is sin of commission.”  If one fails to do what ought to be done, sin is committed.  Palafox companies belong to the very few that are into alternative designing/alternative master planning.  While Palafox maintains there is no single design solution, he would rather see mistakes in paper than in concrete structures, which often entails cost when doing cost-benefit analysis (CBA).  However, Palafox companies go beyond the usual CBA; they do beneficiary-sufferer analysis to account for their projects’ impact to humanity in general.  Money is not everything for this architect activist.  Palafox who could have been a missionary priest until fate changed his course, intimating that psychic income or spiritual income could be more rewarding, if not fulfilling.

“If better is doable, then good is not good enough.  I’ve done my best.  I’d let God do the rest….  (So when I ask myself) What have I done to pay planet earth –for the space I consume, the air I polluted, the food I consume? Client is always planet earth.” For Palafox, doing good deeds with a lot of beneficiaries to enjoy them is spiritual-mental-psychic income.    This could probably be what Palafox would like to be remembered by all those architects he trained here and abroad, and people who knew him up close and personal – the architect activist of planet earth by vocation.