Preserving Mindanao's Cultural Identity through Architecture

Filipina architect Gloryrose "Rose" Dy-Metilla spent most of her life in Mindanao and she is determined to preserve and promote her hometown's indigenous architecture. Rose first fell in love with traditional Mindanao architecture and design as an architecture student at the University of the Philippines Mindanao.

"Sixty-nine per cent of our cultural communities are in Mindanao and I have always been amazed by the richness of Mindanaoan culture," says Rose.

Fascination with Mindanaoan Culture

When Rose received an Australia Awards Scholarship in 2018, she knew right away that her re-entry action plan (REAP) would focus on reigniting appreciation for Mindanao's cultural heritage. She took up a Master of Urban Culture and Heritage at the University of Melbourne.

At that time, Rose was running Swito Innovation Hub, a social enterprise she founded to help the creative economy thrive in Mindanao. Her work includes building Lego-style versions of Mindanoan architectural houses. Through a government grant, she created a Torogan house – a traditional house built by the Maranao people of Lanao – and turn it into a wooden toy house puzzle. These wooden toys help teach children about indigenous peoples and their communities.

For her REAP, Rose facilitated the creation of miniature puzzles depicting the tribal houses of two ethnolinguistic groups from Mindanao, the Manguangan's Tug-an and Ata Paquibato's Binanwa. Ultimately, her REAP also empowered the indigenous community to contribute towards the preservation and promotion of their rich cultural heritage by employing them as artisan puzzle makers.

According to Rose: "Australian designs already incorporate aboriginal culture and this was an eye-opener as to how design can and should be done. I now design thoroughly incorporating our indigenous culture."

The University of Melbourne also sent Rose to a summer school in China, which validated the direction that she was pursuing as an architect. "My education at the Melbourne School of Design chiselled my ideas in the Philippines. It opened my mind that what I am doing also resonates with other architects internationally."

Implementing her REAP

In 2019, fresh from her postgraduate studies in Australia, Rose immediately worked on her REAP, applying the principles she learned from her master's program in Australia. She created an inclusive environment where members of the Manguangan and Ata Paquibato tribes could contribute in creating puzzles inspired by the distinctive designs of their houses.

Rose and her team trained around 50 members from each tribe who participated in the design workshops. One of the participants was Datu Danilo Amban, a tribal chieftain, who said: "Our Tug-an may look like a typical house, but it has important historical value. I feel excited about the possibility of mastering the skill of creating these toy house puzzles."

According to Rose, community members did not always see the importance of architecture in their cultures. But since her REAP was implemented, they now saw their house as part of their cultural identity. "They now have a grasp of their rich cultural environment and how it forms part of their collective identity. Now, they can tell their kids that they have a traditional house, and with the designs, they can continue to build it in the future," she says.

The prototypes of the tribal houses of Manguangan and Ata Paquibato were exhibited in Davao, Dumaguete and Bacolod through the help of the Air Asia Foundation and are now being developed as products for selling in mainstream markets. This way, more people will be able to appreciate their architecture and culture.

"People now see that communities exist and have thrived even before we became a colony. We must be proud of our pre-colonial cultural heritage. Our work tells us that we – as a people, were not saved, architecturally speaking. We already have a rich culture in ancient times. And we should celebrate it," says Rose.

Breaking new grounds in Philippine Architecture

While Rose has already completed her REAP, her passion for promoting awareness of and appreciation for Mindanao architecture continues to be the center of everything she does as a Filipina architect. She is currently advocating for Mindanao architecture to be regarded as separate architectural identity and she is also working on a style guide on Mindanao architecture. As the founding architect of Swito Designs Architects, Rose's passion is evident in her architectural practice.

"I am tasked to do projects for BARMM MILG [the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Ministry of the Interior and Local Government] for the BARMM Barangay Halls, Municipal Halls, and other buildings. I design all these buildings with the culture of BARMM in mind. So that when you go to BARMM and see these buildings, you see the culture of the place," she shares. "It is my firm's practice to always design with cultural sensitivity as one of the main principles."

As Rose breaks new grounds in Philippine architecture, she recognises the role of her Australia Awards journey in inspiring and empowering her to become a leader in her field. "Australia Awards not only paved the way for me to be able to study in Australia and see the practice there, but it also showed me how regionality and gender are not barriers in making a difference," she says.