Once dubbed a “flying saucer,” the Parish (Church) of the Holy Sacrifice is a Modernist expression which embodies the complex colonial history of the Philippines. Located on a university campus in Quezon City (formerly the capital of the nation, now a part of the Metro Manila National Capital Region), the domed concrete church was the product of Filipino architect Leandro Locsin, and of three other national artists who contributed to the building’s interior. Locsin’s design, which combines elements of traditional Filipino architecture with postwar International aesthetics, is a potent symbol of a newly-independent nation following centuries of imperial control.
The Republic of the Philippines was one of the many governments to rise from the ashes of the Second World War. The new country’s independence on July 4, 1946, saw the Filipino people liberated from imperial control for the first time since Spain took control of the archipelago in the late 16th Century. The colony passed from Spain to the United States in 1898 as a result of the Paris Treaty that ended the Spanish-American war. Plans to transition the colony to independence were delayed by the outbreak of the war and subsequent Japanese invasion in 1941. At the war’s end, the Philippines was finally given its long-awaited freedom, but at enormous cost: its capital, Manila, had been almost totally destroyed during Japan’s retreat from the islands.
One of the most prominent architectural losses caused by the conflict were the country’s many Catholic churches. Catholicism had reigned supreme on the islands since the arrival of conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565; the missionaries attending him, along with their brethren to follow, erected hundreds of Baroque, Neo-Gothic, and Rococo churches throughout the Spanish imperial era. These structures, which typically dominated the central squares of colonial communities and served as fortifications for the Japanese, became primary targets toward the end of the occupation. When the time came to rebuild, the process was carried out by a new wave of architects trained or influenced by the United States – among them, Leandro Locsin.
Locsin studied at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila between 1947 and 1953. The prevailing trend in Filipino architectural practice at the time was to emulate the Modernist architecture of the West, an attitude which stemmed from the impression that such buildings represented order, progress and sophistication. More traditional architecture, especially indigenous design, was popularly seen as unsophisticated. Although Locsin worked in the Modernist style, he was noted as being one of the only contemporary designers to capture a “distinct Philippine look” in his designs.
Shortly after Locsin’s graduation from the UST, he was commissioned by Frederic Ossorio to design a school chapel for the Victorias Milling Corporation. Once the design was underway, however, Ossorio was called away to the United States, and the project ultimately fell through. In 1954, Locsin met Father John Delaney, who was seeking an architect to design a chapel for the University of the Philippines campus at Diliman. With permission from Ossorio, Locsin adapted his previous design for the university.
Delaney’s primary directive for the project was that the chapel should reflect the spirit of the youths who would worship there. Noting that the students tended to sing the Mass in unison, Locsin drafted a circular plan that dissolved the traditional boundary between the congregation and choir. This egalitarian sensibility was further enforced by the placement of the altar at the center of the chapel; a symbolic gesture that, while in line with Delaney’s wishes, was found ill-suited to traditionally linear Catholic rites. There was no single, defined entry point, with several entrances distributed evenly around the perimeter of the chapel. The space was sheltered by a concrete dome, supported by reinforced columns and a ring beam; the apparent lightness of this structure earned the Parish its nickname, “the flying saucer.”
The decentralized, open nature of the Parish of the Holy Sacrifice forced Locsin to use vertical dimensions and light to define independent spaces. The low ceiling forming the rim of the chapel promotes movement from the exterior to the interior of the space, humbling visitors as they enter into a place of worship. The transition from the glaring tropical daylight of the Philippines to a shaded concrete passage further emphasizes the sense of movement toward a different, sacred, environment. Once one passes through the peripheral ring, the ceiling rises toward the apex of the dome, which is brightly lit by clerestory windows at the dome’s base – a gesture that simultaneously unifies the worship space and differentiates it from the surrounding passage, all without the use of boundary walls.
Locsin’s chapel initially appears to eschew Filipino tradition entirely, favoring the contemporary design sensibilities of the Western nations that had, until just nine years earlier, been a controlling architectural vocabulary in the Philippines for centuries. The concrete shell dome was, at the time, a new development in Asia – a form without precedent in regional architectural tradition. However, while colonial churches in the Philippines were noted for massive, bottom-heavy walls to withstand frequent earthquakes, the Parish of the Holy Sacrifice’s shell is characterized by visible lightness; at its summit, the dome is only ten centimeters thick. This suspended lightness hints not at Spanish or American influences, but at a traditional Filipino forebear: the bahay kubo (“cube house”).
The bahay kubo, the traditional indigenous home built in the Philippines, comprises a single-room house built of bamboo with a steep thatched roof, set atop stilts. The elevation and permeable walls keep the bahay kubo ventilated, cool, and dry – highly desirable qualities in the tropics. The elevation of the house gives it the appearance of suspension in midair, a quality Locsin mimicked for the Parish of the Holy Sacrifice’s dome.
The Parish of the Holy Sacrifice was formally inaugurated on December 20, 1955, with a midnight candlelight procession. Almost immediately, the chapel became a popular center for the faithful in Metro Manila, a status it retains to this day. It is also an enduring symbol of what Locsin himself referred to as a “hybrid culture;” while many Filipino architects continue to emulate the aesthetics of contemporary American architecture, Locsin’s “flying saucer” remains one of the few prominent examples of distinctly Filipino Modernist design.[13,14]
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 De Ayala, Fernando Zóbel. "The Chapel of the Holy Sacrifice at the University of the Philippines." Philippine Studies 5, no. 1 (1957): 1-8. [access]. p2-7.
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 Paredes-Santillan, “Approaching the Sacred.” p8-9.
 Ogura, Nobuyuki, David Leonides T. Yap, and Kenichi Tanoue. "Modern Architecture in the Philippines and the Quest for Filipino Style." Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering JJABE 1, no. 2 (November 2002): 233-38. p237.
 Hila, Ma Corazon A. Arkitektura: An Essay on Philippine Ethnic Architecture. Manila: Sentrong Pangkultura Ng Pilipinas, 1992. p11.
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 De Ayala, p8.
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 Ogura et al, p238.