WHAT I’VE LEARNED

Esquire (Philippines) - - THIS WAY IN -

Wash­ing­ton SyCip, founder of SGV&Co. and Asian In­sti­tute of Man­age­ment

pavil­ion de­signed by Zaha Ha­did and Pa­trick Schu­maker, and a mo­bile gallery by Gluck­man Tang (Ha­did passed away in 2016, mak­ing the “Volu” pavil­ion one of her last projects; Rob­bie do­nated it to the Cannes amfAR auc­tion where it was sold for €1.3 mil­lion). He in­tro­duced the con­cept of brand­ing to pre­fab­ri­cated homes, an in­dus­try not nor­mally as­so­ci­ated with as­pi­ra­tional liv­ing, and cre­ated some­thing that has been done in re­tail—think Ro­darte for Tar­get, Bal­main for H&M—but never be­fore in homes and ar­chi­tec­ture.

Pre­fab homes have been around since the au­to­mo­tive boom, bor­row­ing the idea of assem­bly-line pro­duc­tion where hous­ing parts were mass-pro­duced in a fac­tory. Start­ing in 1908, the ear­li­est kit homes were sold by mail on the Sears cat­a­log, and through­out the decades, man­u­fac­tured homes be­came pop­u­lar low-cost hous­ing op­tions. In post­war France, pi­o­neer­ing French ar­chi­tect Jean Prouve de­signed “de­mount­able houses” to ad­dress the hous­ing short­age. Though now hailed as in­no­va­tive mod­ernist mas­ter­pieces, they failed to achieve com­mer­cial vi­a­bil­ity dur­ing his time. In the 2000s, ar­chi­tects started tak­ing in­ter­est in mod­ern pre­fab struc­tures that tapped into a higher-end mar­ket, and the “great 21st-cen­tury pre­fab re­vival” was ar­guably kick­started when Dwell mag­a­zine is­sued a chal­lenge to cre­ate stylish yet affordable pre­fabs that can be mass-pro­duced. On the mar­ket to­day are ar­chi­tect-de­signed pre­fabs, slick lit­tle Muji Huts, and a $1,100 Ikea flat­pack shel­ter, as well as con­tainer vans, mo­du­lar units, and ar­ti­san mo­bile homes that you can un­mount and re­lo­cate, and the preva­lence of these com­pact habi­tats has also fu­eled the tiny home move­ment.

So what do you get when you marry the con­ve­nience of pre­fab with the de­sign power of Pritzker Prize-win­ning ar­chi­tects? A con­cept quite con­found­ing, yet bril­liant in its au­dac­ity. Rob­bie, through years of frat­er­niz­ing with Hol­ly­wood celebri­ties, star ath­letes, Forbes-lis­ters, mover­sand-shak­ers of the art and de­sign world, and yes, world lead­ers and their kin, has de­vel­oped a vir­tual Rolodex of po­ten­tial part­ners for his busi­ness plans.

It’s not an over­state­ment to say that Rob­bie is one of the most con­nected young Filipinos in the coun­try to­day. Franco Varona, Rev­o­lu­tion’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, breaks down the founder’s strange at­trac­tion: “He has this magnetic per­son­al­ity— once you meet Rob­bie, you’re not likely to for­get him, and com­bined with his end­less de­sire to close a deal, makes it very hard for any­one to say no to him.” This I can at­test to.

How Rev­o­lu­tion Pre­crafted works, in a nut­shell: You go online to Rev­o­lu­tion’s web­site, choose a de­signer house, then click buy. Some­where in a fac­tory in In­dia, Korea, Italy, or the Philip­pines, the parts are fab­ri­cated, usu­ally with robotics, then shipped to you and as­sem­bled on­site, wher­ever you are in the world. Your very own Mar­mol Radziner, or if you want to go Filipino, Ed Calma abode with­out the has­sle of hir­ing a whole team of con­trac­tors, man­u­fac­tur­ers, builders, etc., and of course the as­tro­nom­i­cal fees of com­mis­sion­ing a fa­mous ar­chi­tect. Though the in­di­vid­ual mar­ket is catered to, Rev­o­lu­tion is pri­mar­ily geared to­ward de­vel­op­ers who can deal with build­ing codes and mount many struc­tures at once, whether for ho­tel and re­sorts, con­dos and res­i­den­tial ar­eas, or com­mer­cial and art cen­ters. In a cou­ple of years, a “Rev­o­lu­tion com­mu­nity” will pop up in Bat­u­lao, Batan­gas, where you can en­joy the cool moun­tain air in your pre­fab­ri­cated week­end home, or see art in a Jean Nou­vel mu­seum with­out hav­ing to go to the Lou­vre Abu Dhabi.

This de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion is at the core of Rev­o­lu­tion’s “dis­rup­tive” phi­los­o­phy. As a client who com­mis­sioned the leg­endary Dutch ar­chi­tect Rem Kool­haas to de­sign his own house—a black con­crete pri­vate mu­seum/ res­i­dence in Forbes Park so stealth that only a se­lect few have been in­side—Rob­bie would know all about the te­dious pro­cesses and pro­hib­i­tive costs in­volved in build­ing one’s dream house. In the in­fa­mous Van­ity Fair ar­ti­cle from 2013, Rob­bie had ex­pressed that he wanted to work with five Pritzker win­ners by the time he turns 45. Now only 40, he beat his own dead­line in typ­i­cal Rob­bie zeal­ous­ness, and the new projects aren’t just for per­sonal en­joy­ment, like those pavil­ions he started ac­quir­ing.

If it’s not ob­vi­ous by now, Rob­bie is an ob­ses­sive col­lec­tor of art, who has com­mis­sioned por­traits from the likes of Ju­lian Schn­abel, Damian Hirst, and David LaChapelle. Art­net rec­og­nized him as one of the top 100 col­lec­tors in the world in 2016, putting him along­side Leonardo DiCaprio, Bernard Ar­nault, Paul Allen and other point one per­centers. It was in think­ing about these pavil­ions, col­lectible by only a tiny frac­tion of peo­ple who are art lovers, that led to Rob­bie’s eureka mo­ment of de­vel­op­ing branded homes for the mid­dle mar­ket. “Hon­estly, in busi­ness, pas­sion is not even enough. OB­SES­SION is key,” he says, and it’s this ob­ses­sion—al­most like a pos­ses­sion—that drives him to take his com­pany to a whole dif­fer­ent level.

“I’ve worked with 13 Pritzker Prize ar­chi­tects, pos­si­bly more than any hu­man be­ing in the world,” he says. “I love do­ing this! It’s not just about the val­u­a­tion, it’s cre­at­ing some­thing so in­her­ently dif­fer­ent. We have in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty over all these names, you can get them at a ridicu­lously high price and wait a num­ber of years, or get it from us in three months at a much cheaper price.”

How much cheaper? A few of the homes Rev­o­lu­tion re­cently re­leased are priced for the lo­cal mar­ket, start­ing at P3.5 mil­lion. Rob­bie has been work­ing with, or shall we say con­vinc­ing, a renowned Filipino ar­chi­tect and get­ting him to do one for P1.5 mil­lion. It’s a chal­lenge on both their parts, cre­at­ing some­thing cou­ture at Zara prices, while still keep­ing to the DNA of the ar­chi­tects and de­sign­ers, who are used to blow­ing through sky-high bud­gets.

The first time I in­ter­viewed Rob­bie, the com­pany hadn’t an­nounced the news about its lat­est val­u­a­tion yet, but his uni­corn mission was al­ready well known. Ac­cord­ing to Varona, un­lock­ing uni­corn level is Rob­bie’s sin­gu­lar fo­cus, and all roads lead to that end goal. You can imag­ine what it must be like to work with him. In the of­fice, there is an in­ter­nal rule re­quir­ing peo­ple to an­swer emails and texts within 10 min­utes of re­ceipt, and ac­com­plish tasks within 24 hours, re­gard­less of how com­plex the task may be. The work cul­ture in the Philip­pines usu­ally al­lows for a lit­tle to a lot of lee­way when it comes to re­spon­sive­ness, but be­cause Rev­o­lu­tion’s em­ploy­ees push them­selves, the re­sult is that ev­ery­one, in­ter­nally and ex­ter­nally, gets pushed to com­plete tasks much faster than a typ­i­cal Filipino com­pany. “Ev­ery­one work­ing with Rob­bie must have an in­cred­i­ble re­sis­tance to stress, and used to not hav­ing sleep,” Varona says, adding, “He has given us all three years to make it a US$ 2 bil­lion com­pany.”

When I meet with Rob­bie again,

they had moved to a much larger, still all black, of­fice at the top floor of the Pa­cific Star Build­ing, and with it, more wall space to dis­play their ever in­creas­ing port­fo­lio of branded homes, as well as the press cov­er­age that he em­braces. Two bot­tles of Trump­branded sparkling wine adorn an oth­er­wise empty black side ta­ble, and a quick Google search tells me that they’re pro­duced in the state of Vir­ginia, on the same val­ley where Amer­i­can pres­i­dent Thomas Jef­fer­son tended his own vine­yard. Rob­bie had just come back from New York, where he signed up a Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret su­per­model to be part of the ros­ter. She’s not an in­te­rior de­signer, but she part­nered up with some­one who is, and Rob­bie took a look at their port­fo­lio and says he was con­vinced. If we’re talk­ing about the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of de­sign, surely that’s when a model can be given the same billing as Mar­cel Wan­ders, Philip John­son, and the de Portzam­parcs, who all have de­signed struc­tures for Rev­o­lu­tion. One of Rev­o­lu­tion’s more in­ter­est­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions is with style icon plus Daphne Guin­ness, an heiress who works in fash­ion, mu­sic, film and phi­lan­thropy—the ul­ti­mate in­ter­sec­tion of celebrity and art that, to Rob­bie, makes for one hell of a sexy branded home.

Rev­o­lu­tion’s goal for swift global dom­i­na­tion is made pos­si­ble by tak­ing the busi­ness model of a real es­tate com­pany and turn­ing it on its head: “We’re the com­plete an­tithe­sis of the tra­di­tional real es­tate com­pany. We cater to the world. We don’t have to be site-spe­cific, we don’t have to buy land, take out con­struc­tion loans, or have in­ven­tory.” Cer­tainly, no one is hand­ing out fly­ers on the street. Be­ing as­set­light has en­abled the com­pany’s rapid growth, and rapid growth at­tracts VCs like flies to honey. “I’ve been through at least three cy­cles in my life. Boom and bust. It’s so easy to have an econ­omy taken from you, and I learned from that. If an econ­omy doesn’t do well, I can go to one that is do­ing bet­ter. I can ma­neu­ver.”

Aside from of­fer­ing homes via an e-com­merce plat­form, Rev­o­lu­tion is on the same league as other tech star­tups be­cause of what the com­pany will even­tu­ally will be—a plat­form for a smart home. Rob­bie of­ten says they are the “Ikea of homes,” for its plug’n-play sim­plic­ity, or the “Tesla of homes,” be­cause Tesla is a tech­nol­ogy plat­form on wheels more than it is a car. “Rev­o­lu­tion will be a tech­nol­ogy plat­form on foun­da­tions,” says Varona. More than just pro­vid­ing four walls and a roof over your head, the pre­crafted home can be as in­tel­li­gent as you choose it to be. A house that be­haves like Siri or ap­pears sen­tient cer­tainly gives new mean­ing to the phrase, “if these walls could talk.”

The next day, we go see one of the model homes in per­son, the “Sim­ple” by Jean Nou­vel, which was on dis­play at the Tui­leries Gar­den in Paris be­fore it was trans­ported to a con­struc­tion site in Taguig. As the name im­plies, it’s a pretty straight­for­ward struc­ture, al­most shed-like with a cor­ru­gated roof, alu­minum ex­te­ri­ors, and Ja­panese-in­spired mo­bile wooden par­ti­tions that al­low the user to de­fine the spa­ces in­side. At 40 sq. me­ters, it’s a cozy one-bed­room, but mo­du­lar and ex­pand­able to up to four bed­rooms. Nou­vel has said of the house: “What we pro­pose here is the most im­me­di­ate way to in­habit a space, within a short time­frame, in places that are not de­signed for res­i­den­tial use to­day and that be­come so, spon­ta­neously.” Sim­ple is a high­end, thought­fully planned emer­gency shel­ter that Ja Rule would have been wise to consider for the Fyre Fes­ti­val.

Speak­ing of dis­as­ters, Rob­bie is in the per­fect po­si­tion to roll out re­lief shel­ters should catas­tro­phes strike, and this is some­thing he pledges to do as part of the com­pany’s CSR, hav­ing al­ready sup­ported Shigeru Ban with his “Pa­per Log” homes in Cebu. With tem­po­rary hous­ing be­ing sub­ject to in­tense pol­i­tick­ing and con­tro­versy—the FEMA trail­ers for Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina and the still-un­fin­ished hous­ing projects for Ty­phoon Haiyan come to mind—Rev­o­lu­tion could very well pro­vide sus­tain­able hous­ing solutions that need not be merely tem­po­rary; struc­tures that can be erected in a few days, con­fig­ured to suit dif­fer­ent needs and un­fore­seen sit­u­a­tions, and that also—why the hell not— look good. Shel­ters of all kinds have been imag­ined in re­sponse to the dis­place­ment of hu­mans, but Rev­o­lu­tion is per­haps the only Filipino com­pany with the ca­pa­bil­i­ties for mass-pro­duc­ing them, and more im­por­tantly, de­liv­er­ing them within a crit­i­cal time frame.

“I’m known to be very im­pa­tient. I’m us­ing my weak­ness as a skill set here, hope­fully as an ad­van­tage, or an in­te­gral part of the busi­ness plan.” Ba­si­cally, the need for in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion drives ev­ery­thing he does. “Big time, all the time,” Rob­bie grins. “Is that bad?” GROOM­ING JOAN TEOTICO FOR NARS COS­MET­ICS HAIR JAYJAY GALLEGO FOR CRE­ATIONS BY LOURD RAMOS SA­LON AND BRIX BATALLA

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