Exploring the private world of the man behind towering residential structures
Photography Johann Bona of At East Jed Root Creative Direction Nimu Muallam Styling Ria Prieto and Meg Manzano Grooming Amanda Padilla Assisted by Angela Manuel Go
On the cover:
Collared shirt, Joseph, SM Aura This page: Long-sleeved polo and trousers, Joseph, SM Aura
Architect Conrad Onglao literally lives in a glass house, with no curtains save for the blinds in the bedrooms, and no fences save for bamboo shoots. Much like his famed four-storey residence, his life has consistently caught the public’s notice. The press, for instance, details the ongoing romance between him and singer Zsa Zsa Padilla, and his profession—or more precisely, his clientele—has granted him more media publicity than what his line of work can typically account for.
“The entire house all the way to the front is entirely visible from outside,” he says, his calm voice betraying none of the flashiness that a house so open would imply of its designer. Think back to Philip Johnson’s celebrated glass box in the ’40s; it had the world wondering whether the architect had a craze for exhibition. Here in Onglao’s home are massive windows and sliding doors, the glass enticing one not only to look at the façade, but to stay and watch the curious goings-on inside.
“But I thought you were a very private person?” I ask. Onglao, who rarely discusses his projects publicly, who avoids going to functions to keep his life more private, and who stays in a quiet corner whenever he’s off our lensman’s leash, merely smiles. “Well, I still think it’s a private place. . . The [rooms are] quite far and secluded so even if it’s a glass house, no one really sees you.” Architects, I had forgotten, are trained in the art of optical illusion.
The point of the design was to see much of the outside, rather than to allow the onlookers an uncensored view of what’s within. Living in his modern opus, Onglao revels in the natural panorama. It’s a house expressing how the architect has always liked to live: by watching closely how the world around him did.
“I think one of the traits of an architect is [his] sense of observation. It’s just a matter of observing how [people] live [and] move.” Among the luminaries for whom he has worked are a vintage car collector, a horse collector, and, quite amusingly, Sharon Cuneta. He also renovated Bahay Pangarap of Malacanang, what is now the official residence of President Aquino. Beside me, though, he lightly laughs at how his clients are regarded: like decors embellishing an architect’s A-list resume. “When you get to know them,” he says, “they’re just as real as you and me [sic].”
“Real,” though, can be a little subjective. It may be that he perfectly understands their tastes because he’s lived a lifestyle the same as theirs. “On the contrary,” he says, “my lifestyle is very simple. I started from such humble beginnings. I even went to public school.” After saving enough to move to California, Onglao worked abroad, starting from the bottom as a draftsman. “For a time, I worked for a company called Langdon and Wilson, doing high rise buildings. Then I worked for the company Lee and Sakahara, doing a lot of restaurants.” After being involved with designing different establishments, working on the first Chanel boutique in Rodeo Drive marked his foray into interior design. Succeeding projects saw him designing hotels until he and his thenwife started their own company called ADR. “We were on our own for five years,” he recounts. “We were living in Bel-Air; we had our own office in Beverly Hills. It was like—if you could call it—an American dream.”
It was cut short, however, but not by some tragic turn of fate. Working with Japanese developers in Tokyo made it convenient to open an office in Manila. By then, while his hometown’s culture had for him acquired the strangeness of a foreign country—“What’s so special about Narra?” he used to ask—it was where he found projects that would, as he puts it, “feed his artistic soul.”
When the firm CT Onglao was established, he thrived in designing a lot of residential spaces. “When you are doing a hotel, once you’ve done the second floor, [it’s] the same from the third [floor] all the way up. . . there was not enough artistic challenge.” In a residential project, he explains, with different owners come different aesthetics. He encourages the tastes of his clients, catering to a wide range of designs. Observation ultimately became his chief device, deciding which aesthetics work based on how these owners lived. “I’m just a medium to people’s dreams,” says the architect. “I’m not here to build monuments for myself.”
While we’re so used to seeing households that display modern or classic designs—and then eclectic and post-modern to downright muddled and confused—Onglao admits, “I’m happy that I don’t fall into a category that can pigeonhole me to a particular style.” Rather than always following a format, he returns us to the core virtue of design: style that isn’t restricted to a category, architecture that comes from the understanding of a lifestyle.
If the houses he builds express the individuality of their owners, his home, then, serves as an interesting self-portrait. To borrow his words, Conrad Onglao is “as real as you and me.” We’ve only to look at the glasshouse to see more snippets of his private world. There may be silhouettes of his sons moving about in the sala or perhaps even a glimpse of Zsa Zsa in the breakfast room—but whatever these details show, it’s the glass that represents what the architect is most known for; overlooking the city, the glass house stands as his