Con­rad Onglao

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

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