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October 18, 2013

Force Majeure

Force Majeure is a French term for “irresistible power”.  In the Philippines, this is easily applicable to many situations as we are located in the middle of all the destructive belts known to exist in this livable planet: the typhoon belt, the volcanic belt, the earthquake belt—I wouldn’t even be surprised if I forgot to mention them all.

But for an architect or an engineer, the one event that this french term commonly pertains to is the worst phenomena that can happen to anything man-made: an earthquake. You can’t predict it, you can’t control it. Seismic activities may only be monitored but forecasting its definite occurrence remains impossible. You never know when it’s going to happen and when it does, you’ll never know when it’s going to stop.

I write now, at the wake of the Central Visayan quake, to speak as someone who has helped build the cities that have been hit the hardest. T.I Vasquez Architects and Planners, Inc.’s history is grounded in the cities of Bohol and Cebu. For the past 20 years, never has a month gone by that we have not visited these two cities. We go back to our roots at least twice or thrice a month. We have witnessed them rise from their humble beginnings to their present competitive turn-out.

The damaged Church of San Pedro in Loboc, Bohol. Photo credit: AFP

The damaged Church of San Pedro in Loboc, Bohol.
Photo credit: AFP

In Bohol, we introduced the first escalator and the province’s first modern mall. We can still recall how the locals fondly reacted to the arrival of the “moving stairs”. In 1996, we brought the Panglao Island Nature Resort to life and activated the island’s sleeping tourism. In Cebu, we built the tallest building outside Manila and spearheaded the sprout of high-rises that now makes its skyline.

We have personally heard the residents of these cities share their vision of progress for their hometowns. We have helped them bring these dreams to life and adopted their vision as ours. These cities are our homes and I write because I share the grief at the devastation. What took years to build was gone in seconds. It truly is a lesson in humility.

shutterstock_147158540From a professional standpoint, earthquakes are exceptionally painful. You can only design your buildings to be resilient. There’s no way you can design it to be completely earthquake-proof. No technology can withstand Mother Nature at her worst. When the earth wants tremor, she will give it to you and the only thing you can do is wait til she’s done.

The prevalence of chart-topping earthquakes has become too high to ignore. The 2007 quake in Cebu was at a record-high. In 2011, another quake in the region topped that which I personally experienced on the 14th floor of my office along with my staff.  Now, this earthquake broke its own record yet again.

Is there a certainty that another one of this scale will occur? We can’t be sure, but it would be irresponsible to stay passive regarding its possibility. In this light, preparation is our only defense.

Modern construction methodologies should be applied. Significant structures that were spared from damage should now be fortified lest they too fall victim to another strong one. The focus should be in ensuring structural stability. Reinforce our landmarks before we lose all of them completely. If there is any time for technical experts to sit down and strategize quickly on heritage preservation, it is now. This region is home to many historical treasures, naming each one will only make me think of what we lost.

When I visited the University of San Carlos last week, the dean showed me a room where they documented the historical churches of Cebu. I remember him proudly telling me that they were already done in their island and that in his own words, “We’re on our way to Bohol.” Thinking back, I wish they could have been given the chance to do so sooner. Now, some of the churches are beyond saving. As an architect, my heart is broken at this reality. What were once 300-year-old structures of living histories now rest as mere archeological sites.

The damaged Basilica Minore of Santo Nino de Cebu Church in Cebu City. Photo credit:  Erik De Castro/Reuters

The damaged Basilica Minore of Santo Nino de Cebu Church in Cebu City.
Photo credit: Reuters

The media feed is all too agonizing. Photographs and videos of devastation are everywhere: roads split in half, ceilings caved in, cars crushed by debris, the Chocolate Hills losing their eminent shape, and so many more. But you know what? All these are just images, visual perceptions. And just like what John Berger once said, “There are other ways of seeing.”

Look at the photographs again and see the opportunity to build anew.

This is nothing compared to what other countries have gone through. Take a look at 9/11 in New York. Remember its mortifying images and look at how they have been rebuilt. The remains of the World Trade Center is now a place of poetry that commemorates hope and the prevalence of human spirit. My experience at Ground Zero during my visit last January was far too different from when I first stood there ten years ago. While the awe-inspiring structure may be gone, I felt the collective hope of the American people in its place.

Take a look at Japan. When the strongest earthquake with an 8.9-magnitude followed by a tsunami hit Sendai in March 2011, all you could see on the news was a city all washed out. The Japan National Police Agency confirmed a total of 15,883 deaths, 6,149 injured, and 2,652 people missing across twenty prefectures, as well as 129,225 buildings totally collapsed and another 691,766 buildings partially damaged.

This was the image stuck in my memory when I visited in 2012. I may not have been privileged to see Sendai but Tokyo manifested enough to change my perception. The tales from the Japanese people were all too inspiring.

They got busy the very next day, clearing out of rubbles quickly. The promotion to change their lifestyle in order to help their country save on power was robust. I saw commercial stores utilizing the natural breeze to cool their establishments. Use of air conditioning, escalators, and elevators were scheduled, the use of electric fans were promoted in workplaces, companies even worked from home once a week under the singular objective to save electricity. They were helping their country save money so the government can utilize more funds in rebuilding the damaged areas.

You see, the one thing that this earthquake cannot take away is man’s persevering spirit.

In the Philippines, at the face of every negative occurrence that hit our nation on a yearly basis—may it be a strong storm, a destructive earthquake, or a volcanic eruption—what I always look forward to is that awe-inspiring image of resilience that my countrymen reveal.

Prayer crusades appear on almost every person’s Facebook page for free, each Filipino transforms into a hero: rescue volunteers risking their own lives to save others, donations are solicited within the next hour. And while the government is still calling every “red phone” in the country, Filipinos are already out in the streets to help, equipped with nothing but a sincere heart, a prevalent smile, a set of funny quips to make hard tasks seem easy, and best of all, a faith that only grows stronger at every challenge.

St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Scottsdale, AZ Photo credit:

St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Scottsdale, AZ
Photo credit:

What I can see now when I look at Cebu and Bohol is an opportunity: to reinvent and to come back even better. We may have lost inherited structures that are over a hundred years old but with that realization comes a deeper calling: to rebuild architectural masterpieces to stand for the next 300 years, waiting for the generations to come to behold and adore.






Photo credits: The Wall Street Journal, South China Morning PostThe Guardian, Pinterest, Jacaranda FM, World Pittsburgh Files, Sedona Cyberlink

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4 Comments on “Force Majeure”

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