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Sarah Canlas

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Words by Katrina Swee | Photography by Gio Panlilio

A boulder comfortably sits at the doorway of Filipino architect Sarah Canlas’ home. I find its siblings one by one as I stroll down the wild foliage opening into the garden. She tells me to scale them barefoot with her and I do. The smoothness of the cold rocks underneath our feet and the smell of morning dew with the tranquil sound of the river is exhilarating. She puts her fluffy birkenstocks back on to show me more. 

The Greener & Partners creative director is the hostess with the mostess. She walks from room to room with frenchies in tow and many stories to tell. Every object in her space has meaning and you could say the same for the structure itself. Casa Canlas was the family’s dream turned, years later, into a reality. The rawness of the interior is contrasted by what fills the warm space—wreaths by Emma Guitierrez, a variety of books and newspapers sprawled across tables, rugs, potted plants, and little bits and bobs. It’s hard not to take interest in the surroundings as we move to different parts of the house. 

 

As she says “everyone is constantly moving,” you can hear the clicking of her sister Anna’s typewriter upstairs, the craftsmen working outdoors, and Ate Argelyn preparing lasagna in the kitchen. This movement continues within Casa Canlas through the shifting of furnishings and objects, and the everyday progress the space undergoes. Much like her house, Sarah is continually moving and changing too—learning, unlearning, and digging deeper into what she aspires to do in the near future.

What inspired you to go into design? What made you want to become an architect?

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That you wanted to go to.

 

Yes and ask my dad to pay for it. I had to work for it. That was my next step but I haven’t been able to do it yet. Life happened and the world changed. It turned out having a master’s degree wasn’t as relevant anymore because I became an entrepreneur. My parents raised us in Quezon City near UP where my dad was also a professor. We were really university professor kids and I think that already set the tone for how I became an architect and how I behave as an architect as well. I don’t really feel like I need to fit into the mold so much because I’ve always been on the outside. I have friends who are integrated in society but also having that foot outside has allowed me to rethink how things could be and I think fast-forwarding to today has led to this path. 

 

I actually have an interesting story about that. When we were young, my dad and and mum would drive us to Antipolo because we had a property behind this mountain, next to our village. We would visit and it was always the family’s North Star to one day build a rest house in Antipolo. So of course, I eventually became an architect but all the dynamics of the kids were changing and are changing. It was impossible to plan for a house—the kids are moving, I don’t live with them anymore. The dynamics changed—who is going to pay for this house? Is it you or would it be me? When I walked into this abandoned house in Antipolo, I had an instant attraction to it because I had this past. 

You can’t really trace it to a single event but I have these snippets of my childhood which attributed to me becoming an architect and one of the simpler explanations I can think of is, I was a daddy’s girl. I was always with him and copied what he did. During breakfast, I’d sit with him and notice he would always be writing notes and papers. He’s an economist. I’d see him sketching floor plans and he was apparently sketching our future house. My dad is a provincial boy from Pampanga who was just so brilliant that he managed to go to the best schools in the world. He was always reading and I remember a lot of architectural magazines strewn around the house. That’s probably why Anna, my sister, had this wanting to write. There were books and magazines everywhere. That’s how I got exposed to it. 

 

In school, I would study the ones I liked and not care about the others. I remember my teacher, a math professor, saying, “Sarah, you’re an underachiever because you don’t try hard enough.” I was thinking, “how dare you?” but I also took it to heart. I thought, when I go to university, I’m going to make an effort and try harder. When I filled out my forms to apply to university, I had different courses for each school because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I was into math, the arts—I enjoyed creative pursuit—and I liked basketball and the discipline of that. I think that’s why I chose to do architecture at UP. I ended up being the valedictorian of my course so my teacher was proven right in saying if you put your soul into it, you could do well. Of course, graduating top of your class in architecture doesn’t prove anything. It’s just a course. That’s why my realizations now about unlearning all the knowledge that I had from theory cease to be as relevant as I thought they were. We don’t come from a well-to-do family but we’re educated and curious. I didn’t have the luxury of choosing a university...

It’s crazy how that happened—something that was dreamt of in the past ended up becoming a reality. This is truly an amazing space. 

 

It’s a moving project. They call this synchrodestiny. This doesn’t happen by chance. 

 

All the references about Jung I was talking about this morning was because I’ve been reading his books. When I was beginning to explore whether to take a master’s degree in 2018, I was thinking, I’ve been practicing and working for ten years and it’s time for a sabbatical. It’s time for me to go back to school. I was looking at courses and speaking to my mentors in Brazil and Japan. I asked them, “What degree should I take? Should it be a master’s or should I specialize in real estate?” They told me, “Look inside again. What do you want to learn more about?” What interested me was the confluence of architecture and psychology—human behaviour and emotion. Was there a course for that? My Japanese friend responded, “No, but maybe you could go to a school with a good architecture program and psychology program and ask your advisor to integrate this for you so you can create your own path.” 

 

Because of the pandemic, I’ve been able to read, meet people who are also into Jung, create my own education, and see how it influences architecture. Those are the kind of ripples that are happening inside now. 

"I aspire to build soulful architecture [...] There’s a term, genius loci, which means spirit of a place. I’m attuned to that. I think it may be the woman in me."

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The photos I saw of this house did not give it justice. Being physically present, there’s something about it that is...

 

Your soul.

 

I aspire to build soulful architecture. Maybe that’s the philosophy. There’s a term, genius loci, which means spirit of a place. I’m attuned to that. I think it may be the woman in me.

 

I come from a different generation of architects. I used to love rigorous design and still admire Mise van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, the machinery and the work, but I also find those spaces cold now. I currently feel like humanity in design sometimes gets lost and there are architects who take on projects to satisfy themselves. I think I’m the opposite of that.

 

I’m now sharing this message that there’s another way of looking at things, through feelings or imperfection, and that spaces can be more humble. I think that’s something you can chew on as a philosophy—coming from that space of rigor and perfection in the past to embracing cracks because there’s a lot of movement in the ground. There was a certain unkindness to perfection.

 

It’s like wabi-sabi. 

We’ve been talking about emotions and design and it’s been said that you’re passionate about purposeful design and keeping spaces raw. I can see it here in Antipolo—the walls and the concrete staircase leading to the main area. You see it everywhere in this home. Are these attributes in all your projects? 

 

For sure. I see this as the culture of my family. There’s always action with intention. You’ll notice that even though Anna is here in the same house, it’s like we’re not here and vice versa. She has her own orbit. Everyone here is always busy and active. That’s what I think is the underlying thing to purposeful design. On a macro scale, purposeful design also means being sensitive to the environment, like the solar panels I installed here.  Every salesperson who approached me was showing me the return on investment. If you really study it thoroughly, you don’t actually make your money back and it’s cheaper to buy power but I wanted to be more sensitive to the environment and consumption. I also think this is purposeful design. Then there’s the limitation of funds. I’m young and I know I won’t be inheriting anything. Everything that I desire and want to do, I have to do at a certain pace that I can adjust to. Again, there’s that purposefulness in time. These are the larger, contextual things.

 

Is this your design philosophy? 

 

It’s hard to collapse it into a single idea and it’s difficult to not sound like Ilse Crawford because I do believe that architecture is a frame for life. I think that’s the most perfect description. 

 

I think that if others came to visit your space here, they’d understand what your philosophy is. 

 

That’s what I mean!

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Yes, exactly. There’s another reason you’d like the books by Jung. Him and other acolytes also talk about objects and the psyche. It’s interesting how you are drawn to certain objects that others aren’t drawn to. I giggle reading about it because I have sometimes felt like I just want to be understood. As an architect, people couldn’t put a finger on what I did but I think now, post-pandemic, they are beginning to understand who I am because of the choices I’m making around this house.

An interesting thing that came out of the pandemic was becoming the foreman of this space because I was the only one here. Renovating my home brought me back down to Earth which is similar to our philosophy at Greener & Partners. Everything’s becoming so sky high that we want to bring it down to the people and activate spaces at a ground level. 

 

 Piper, are you part of this interview?

*Laughs* I think we need an introduction of your dogs. There are portraits of them in the office and we’ve talked about them briefly and their love for the Flag Halyard. 

Boss was born in Hungary in October 2016. I had him in my apartment by March 2017. This house wasn’t even here yet. He’s a blue Frenchie and he was the most gorgeous puppy I’d ever seen. For a year, he was solo and from the CCTV, he would always wait for me by the door so we got Babe. They’re just so pretty and engaging. 

They’re so lovable and clingy. I have a few friends who own Frenchies but they don’t act the same way.

 

Right? The way they sit in the Flag Halyard is so natural, even when they were babies. Boss and Babe were great loves right away. They had babies a year later. Piper is the only girl and there are three boys. I named them after champagnes—Piper, Pierre, Krug and the other was supposed to be named after champagne but came out chocolate brown, so his name is Sprungli. I call them the poopies. I have art commissioned for them, so the one on the big wall is by an artist from Berlin, another is by my friend’s wife from L.A., and then there’s a beautiful, black and white portrait of Boss in the bathroom. It was made by the wife of my business partner, Kiko. Everyone falls in love with them. 

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I can understand why. They must love this environment. I know you started this project two years ago. How has the process been? 

 

It’s been intense because I’m invested in every way. It’s taken so much from me but has also given so much to me. There are lows and challenges from the typhoon, for instance, and because I am single, I can only count on myself to fix everything. Since I was a kid, there was always this desire to fix problems. That might be another reason I decided to go into architecture. It’s essentially problem solving. But then you get to the point where you experience breakdowns in the family or breakdowns in the house and you realize not all problems can be solved. I have support from my family to an extent but I asked for this and there are elements to contend with. The process has been a deepening experience.

When the pandemic hit, I think we all had time to reflect soul-search. How has being here helped you and your family through all this negativity and uncertainty?

 

I’ve been fortunate enough to be in a tactile space. Being here has made me reflect not just in my head but in the act of doing. All these projects are basically little snapshots of what’s going on in my mind. That’s been a sort of reflection and that’s what I think is different about me. I need a tangible, tactile, sensual expression of my thoughts. I’m doing more with my hands and on the ground.

 

How has it helped us? In the practical sense, we’re isolated. We had this buffer of green space around us which has allowed us to survive this pandemic. Not just survive it, but, forgive me for how insensitive this may sound, relish it. Everything is still constantly moving. 

 

I can understand why you would thrive in a space like this. You’ve stepped out of the chaos in the city. There are so many areas of the house where I, personally, would gather inspiration from. It’s a space that easily fosters creativity. We’ve talked about how it’s helped you. Now I want to know how it’s changed you.

 

There’s no past tense. It’s still changing me. If the house is an extension of me, what it signifies is there’s a certain detachment from myself. I think that’s what I’ve gained by being here. Oftentimes, we sink into ourselves or detach ourselves and by having this house to worry about, I don’t have time to think about me. 

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So your main focus is this house?

 

Not just this house but those living in it—my mother, Anna, my yaya. There’s a certain selflessness I gained.

 

How has that translated into your current work?

 

Now, people are starting to rethink their priorities and everyone has been reflective of their mortality. That said, some have been thinking of projects which are of the most importance and if something were to happen, what would they be wanting to leave behind. 

 

Casa Apollo was born out of this house during the pandemic about having a space to frame your inner life in and know it is actually worth pursuing. 

 

It’s interesting how you have this Monocle poster on your desk of The Perfect Village. It made me think about Casa Apollo. Is that your ideal, “perfect village?” Is there any relation to the upcoming project?

 

Yes! This is in a first world context because this is from Zurich. What has fascinated me about these posters—The Perfect Hotel, The Perfect Cruise Ship, The Perfect Hospital—is despite the different themes they come up with, it’s not about the space, it’s about the people.

And the whole idea of Casa Apollo is really about community. 

 

It is. It’s more about the people.

So you want to build this community of creatives where they have this commonality.

With Casa Apollo, the first is pioneering big development. It’s a twelve lot property in Antipolo. Casa Apollo will be the first attempt to create a network. 

 

What I’m fascinated with as an individual are the liminal spaces. Liminality is the in-between. These in betweens here of day and night, morning and evening, sun and moon when they are both present—these in between spaces that aren’t really defined are magical. There’s something ethereal about it.

Casa Apollo is more of the connections than what we build. Because it’s a pioneer project, the ones who bought in early are my family, friends, business partners—people who whole-heartedly believe in me and understand what I’m about. 

 

I want to share this because I’m hoping more people will build here, share the same sensibilities and eventually become a universal idea. It’s a place for healing, for music, for culture, for the arts, and for expressing. 

And have you decided to stay and spend Christmas here, too? 

Most likely, but we haven’t made any plans. As it happens, my birthday is on Christmas Eve. Of course, this year, we won’t be having any relatives over, but I honestly enjoy intimate gatherings where we can have our moments and space. That’s the sort of party I like.

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If none of your relatives will be celebrating the holidays with you, how are you and your family planning to make it special?

 

Good question. My sisters’ birthdays are coming up as well as my sister’s husband’s, so we’ll be celebrating them here and then there’s my birthday. I think being here, being able to converse, and being still is enough for me since there’s always a lot of movement in this house. Enjoying that we’re alive and healthy is enough of a celebration for me. I can’t ask for anything more than that. 

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