No Crash Landing for U.P.'s 'Flying Saucer' Chapel
Once nicknamed after an alien spacecraft because of its uniquely shaped dome, the University of the Philippines Chapel is gearing to take flight as soon as the pandemic is over.
Instead of being content with organizing virtual parish activities and online masses from his flight deck, Rev. Fr. Jose “Bong” S. Tupino decided it was time to repair the ship.
However, unlike other parishes, repairing a “national cultural treasure” and “historical landmark” is not simply a matter of looking for funds. “Before we could embark on the much-needed repairs, we needed the approvals of the NHI (National Historical Institute) and the NCCA (National Commission for Culture and the Arts),” explained the current parish priest.
With the help of UP Diliman Vice Chancellor Raquel Florendo, a meeting was arranged with representatives of the NHI, NCCA, UP Administration and the parish to discuss what needed to be done.
Tupino also contacted DMCI in the hope that they would share the desire to preserve the legacy of their founder. He was not disappointed. DMCI Homes supported the bulk of the conservation efforts, which included the repair of masonry cracks, de-clogging of downspouts and drains; and the installation of new electrical fixtures. The inner dome was likewise repainted in time for the Holy Week services, Tupino said.
Now officially called the Parish of the Holy Sacrifice, the UP Chapel was constructed in 1955 by a start-up company of the young engineer David M. Consunji, the founder of the now formidable DMCI. At the time, Consunji (U.P. class of 1946) had less than ten years work experience as an engineer.
The Flying Saucer
Together with structural engineer Alfredo Lazarte Juinio Sr., who was then the head of the UP Campus Architect’s Office, Consunji carried out the architectural design of Leandro Locsin and made history. The UP Chapel is the first structure in the country to feature a remarkable thin-shell concrete dome and its successful construction exhibited Consunji’s innovative technique. The dome-like structure was later dubbed by members of the UP Student Catholic Action as “the flying saucer” (a reference to alien spaceships in the period).
These days, however, the “flying saucer” is not easily seen because of covered walks constructed between the church entrances to its gates as well as the overgrown plants and trees. “Landscaping is the next step in beautifying the Chapel,” said Fr. Bong. The original landscape was minimalist, he noted, adding “the dilemma is to decide what takes precedence: the convenience of the parishioners in having the covered walks to protect them when it is raining or the appreciation of the chapel’s architecture.”
A Symbol of Modernity, Openness and Spirituality
From its official name to its futuristic design was envisioned by its founding chaplain, Rev. Fr. John Patrick Delaney, S.J.
In his memoirs of the university, UP history professor Oscar Evangelista noted that for Father Delaney, “to know the Mass is to live the Mass, and to live the Mass is to accept religion as God’s way of life. If this is so, religion is not something confined to a little compartment of life, not a sacristy affair.”
To ensure that it was forward-looking, Delaney entrusted the design and art of the UP Chapel to young and promising talents.
First, he commissioned the then 26-year old Leandro Locsin for a design. Locsin, who was named National Artist for Architecture in 1990, had a modernist approach that was influenced by his mentor Victorio Edades. He had previously designed a chapel for the Ossorio family in his hometown in Negros Occidental, but when this project did not push through, he tweaked the design for Delaney creating a circular church with a dome-shaped roof with 14 open entrances and no doors.
The innovation in the structure is that it is supported by pillars located at the sides of the church, so there are no supports to block the space inside it.
The presbytery is located at the center of the circular structure surrounded by circular pews, not too different from the flight deck of the Star Trek Enterprise. Thus, it can be viewed from any point inside the church.
“The concept of a church-in-the-round was exactly what Father Delaney wanted,” wrote Narita Gonzales, wife of the famous author, during the chapel’s golden anniversary. She added that for Delaney, “The priest must be close to his parishioners as the Mass is celebrated. With the altar in the center of the church and the communion rail around it, a oneness between the celebrating priest and the communicants could be achieved.”
The circular design was further enhanced by Napoleon Abueva’s bronze sculpture of a dual Christ on the cross, which depicts the crucified Christ on one side and the resurrected Christ on the other. It hangs from the dome’s centerpoint, above Abueva’s other creation, the altar and lectern marble bas relief depicting the ‘Sermon on the Mount’. Abueva, who was later named National Artist for sculpture (1976), graduated from the UP College of Fine Arts two years prior (1953) to creating his UP Chapel masterpieces. Ten years later, in 1965-66, the university commissioned him to create the now-famous entrance sculpture entitled “Tribute to Higher Education.”
In 1955, another young artist had just come home from further studies at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and the Academie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris. Arturo Luz, who would become known for his geometric forms and clean lines, was also commissioned by Delaney. The magnificent terrazzo floor of the UP Chapel is Luz’s “River of Life,” which symbolizes the life-giving spirit of the Eucharist that flows from the altar.
Last but not least of the valuable art in the UP Chapel are the 14 Stations of the Way of the Cross plus the Resurrection paintings, oil on masonite, by National Artist for Visual Art (1981) Vicente Manansala.
One of the three pioneers of Philippine modern art and known for his “cubism”, Manansala was the most mature of the artists involved in the UP chapel project at the age of 45. Also an alumnus of the UP College of Fine Arts, he was teaching at the University of Santo Tomas at the time of the project. Recalling this project, Manansala said he was approached by Delaney and had to work with a “small budget” because there were no funds. The project took over a year to finish and Manansala actually completed all 15 paintings after Delaney’s death in January 1956. In fact, it was Rev. Fr. Pacifico Ortiz, S.J., his successor as parish priest, who received the completed works.
The Stations, with each one measuring 14 feet by nine feet, were done in oil on masonite boards. To help with the massive project, Manansala recruited one of his students, Ang Kuikok, who had his first solo exhibit that same year. Ang Kiukok later followed his teacher’s modernist approach and also gained his own entry into the Order of National Artists (1990).
The paintings are also due for cleaning. But, this is not as simple as it seems. Prior to the pandemic, a conservation plan was supposed to be drawn up for the Manansala masterpieces, but this has been derailed. At present, repair work is being done on the church’s pews, which are badly in need of it. The repair is being handled by the Focolare group, Tupino said. He said that he is having them make an additional four pews to complete the circle. There are originally only 136 pews, leaving one side of the church with incomplete rows.
One thing that will remain untouched is the official marker that declares its historicity. This ship has indeed landed and will continue to be part of the university’s tradition. Another thing had not changed, much in the same way it was built 65 years ago, the chapel’s ongoing repairs are bereft of government’s financial support and instead rely upon the goodwill of the university’s faculty, alumni, and the support of its parishioners.
Rachel E. Khan is a professor of Journalism and the current associate Dean of the UP College of Mass Communication.