Making waves and leaving your mark in this world is a difficult task in itself. But to do it in a world where stereotypes and labels can still be a tall hurdle sometimes requires herculean effort to overcome, especially for women in an environment overruled by a traditionally patriarchal system. For a long time, architecture has been exactly this–an industry dominated by males. This patriarchal system drew an invisible line that made it hard for women to fly towards better opportunities that aren’t purposely hidden under the shadow of men. The recent years however have been on women’s side. Several women architects have been balancing out the scales with groundbreaking residential and commercial projects that contribute both aesthetics and practicality. 

Anna Sy for BluPrint

Yvonne Farrell and Shelley McNamara of Dublin-based Grafton Architects for example have been named the 47th and 48th Laureates of the 2020 Prtizker Prize–an international prize awarded each year to a living architect (or architects) for significant achievements.  Alongside them, several other women have left their mark in the industry. Women like the “Queen of the Curve” Zaha Hadid, 2010 Pritzker Laureate Kauzyo Sejima, and many other talented women have shaken the architecture world. One other name that warrants the same effect of inspiring others belongs to one of the country’s very own premier architects–Anna Sy of C|S Architecture

Anna Sy has worked with several clients, she’s been in the industry for a very long time now. But every journey has its own challenges. For Anna Sy, these could have sprouted maybe because she was still an unknown architect in the country and not necessarily because she was a woman.

“I had lived away from the Philippines for many years and when I came back after grad school and after working in the U.S. for a few years, it took time to get established which is natural. Maybe naturally or instinctively because I am a woman, people were fine giving me residential work? Maybe there was a lot more hesitancy amongst developers because traditionally, that role is given to male architects and I think to a great extent, that’s still the case now. So we have luckily worked with developers such as NEO where they’ve given us the responsibility of doing both architecture and interiors. For other developers…they still limit me to interiors and I think that’s their safety net. And hopefully, it will change. I am older now but it took a long time.”

Anna Sy sitting on Outdoor Armchair from Casa Bella for BluPrint

Though societal expectations and stereotypes are hard to break, the Philippine architecture industry in Anna Sy’s eyes seems to be one that has loosened its grip on that traditional outlook where men dominate the architecture department and women are automatically brought to manage the interior design department.

“I think it [the workplace for women] is much better now.” Anna Sy says, “I think when we first opened our office here, when I would hire females as architects, I noticed they were always in the interior design department of whatever firm they came from. I think that has changed a lot. I believe that big firms used to hire female architectural grads and immediately put them in the interior design group. I don’t see that anymore and I think that’s a big achievement for us as women in the field.” 

Anna Sy for BluPrint
Anna Sy for BluPrint

Known for having a combination of strict, professional work ethic and admirable interpersonal skills, Anna Sy has worked her way upward through discipline, passion, and patience brought on by an admiration for creating beautiful things. 

“I think admiring beautiful spaces…that’s always been my thing since I was younger.” Anna Sy says, “I used to love jigsaw puzzles, lego–things you had to put together. Looking back, it’s very much like the way we do our planning where it’s about putting together pieces of a puzzle when a client has a huge list of requirements and we have to piece it all together. I think it goes hand in hand with whatever I used to love doing when I was a kid.”

designed by Anna Sy
designed by Anna Sy
designed by Anna Sy
designed by Anna Sy

Like everyone, the younger Anna Sy enamored with creating and building, had a few inspirational people who brightened the road she decided to take as an architect. 

“When I was younger and in school, I think the architect that resonated the most with me was Mies van der Rohe. I loved the simplicity of what he was doing, I loved the fact that he tried to do with the most–I guess–minimal elements in order to get his idea across.” As someone who strongly believes in discipline and patience, Anna Sy greatly admired other contemporary architects like award-winning Belgian designer–Vincent Van Duysen and John Pawson who are known for creating rigorously simple but powerful architecture. “These are architects who try to bring the diagram of what they’re doing down to its most basic elements.” Anna Sy explains, “Superfluous gestures or decorative elements are eliminated to make sure that the idea, the overall strength of that idea comes across. And I admire that ‘cause I think having the discipline when you’re designing is just as important as the creative part so sometimes it’s such a cliche but less is more and I feel that these two architects do it so well.” 

Anna Sy for BluPrint

After graduating from the Harvard Graduate School of Design where she became the first Filipina accepted into the program, Anna Sy propelled herself into architecture and co-founded C|S Architecture and C|S Design Consultancy in America with fellow architect Jason Chai in 1992. Over the years, their firm has crafted spaces from Mediterranean-inspired homes and buildings to terrific eclectic buildings. Among her plethora of projects include the De La Salle University (DLSU) campus in Bonifacio Global City (BGC). 

designed by Anna Sy
designed by Anna Sy

Due to the property’s narrow space, DLSU wasn’t such an easy project to complete.

A building awarded with a special commendation by the Urban Land Institute for “Healthy Spaces”, the DLSU BGC campus is a 7-story structure with several sustainable features including low VOC and recyclable finished materials and solar panels that line the rooftop and give the building eight kilowatts of “clean” energy. 

“I’d say one project in particular that is an achievement for me is an institutional project. This was done a few years ago but we were asked to do the La Salle project here in BGC and that was our first venture into institutional work. And given that also I’m not from La Salle-that I’m not male, I thought that was an amazing achievement.”

anna sy

When it comes to memorable projects, Six/NEO and Seven/NEO are two modern buildings that turn heads. Both completed in 2013, Six/NEO and Seven/NEO were completed with the help of Leandro V Locsin Partners (LVLP) which helped CS Design in the two buildings’ architectural and interior design. 

Located in bustling BGC, Six/NEO can be identified by its facade wrapped in distinctive diagonal lines that form a one-of-a-kind building envelope system that involves sunshades and a double-glazed glass curtain wall. As a building dappled with numerous green building features, it has received several accolades and recognitions from the Property Guru Awards in 2013 and 2014. Two years later, it was recognized for energy efficiency at the 2016 ASEAN Energy Awards then garnered an Outstanding Award in the Large Building Category of the Department of Energy 2020 Energy Efficient Green Building Awards.

Anna Sy for BluPrint

Seven/NEO meanwhile serves as NEO’s symbol of peak experience in real estate with its award-winning sustainable design. Like Six/NEO, Seven/NEO is a highly accoladed green building that’s been recognized by the Philippine Green Building Council’s BERDE, the nationally renowned green building rating standard with a 5-Star Certification for New Construction. For Anna Sy, Seven/NEO is the building that struck her most in both function and form.

designed by Anna Sy
designed by Anna Sy
Seven/NEO’s lobby is the perfect example of an elegantly designed liminal space.

“I think the main lobby is the most compelling of the three. The design elements were so controlled and purposely orchestrated to work together. We started with a very simple box or two boxes connected by a vertical building core. We lined that box with very neutral color tiles sort of a grayish torque tile and within this extremely simple box, we superimposed a very strong and sweeping form–an undulating kind of curve along the full length and width of the ceiling using aluminum slats of varying woods and spacing–these slats continued along the walls and created a very cohesive experience of movement and energy.” As a commercial lobby, this design was quite appropriate for a transitional space where people simply move through or stay static in. In contrast to the ceiling’s movement, the group deliberately placed a long, pure white sculptural form that spanned almost the lobby’s full length.

“It was a very monolithic piece that served as an anchor to the overall composition and functioned as the reception desk. In addition to that small sculpture, seating pods were placed in a kind of matter-of-fact and scattered way in the two corners of the lobby. Completing the overall composition.”

NEO isn’t the only project that showcases Anna Sy and the group’s expertise. This 2023, the group has started a few residential projects–projects that, according to Anna as are quite exciting since they’re open to a much more modern design, quite a change to the traditional program Anna Sy had been exposed to during her graduate school days.

Anna Sy for BluPrint

“In my early years, I was trained under a very traditional program and when I went to graduate school, it was a very modernist program so I had a real appreciation for both so we were able to work within a certain spectrum. I’m excited about two houses in particular that have a very modern language and both are starting construction now.”

One of these is The Layered House in Zambales–a beach house with prominent features that ultimately highlight the stunning ocean view.

I was strongly compelled from the very beginning to create a diagram of layers with a front volume as viewed from the street as the first layer, the interstitial garden as the second layer and the back volume as the third layer. The first layer acts as the entrance volume that one proceeds through. This volume holds most of the secondary spaces since the views are mostly to the interstitial garden or to the side yard. Visual cues dictate the procession across the garden or the second layer in order to arrive at the third and main volume which holds the main living and entertainment spaces and dramatically opens up to the seafront views. 

This home’s two architectural volumes are bold, one-source structures with identical length and width. “When you progress from one volume to another, what we want to achieve is a play of solid vs. voids…” As people move from one volume to another, they get to feel a dynamic, transitional experience prior to arriving at the views facing the open sea–the property’s most important and unique element.

designed by Anna Sy
designed by Anna Sy

This collection of enamoring projects by Anna Sy certainly has a degree of discipline and passion attached to them. Though these two characteristics are important in creating projects that leave an impression on this generation and the next, patience and perseverance are requirements in the field of architecture and every other discipline.

“The nature of what we do, our profession, is about having the diligence, the patience to perfect what you’re doing and that takes a long time.” Anna Sy says, reminding the younger generation of architects that gaining everything in an instant isn’t something the world would give so easily. “Most architects traditionally become established much later on in life and that’s only because of sheer determination and hard work. The rewards don’t come quickly, so you have to be patient.”  

For people in their workplaces who have been discouraged just because of their gender or even for how they were brought up, Anna Sy has this one word that resonates and echoes her passion and love for her work. Perseverance–the fine and graceful art of being stubborn and believing in yourself when everything else seems to be fighting against your dreams. A fine example of this strong characteristic can mostly be seen in hardworking parents who strive to give everything for the sake of their children. Anna Sy’s father who grew from humble beginnings as a cigarette vendor in Tondo and Binondo before becoming the head of the Bank of America in the Philippines in particular was her role model when it came to remembering the importance of persevering through tough times. 

designed by Anna Sy
designed by Anna Sy

When I come to him complaining about an obstacle and or something that happened to me, he’d just look at me and say to me, ‘Listen. You just gotta keep on going.’ Thinking back, those were silly complaints that I had compared to what my dad went through. So I think, maybe not everyone has a background where that happened of their parents but just think of everyone else out there who is not as lucky as you and you realize that your problems are small compared to theirs.”

As someone who’s been in the industry for years, Anna Sy has reached that level where perfection isn’t really demanded by others. On the contrary, perfection is now something she seems to constantly seek from herself. 

“I am designing my own home on the beach with my husband and you realize that when I design for someone else, I’m not constantly second-guessing myself. But when I’m designing for myself, it’s so difficult and it’s the first time I’m doing it so it’s a struggle. All of a sudden, budget is even more important than ever before. And trying to work with the most simple and noble materials and still try to create an impact because I’m an architect, people will have expectations about your own home and what they expect to see so, how are you gonna do this with a tight budget? So it’s exciting but it’s a struggle.” 

In the past, the mere subject of gender was quite a hurdle women had to think of overcoming. Such hurdles were only possible to dissolve thanks to the powerful mindsets of powerful women who refused to cage themselves in the small boxes society has decided they should fit into. Anna Sy for one, never let her gender get in the way of achieving success and leaving her own unique mark in the industry. 

“I’ve stopped thinking of myself as a ‘woman architect’. I just think of myself as ‘an architectural designer’.”

Putting aside casting away gender stereotypes and the creative process of being an architect, Anna Sy believes that respect is the driving force that lets someone leave their mark in the world.

“Be as respectful as you can be. Not just with your clients or staff but especially at the construction site. Towards the construction workers who have a really hard job, I think they have it the toughest. Be respectful. That will go a long long way.”

TEXT Shan Arcega




ART DIRECTION Dianne Fernando


STYLING Rick Formalejo

HAIR AND MAKEUP Cats del Rosario




SPECIAL THANKS TO Paula Queano and Carson Bello of NEO 

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