Postmodern revival in this renovated DTI regional office

March 14, 2018



Karl F. Cabilao

Downtown Cebu is filled with historic buildings that speak of the city’s rich history just waiting to be restored. Among these is the once decrepit Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) regional office building, which underwent a needed face-lift care of a Cebuano who saw its relevance to the city’s built heritage. Today, it functions as the DTI regional office in Cebu.

The eye-catching architectural element of the old building was the diamond-patterned parapet crowning the structure. The firm decided to restore the pattern and took inspiration from it for the modular gills on the exterior walls.

“Since college, I’ve been enamored by the building because it’s a marker of history. The building has character,” says Buck Richnold Sia of Zubu Design Associates. Designed in the 1960s by Cebuano architect Ramon Escario, the building stands on a 750-square-meter corner lot along Osmeña Boulevard, just a block away from the historic Fort San Pedro. After the DFA vacated the building, it was used by a bank, then an office. Subsequently, the structure succumbed to neglect and decay.

In 2013, Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) director Nelia Navarro commissioned Zubu Design Associates to handle the renovation. The department was leasing two office spaces on separate levels in a commercial building. Relocating the offices in one space was necessary for operational efficiency, and a more expansive office would accommodate more people transacting business with the government agency. They were offered the old DFA building, whose dilapidated state turned them off until Sia convinced them of its potential and architectural significance.

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The gills on the south- and west-facing walls of the building let slivers of sunlight inside while still shielding the interiors from view.

The building reflected a prevailing architectural style in the 60s, when Cebu had a more rural atmosphere, unperturbed environment and light traffic. An interesting contrast of styles can be found in the building. While the utilitarian space planning is clearly Modernist, the diamond patterns on its parapet recall a Postmodernist approach, a movement in the later part of the 20th century that challenged the severe clarity and pure forms of Modern architecture.

Sia wanted to preserve the existing shell and carve out a brighter interior space for the renovation. “The defining characteristics of the building are its orientation towards the corner, and the tessellated parapet, its main ornamental feature,” he says. These two characteristics were brought together by continuing the parapet pattern along the corner wall, all the way to the ground.

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The wall at the training/conference room mimics the facade “gills” on the exterior. Cove lights in between the recesses of the gills illuminate the space.
The entrance leads to the lobby, registration counter and waiting area. The counters were added by Sia, but the marble flooring and triangular ceiling coves were restored. The director’s office in the mezzanine level overlooks the double height space. The windows were widened for her to see the activity below.

The building has double height interiors, with a mezzanine floor. Despite the high ceiling, the interiors were dark due to the lack of fenestration, particularly on the wall facing west, which was one solid expanse. Clearly, the intention was to keep the harsh afternoon sun out. To allow indirect sunlight in and make the façade more interesting, Sia lined the wall with vertical “gills.”

The newly renovated DTI Building, with its amalgamation of Modernist and Post-Modernist influences stands in contrast to the Spanish colonial and American-influenced Neoclassical structures in downtown Cebu. With contemporary tweaks, the 50-year old building looks in trend without losing its identity. “This building, like a lot of the old buildings downtown, was largely ignored,” says Sia. “This is my attempt to let people know they can always use something from the past.” A Postmodern gem is given renewed life. 

This article first appeared in BluPrint Vol 6 2015. Edits were made for

Design team

Architect: Buck Sia, Andrew Tan, Jess Baraga (Zubu Design Associates)
Contractor: Quoin Builder
Electrical Engineer: Ferdinand Rubia
Mechanical Engineer: Edwin Torillo
Master Plumber: Jumar Biolena

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