Penman No. 437: Cherubs, Columns, and Capitals

Penman for Saturday, April 2, 2022

IT’S NOT very often that I stumble on a new source of beauty and wonder, especially not too far from where I live in Quezon City. But sometime last month my wife Beng and I drove out for just about half an hour to a place on the periphery of old Cubao and stepped back three-quarters of a century into a line of work that hasn’t changed much in all that time. What was especially delightful about this encounter was that, as a collector of all kinds of old things, this was new to me.

If you’ve ever looked around in church to see a fat little cherub on a pillar, or spent quiet time in a garden mesmerized by water cascading down a wall fountain, or walked down the stairways and corridors of old buildings appreciating the corbels and the balustrades—the fine, graceful touches of a bygone age—then you’ve seen the products of The House of Precast, the pioneer and still the leader in its field.

From the outside, its new office building along E. Rodriguez Avenue speaks of the modern efficiency with which its business is conducted, but its interiors quickly lead to the heart of the ancient art that still thrives within: the crafting and production of precast, or molded concrete, for architectural ornamentation and other uses. Behind the building can still be found the postwar home and workshop that started everything.

“This place dates back to 1948,” said Martin C. Galan, who runs The House of Precast with his lovely wife Michelle. Martin had met Michelle when they were both law students at UST. (Martin’s grandfather was the distinguished lawyer-banker Miguel Cuaderno.) How they got into the business is a story unto itself. Michelle’s dad, Conrado de Leon, was the son of master artisan Inocencio de Leon, who had worked with the renowned sculptor Isabelo Tampinco, a contemporary of Rizal’s. When the Americans came, they brought concrete, which Tampinco and his associates began to use for their commissions. 

A student of architecture, Conrado apprenticed with Don Isabelo’s son Vidal and later with Guillermo Tolentino, learning the craft and imbibing the high standards of quality and craftsmanship he would bring to his own trade. “He worked for Tolentino on the Bonifacio Monument. They used each other as models. They slapped on the clay and the old man finished it up. The statues were bronze but everything began as clay. They made a mold, which was brought to Europe for casting,” Martin explained. Another important mentor was the Italian sculptor Francisco Monti, who escaped the brownshirts in Italy and was on his way to Australia when he was enticed to go to the Philippines instead. “Monti had his own studio, but he came here to work so Conrado could make his molds for him. There were chickens here, so Monti would get six eggs and drink their contents, and start flinging mud as he sang an operatic aria.”

In 1950, Conrado opened The House of Precast where it remains today, and began filling orders for such premium clients as Malacañang Palace and the mansions of New Manila, Bacolod, and Davao. “When he did well, Conrado hired Vidal Tampinco, as a way of thanking him for his earlier mentorship, and also to learn more secrets of the trade,” said Martin. 

Conrado de Leon died in 1988, and was followed shortly after by his wife; by this time, Martin had married Michelle, and at her deathbed, Michelle’s mother implored the young couple to carry on the business. Despite coming from a very different background and knowing next to nothing about precast, the couple agreed, and have been at it ever since. “We began with a month’s capital and five old employees. We faced many challenges. No one knew us except the old architects. Internally, I had to deal with resistance to change, to modern techniques and methods of management.” 

Martin brought in new knowledge, and also began training a new generation of apprentices. “When Michelle and I went to London in the mid-‘90s, I took the opportunity to learn how to make a rubber mold. Today I use three types of rubber as well as cement, and sometimes I mix wood, rubber, and cement. It depends on the job. You can innovate—you can use glass fiber instead of jute–but the basic processes remain the same. Our advantage is that we still know how to do it the old way. I made sure of that.”

The idea of precast can be traced to as far back as the Romans, who used a form of it for their famous buildings, but its modern version really takes off in the late 1890s and early 1900s with the growing use of precast and prestressed concrete in construction and ornamentation (the first recorded use of reinforced concrete, by Joseph Monier in 1867, was for a flower pot). The larger part of the precast industry today involves the production of structural elements for bridges and other infrastructure, so Martin’s and Michelle’s corner of it—architectural ornamentation—is relatively small, but the combination of tradition and technology that it demands also allows for the kind of artisanal care and excellence that only love and practice can create.

“The basic idea behind precasting is to make the object somewhere else and then bring to the site,” explained Martin. “The architects or clients can show us their designs, and we make their vision a reality. We make molds out of concrete, plaster, or rubber. Some molds are for one-time use—the molde perdido, or lost mold. But we can do what others can’t. Today we use CAD, and we work interactively with the client in developing the project. We have references for things like columns and capitals—there are equations and formulas for these classical forms. But for things like how a leaf should turn, our people rely on direct observation. Others might use pictures, and the two-dimensionality shows. To make a good mold, your mind has to think in three dimensions. You’re doing it in reverse—you’re making a negative. So we talk about the alsa and lubog, the rise and fall of the figure. We ask, what does the leaf want to do?”

Quality is The House of Precast’s topmost consideration. “We don’t scrimp on materials, and we abide by international standards.” This quality is evident in the high-ceilinged office that also showcases some of their finest creations.

But the workshop at the back, beside the old house and garden, is the heart of the operation, where skilled hands turn plaster and water into cherubs, columns, and capitals, among dozens of other shapes, familiar adornments often taken for granted that please the eye and tease the imagination. Stepping into it, I began to understand the Galan couple’s commitment to their craft, and to sustaining it into a future more concerned with cost than culture. 

The pandemic hit the business hard—“We’re ornamental, so we’re an expendable item in the budget,” Martin said—but they’ve survived and should recover. Their son Diego—a familiar figure in the watch and pen forums online—is learning the ropes. Martin has ambitious plans for the new building, which he wants to transform into “a venue for the humanities.” He has another business as a consultant in acoustics, and swears that he can see sound moving around in space—nothing strange for a man who fusses about how leaves should curl and open in nature. As long as the Galans find wonder in the world around them, so will we.

3 thoughts on “Penman No. 437: Cherubs, Columns, and Capitals

    • “Beauty is truth; truth, beauty…” Aha! Now I understand why I would find BBM and his fat cheeks so repulsive as to deserve a Will Smith slap — sans Academy sanctions on Mr. Smith!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s