Design By Nature
The elusive Mt. Mayon, and not a cloud in the sky to obstruct her.
We took the scenic route, an extra fifteen minutes and a slight detour to the side of a hill, along a small clearing of trees. There she stood: the elusive Mt. Mayon, and not a cloud in the sky to obstruct her. We could have traced the outline of her cone with our fingers against the clear blue if we wanted. It was a view straight out of a book, worth a stop in our tracks.
￼From the southern islands, Sorsogon is one ferry ride away, which merits it the name “Gateway to the Visayas”.
There are no direct flights into Sorsogon. From the north, Albay is the gatekeeper. From the southern islands, Sorsogon is one ferry ride away, which merits it the name “Gateway to the Visayas”. Today, it’s a bridge less traveled, and Sorsogon, even with its abundant land almost entirely outlined by coast, has fallen to the wayside as a tourist destination.
Even our hotel is not a hotel. By the standards of the Department of Tourism, it merits the right to call itself a pension house and no more. The van stops in the middle of an unassuming street, coconut trees indiscriminately lining either which way. There is no real driveway. There’s nothing poking out at us, nothing spectacular seen through car window. It’s only when I’ve stepped out that I see the wall of wooden panels, a name written in small, nondescript white font: Siama Hotel.
In the lobby, there are wooden slatted sliding doors in place of walls. A breeze hits, accompanied by a flurry of attentive staff. There’s a breakfast of warm, home-cooked food, and fresh, steaming coffee. The open-air lobby is breezy, windy, obviously designed for the tropical climate. And in good taste. There is a polished, rustic feel to the entire space. Most of the furnishings are bespoke, made of handsome, organic textures: hardwood, abaca, lauan, and rattan. I can see the 25-meter oasis of a pool in the distance. There is an air of laid back, world-class indulgence here that makes me immediately want to drop my bags and sit back.
“Siama is meant to feel like your home in the province,” Milo says, and it does feel a lot like home—if home was fully staffed, serviced and magnificently designed, plucked up and planted in the middle of paradise. It is home with a few extra coatings of luxury.
The low-level dining tables in front of us are lit with hanging lamps enfolded with white shells, collected by one of the local communities, from the beaches of a nearby town. The shells are not the only things he’s curated from Sorsogon—the wood is lauan, known commercially as “Philippine mahogany”, a tree common to the town of Bulusan.
“It’s a consciousness that I practice, using what’s around me, designing for a certain environment,” Milo says. “There are different ways of approaching design, but in this case… I think it’s a better way to start from your surroundings. When I put together my furniture, I like them to have an identity. And I think that comes from the materials, because they come from a certain place. I’d like to think that can be a designer’s contribution to design. To use what is really coming from where you are. To have that identifying quality.” Siama is the product of this happy marriage: material and design, and on a deeper level, place and design. A long-awaited showroom for everything that Sorsogon has to offer.
Siama is located in the heart of Sorsogon City, exactly where tourists would need to be to see the rest of the province. Since its launch in 2014, Siama has become kind of an answer: a destination in itself. It is Milo’s prerogative to have them stay longer, and to stay for more. “There used to be no facilities or accommodations that could take in the kind of people that we wanted to bring [to Sorsogon]. That’s why we came up with one.” The dream is for so much more than just a luxurious look and feel—the goal is for Siama to provide a kind of accessibility that wasn’t there before so that people, other than locals, could see it.
It might be the isolation that helped preserve the quaint, authentic “sleepy town” quality. For a deeply Spanish-influenced province—this was where Magellan chose to dock, and build his ships during the Spanish era—it still manages to retain some Filipino soul. In one of the smaller towns, Juban, there is a block spattered with heritage homes decades old, designed with naga wood and windows of capiz shells.
Milo is not just a designer. He is also the provincial tourism consultant for Sorsogon. His responsibilities include mapping out potential tourism sites. But when he talks, sometimes it is hard to tell which job he is working.
Sorsogon has its own set of design problems, so to speak. The towns in the northwest, Donsol and Pilar, have become relatively popular for their whale sharks and beaches, respectively. But tourists often take a quick daytrip down to these sites and back up to Albay. This is the frustration that locals, who know what they have to offer, have to deal with. Since it’s success, Donsol proved that fruitful tourism was possible; Donsol transitioned from a fifth-class to second- class municipality. But when whale shark season leaves, usually so do the guests, Milo says.
“We have Donsol for the whale sharks, Gubat for surfing, Matnog for the beach and island hopping, Bulusan for the lake, Irosin for the hot springs. Planning tourism sites is a lot like planning a mall, creating the proper combinations of concessionaires. Except, for us, it’s a proper combination of sites. Sorsogon city has to be the hub, where all the main activities will happen,” Milo says. “It will be the centerpiece of the province.” I can’t help but smile at his choice of metaphor.
In Gubat, where the waters are good for surfers, Milo is working on his next project. Aptly named the Surfer’s Pavilion, the LGU-funded project is a three-part establishment, beginning with a low-level, two-floor foyer primarily made of bamboo and anahaw, meant to be the receiving area. “In the beginning, they were giving me the space for a building,” Milo says. “They asked me if it was enough. It would have been. If they needed a building.”
But Milo doesn’t want to build buildings. The Surfer’s Pavilion is a community-based development, designed for the local surfing community— eventually, it will be used to host events and competitions to attract surfers across the country.
Local surfer Bidge Villarroya has around 70 kids who have been under his tutelage. He only has one rule: no school, no surfing.
Surfer Bidge Villarroya and the kids from Buenavista Surf Camp.
Bidge tries to round up the kids then, roughly 30 of them, with a megaphone. The megaphone is necessary—some of them are still running wild, boards in hand, others are playing in the water. I can only imagine how difficult it is on days when the waves are calling. I can also scarcely blame them: Clear, pristine waters bound the long stretch of beach. The shore is dotted with only a few modest establishments.
The Pavilion, still under construction, rounds it up on one end. There are bamboo shades, similar to the design in the lobby of Siama, that allow the winds to flow in, and even in the heat of the afternoon sun it makes for comfortable cover. “When you’re in a place like this, you need to experience the elements. If there’s sun, feel the sun. If there’s rain, feel the rain. And if you want an enclosed room, go to your house,” Milo laughs.
There are no walls here. Just landscape every which way. Milo and Bidge enjoy a cup of coffee on the shore, enthusiastically talking about plans for the Pavilion. The kids are in the background, enjoying the sun. For the moment, it’s a scene for no one other than the locals to appreciate.
As featured in
Design By Nature
GRID Issue 15