How the National Museum’s Tree of Life came to be 2
Dominic Galicia, the museum's architect, says “the heart of the story had to do with nature and our trying to understand nature.” Photo by Omar Despabeladero

How the National Museum of Natural History’s magnificent ‘Tree of Life’ came to be

On Museum and Galleries Month, we revisit the spectacular design of the National Museum of Natural History and listen to the stories
ANCX Staff | Oct 11 2022

Anyone who’s paid the National Museum of Natural History in Rizal Park a visit would understandably be awed by the magnificence of its architecture. But probably all the more when they hear the story behind the design.

The neo-classical building, which formerly housed the Department of Agriculture and Department of Tourism offices, was built in 1939 by the Filipino architect Antonio Toledo, who also designed the Manila City Hall.

National Museum of Natural History
The space where the "Tree of Life" now stands used to be an open courtyard. Photo courtesy of Ar. Dominic Galicia

“The museum building is a pentagon of different lengths of sides,” says Dominic Galicia, the museum’s new architect, in a video produced by Uncommon, a YouTube channel dedicated to making sleek and informative design documentaries. “Four of the sides are generally straight lines. One of the sides is curved—this is the main facade facing Agrifina Circle,” adds Galicia. And therein lies the difference, he says, approaching a curved facade automatically changes a visitor’s experience as he approaches the space.

The focal feature of the National Museum of Natural History, located right at its center, is what Galicia refers to as the “Tree of Life,” called as such for its unique semblance to a huge tree. Formerly an open courtyard, it’s now a magnificent space that lets in a lot of natural light from the glass dome roofing.

The veteran architect, whose notable works include the Magallanes Church and the interiors of the St. Benedict Church in Silang, Cavite, says the initial idea was to build a grove of trees or columns carrying the massive dome. But Tina Periquet, principal designer of Periquet Galicia Inc., who was tapped as the museum’s interior architect, had a brilliant idea: why not just have one tree instead of a grove? And that seed idea germinated to become the “Tree of Life.”

Periquet’s rich portfolio includes distinctive residential interiors in New York, London, and Hong Kong, as well as numerous development projects in Manila including the award-winning Arya Residences, One McKinley Place, and The Fairways. On the subject of the National Museum’s design, she says they had to think of several things when they set out the plan for the old building’s adaptive reuse. “The original program of this building was to serve as a government office,” she says. “So it was divided into very regular spaces. And there was only one main space, what we call Marble Hall.”

National Museum of Natural History
The focal feature of the National Museum of Natural History, located right at its center, is what Galicia refers to as the “Tree of Life,” called as such for its unique semblance to a huge tree. Photo by Jar Concengco 

She still remembers the first time she walked into the space. “What greeted us was a hall that was very, very sadly cut up into a labyrinth of small booths. And so the first thing was to see past all of that into the potentials, the opportunities that the building presented,” Periquet says in the same interview.

She adds that they looked into Toledo’s original vision for the building and decided to complete what most likely was his grand vision. Instead of having two floors, they gave the edifice one generous, beautiful space.

“I pictured people who normally set foot in good buildings, ordinary citizens who don't normally have the leisure or the money to enter into a beautiful space,” says Periquet. “Imagine they could just walk in and this is theirs. And it's beautiful.”

Watch the full video below.  

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