Meet the Architect Who’s Helping Bring Back Escolta’s Glory Days

Reviving Escolta back to its glory days takes a talented team of architects, artists, designers, and urban planners, led by Arts Serrano of One/zero Design Collective, working together and appreciating Old Manila's diamond in the rough. By Victoria Vizcarra

Meet Arts Serrano of One/zero Design Collective—one of the movers behind Escolta's revival

Arts Serrano knew little of drawing when he set out for architecture school. But it was there where the full impact of his chosen profession dawned on him. “I realized how important architecture is to everyone, how anything around us can be called architecture,” says Serrano, who is the principal architect of One/zero Design Collective, an architecture studio and urban incubator. “Architects have a hand at what people will feel when they enter any space, and that is one thing that amazes me.”

It’s through One/zero that he aspires to create “inspired spaces”—architecture that serves as a reflection of its culture, history, and people. Serrano says, “In most of our designs, we take a step back and let one or all of these ideas speak for the project itself.” The studio’s projects are always client-centric, built based on the needs of the people who will inhabit these spaces.

Starting green

His studio was founded in 2014, working mostly on boutique residential and commercial projects. But the firm began to make a name for itself in 2015. That year, One/zero stood shoulder to shoulder alongside renowned firms and architects as one of the finalists for the Clark Green City competition. “It got us thinking that even with our inexperience, our generation [could] contribute to nation-building. [That] drove us to join other competitions,” says Serrano.

Not long since then, the studio has gone on to bag awards in other contests, such as the Metrobank Art and Design Excellence 2015, the Clark Green City Conceptual Master Plan competition, and the Mixed-Income Housing competition by the BCDA Group with PAG-IBIG.

The firm’s excellence and philosophy are reflected in its name. In mathematical parlance, the one/zero fraction is left undefined—a concept that has always captured Serrano’s fascination, and one which he applies frequently in his designs. “We are constantly looking for a definition, as a country, as [people.] We work for an idea we believe in above all else, and that keeps us driven to deliver great work,” he explains.

Resurrecting Escolta

The firm now has projects in Makati, Mandaluyong, and Quezon City. But its more recent work can be found in Escolta: the FIRST Co-working Community; The HUB: Make Lab, an incubation space frequented by startups and creatives; and the Den, a cafe Serrano himself co-owns.

One/zero itself is headquartered in this historic district. And when you’re in the heart of downtown Binondo, you don’t have to look far for inspiration—especially not with the fifth-floor studio’s view of the cityscape. The timelessness of Escolta is grounded in the European aesthetic that Filipinos have come to associate with Old Manila in its heyday. And it’s something that Serrano aspires to in his designs. “I see an almost century-old narrative in the windows of my office and this is a constant reminder that what I see is something I should live for.”

Serrano is in good company. One/zero is part of a vibrant community of like-minded artists, designers, and urban planners based in Escolta, who seek to breathe new life into the Queen of Streets and would see it restored to its former glory. It’s less of a formal closing of ranks than it is a growing community of passionate creatives who share the same love of the historic Manila thoroughfare. Collectively, they’re the brains behind events such as the Escolta Block Party that celebrate Escolta’s rich heritage.

These efforts are meant to be a “showcase of what Escolta can be with the help of the next generation,” he says. “We want everyone to celebrate a new age of design thinking and, at the same time, appreciate Escolta as a reminder of what our generation should strive for.”