Arts & Culture

It Only Costs P350 A Day To Hold Office In This Heritage Building

Escolta’s First Coworking Community, which is located in an 89-year-old building, offers a historical—yet modern—temporary working space for freelancers. Check out its design in the photo gallery below.

Photography: Michael Angelo Chua Pictorial Direction: Kamila Garcia

New ideas often need old buildings. Such was the belief of American author and Urban Diversity advocate Jane Jacobs. She once wrote, “Designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.” The same philosophy lies behind the movement that is growing within the walls of First United Building; one of the jewels on Escolta street’s well worn—yet still glorious—crown of classic architectural landmarks.

The former Perez-Samanillo building has had a merry mix of tenants since it was built in 1928. Amongst the different establishments were Bergs Department Store and United Coconut Planters Bank. Recently, in a brave act of adaptive reuse, the building opened its doors to a different kind of community—artists, designers, and other creatives. (To read more about Escolta’s new energy, click here.) The newest “kid” on the old block is the First Coworking Community, a co-working office space for freelancers and startup companies who need a temporary spot.

Architect Arts Serrano of One/Zero Design Collective credits the roots of the movement to 98B COLLABoratory, an artist-run initiative that encourages creativity within a shared space. “The incubation space on the ground floor is the first project we worked on together,” he shares, citing his collaboration with building owners Robert and Lorraine Sylianteng. Within five months, the couple brought another idea to Serrano’s drafting table—a co-working space. “First Coworking Community is really Robert and Lorraine’s passion project,” Serrano explains. “We’re really lucky to have them as our landlords because in spite of the generational difference, they really listen to the ideas of young creatives.” Art shares with Real Living how they created it.

First Coworking's space used to house a law firm.

What was formerly a law firm with a maze of partitions is now an open and airy space with full views of the First United’s neighboring architectural gems. Serrano says, “I think it’s a logical trajectory for the First United Building to venture into something like a co-working space because, in line with the incubation space downstairs for creatives, we want to create an office environment wherein creatives won’t really have to think about the actual office maintenance and just focus on creating.”


The amazing view of old Manila inspired them.

“We get our inspiration from the views—what we see outside,” shares Serrano, who incidentally, also set up his own architectural practice in the same building back in 2015. “It’s a concrete example of what Manila used to be and what Manileños from the 1920s wanted Manila to be. So we wanted to highlight that and maybe try to inspire others the way this specific idea inspired us. We also don’t want people to lounge in solo cubicles. We want them to share tables and invade our spaces in different ways.”

Original architectural details were retained.

“This wall used to be painted,” Serrano says pointing to the wall on the right hand side of the windows. Exposed original architectural details in their natural distressed state give a sense of the building’s grandeur—something that is more commonly appreciated from the outside—and its heavy-duty structure.  “What we did was we scraped off the paint, and then we saw all these cracks and a door there that we didn’t even know about,” the architect says.

“It’s interesting to see what the building went thru with the cracks on the walls and a certain part of it sealed off. It has that kind of narrative: longevity. It’s a 90-year-old story and it’s still being written up to now, so it’s a really interesting story to highlight in our space.”

Old and new design details play off each other.

The contemporary elements in the space (furniture, lighting fixtures, and storage units) were considered more for their function rather then their aesthetics. “We didn’t really play around much with the textures because we just wanted to highlight what’s already here,” explains Serrano. “We have these beautiful spaces that are old and that have stories to tell, but people don’t really know this. There is this notion that if it’s an old building then automatically it’s already crumbling and it cannot be used. I think by showcasing this space we kind of break that idea.”


These are whom you can expect to share the space with.

“We’ve been attracting lots of students as well as startup writers and designers,” shares Serrano. “Most of them don’t have a studio yet so it’s a great opportunity for them to try working in an office setup. We also host events and allow meetings to be held here.” Co-workers can enjoy fast WiFi (100mbps!) in a quiet, atmospheric space.

It serves as an art space, too.

As of writing, the space is hosting an exhibit of the Museum of Contemporary Art & Design (MCAD) called “The Library of Unread Books.” Stacks of paperback and hardbound books can be found across the entire space, available for anyone to pick up and read. The exhibit runs until August 26, 2017.

As part of a younger movement that seeks to usher in a cultural revival along Escolta, the objective of Serrano and his fellow creative colleagues is simple: to inject a fresh, dynamic one space at a time. “Manila has a lot of problems in terms of street security and all that,” explains the architect. “But once we give vitality to a specific part of the street, say this building, I guess it would kind of infect other building owners. Yun naman talaga yung goal namin—just to give more life to the street. It’s just a small step, activating Escolta one space at a time.”

Visit First Coworking Community at Units 502 & 506, First United Building, Escolta, Manila. Introductory rates are P350/day, and P200/4 hours. For monthly rates, contact them at (02)787-3601, email firstcoworkingmnl[at], or go to their Facebook page.

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