The Cor Jesu Oratory is a confluence of materials: bamboo, concrete, metal and glass.
Culture Spotlight

Kenneth Cobonpue designed this stunning chapel in Cebu, now a World Architecture Festival contender

It was the international designer’s way of giving back to his alma mater, and now he is being honored himself for the Cor Jesu Oratory’s design.  
Clint Holton Potestas | Jul 13 2019

It is the first religious structure Kenneth Cobonpue designed. “Actually, in a way, it was easier to do. I was approaching it from a very fresh perspective,” begins the international design star. He is talking about his creative direction work for Cebu’s Cor Jesu Oratory, a contender in the religious category for this year’s World Architecture Festival. 

“It’s sloping up and down because it represents the heart,” the designer says of his vision for the chapel which was completed in December 2018. 

Slender bamboos from Bantayan are bonded together on the ceiling to form one, continuous linear pattern.


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Located inside the compound of Sacred Heart School-Ateneo de Cebu in Mandaue City, the structure is a confluence of these materials: bamboo, concrete, metal, and glass. Slender bamboos (from Bantayan, north of Cebu) are bonded together on the ceiling to form one, continuous linear pattern. “Concrete is the simplest and least expensive material, but adding the bamboo there makes it warm,” explains Cobonpue, sitting behind his desk at his office on Gen. Maxilom Avenue in Cebu City. 

“Unlike you, it’s always ‘fat-free’,” my girlfriend Jul, a fashion and interior designer who is in Cobonpue’s team, tells me when we visit the chapel and stand under the concave ceiling which slopes up to the main altar. “Fat-free”, as I would later find out, is an in-house design principle referring to Kenneth’s constant choice of sleek, continuous shapes with zero bulkiness.

The big rocks on the altar was the designer's attempt to recreate the Sermon on the Mount.

In the chapel, three elements define the focal point upon entry. The moving pattern of the ceiling directs the eye to the altar where the wooden cross is mounted on the frame of the clear glass wall. From the main door, the view provides an optical illusion that the Catholic icon is nailed to a tall mango tree towering outside. The wide glass walls on one side lead the natural light in from the garden.

“I think it’s the experience of the person going inside the chapel, which is the most significant part. We made the walkway very low ceiling, but when you go to the main altar, it’s high already. When you enter, the view becomes majestic,” Kenneth explains. 

The structure was built with Cobonpue's "fat-free" principle in mind: sleek, continuous shapes with no unseemly bulks.

Working on the Cor Jesu Oratory provides a special opportunity for the designer. “I felt very inspired because it’s like giving back to my alma mater,” he says. “

He tells me more: “It went through several design phases. There were mango trees on site; I didn’t want to cut the trees because I designed the building according to the garden. It’s green as possible. We wanted it concrete, as bare as possible. I kept the colors neutral because I want the colors to come from the plants around it.”

He wanted the design to have a sense of freedom. “I did not want it to be too structured like other churches,” Kenneth adds. 

Bamboo, says Kenneth, provides the warmth to the concrete.

The big rocks on the altar was his attempt to recreate the Sermon on the Mount. “The altar is made of rocks because I imagined how it was in the olden times, how people built chapels using their own hands, to pray in the mountains. I wanted to capture that feeling. Coming from a Jesuit education, I know the story by heart, so it was very easy.”

A massive box-type structure was on the original blueprint; however, it was reduced to a smaller scale to accommodate a retreat house. To achieve that elusive meeting of form and function, Cobonpue decided to build two (almost identical) edifices. They only differ in position and size. He says the sloping silhouette mimics the shape of two hearts that represent the core of learning: the student and the teacher.

The Cor Jesu Oratory is his first religious space. Based in Cebu, his eponymous label under the Interior Crafts of the Island company started as an international furniture line that has now expanded to home accessories and art installations. Most recently, he has added architectural projects.

"I don't want it to be too structured like other churches," says Kenneth.

“Furniture is like miniature architecture. But in architecture, I have to consider the flow, the people who would occupy it. There’s more detail,” Kenneth says of his two disciplines. “Furniture is simpler, but then, it’s commercial so I have to think of the price, marketability, how it’s going to be made. In furniture, it’s harder; it’s even more competitive. I have to outdo myself. With this, I am a newbie coming into the world of architecture.”

He sees himself designing more spaces in the coming years. “A lot of times I think architects design from above. But we’re not birds. I want to design from below because that is the user experience. The user experience is more important than the overall look.” 


Photographs courtesy of Kenneth Cobonpue.