Gina Consing-McAdam, Siobhan Doran: Of kinship and friendship


True to its name, the coffee-table book Houses that Sugar Built: An Intimate Portrait of Philippine Ancestral Homes showcases some of the legendary residences found in the three main sugar-producing provinces in the country, such as Negros Occidental, Iloilo and Pampanga. Those grand residences of yore come to life through the insightful narrative by Gina Consing-McAdam, a Filipina based in England, and beautiful photography by Siobhan Doran, who hails from Ireland and now also living in England.

“Joyful” is how Gina describes her experience interviewing descendants of the original homeowners to writing the story of each ancestral home, particularly the Molo Mansion in Iloilo. Her father Arturo Consing was actually born in that big house. Arturo’s own father, Timoteo Consing, was a son-in-law of Doña Petra Lacson-Yusay, who had the mansion built in 1926 by the architect Andres Luna de San Pedro, son of the hero-painter Juan Luna. At that time, Doña Petra’s husband Estanislao Yulo, a judge of the Court of First Instance in Manila, had already died.

“It was like getting my dad back, getting my lola back,” Gina tells DAILY TRIBUNE editors Dinah Ventura and Teddy Montelibano on the online show, PairFect, which can be viewed on the YouTube channel TribuneNow. “Finding out more [about our family]. I was talking to what we call the ‘olds.’ So, someone like 92, like 87. And we grew up, you know, always surrounded by titos and titas.”

‘Joyful’ is how Gina describes her experience interviewing descendants of the original homeowners to writing the story of each ancestral home, particularly the Molo Mansion in Iloilo.

For Siobhan’s part, the photographer is just filled with gratitude. “I just said thanks for feeding me. I’m not a fussy eater. I quite like everything. Everybody was just so friendly and nice and I was, like, adopted the day after I arrived. It didn’t even take long.”

Book’s back story

Houses that Sugar Built is not Gina and Siobhan’s first collaboration. Gina recalls working a few years back on a book for The Lanesborough, which is a luxury hotel located in London, while Siobhan on another book project featuring The Savoy Hotel, also in the English capital city.

“I was invited to write the history of The Lanesborough Hotel,” narrates Gina, who holds a master’s degree in 20th Century English and American Literature from Newcastle University in England. “It was a leather brown book and it was put in every room of the hotel. Then after about five years later, the hotel decided to redevelop itself. They wanted a book that would document the redevelopment. So, there was a lot of architectural and interior action.

“And that was when they invited Siobhan to do that second book at The Lanesborough. They invited me to collaborate with her as a writer. It so happened that there was an architectural editor named Ian McDonald. He came in as part of the team. There was also a designer, Paul Hickey. The four of us worked on it.”

While Gina wrote the narrative, Siobhan took the photographs and “creatively directed” it. Then Ian edited the manuscript and Paul did the design. Their combined efforts resulted into a “beautiful book” that Gina and Siobhan later showed to the owners of the different mansions featured in Houses that Sugar Built while inviting those homeowners to get involved in the book project.

But that’s getting ahead of the story. Siobhan recounts what happened after completing their work on The Lanesborough book: “We were invited to Gina’s house. We just got together for dinner one night. On her wall in the living room, there was a black-and-white picture of the Molo Mansion.” It inevitably caught the attention of the architecture graduate at Limerick Institute of Technology and photography degree holder from University of Westminster who eventually built a solid career as an architecture and interiors photographer.

Siobhan remembers further, “Ian was at the dinner. He’s a writer and an architect. Architecture is his main subject. We just started talking, and asked Gina if there were other houses like that in the Philippines.”

Gina chimes in during the online interview, “Of course, I said yes.” Siobhan adds, “And we quite quickly decided over dinner. Then we looked at a proposal of photographing them and how would we go about doing that and so we all put our heads together really.”

That dinner happened around 2017 or 2018. Gina then flew to the Philippines to talk to people first in her home province, Iloilo. She started consulting with Rosie Jardeleza, whom she calls Manang Rosie and “such a great help.” From there, she met Eugene Jamerlan, an architect and heritage advocate, and then Narzalina Z. Lim, notable for being the first female cabinet secretary of Tourism. Over lunch, Gina talked to her Tita Nars about the idea of making a book on heritage houses.

“Academically, theoretically, they said it would work,” Gina says how her idea was received. Subsequently, she returned to London and spoke with her collaborators. They decided for Siobhan to look at the houses in the Philippines and see if there’s something that they could put together in a book.

Siobhan explains, “If the houses were different enough. Remember I don’t know what they look like at this point. So, I can’t confirm that I can get the shots would fill a whole book.”

Initially, they were thinking of about 12 houses just in Iloilo, but they soon found out there were more outside the province, from the nearby Negros Occidental to as far as Pampanga in central Luzon. Eventually, the final count went up to 23, with 11 houses located in Iloilo, 10 in Negros Occidental and two in Pampanga.

“It evolved,” Siobhan says of how they approached the book project. “On the first trip, we photographed five, six or seven houses, something like that. And not fully, just parts of them. It was a short [trip]. I think we had six or seven days in all.”

Gina supplies more details, “We had an initial list. So, obviously, there was the Molo Mansion, and then we listed down the names of houses we had to have. Some people said the Eagle House, the Ledesma house, and Nelly Garden, Casa Mariquit.” She also mentions the Boat House, also known as the Eugenio Lopez Ancestral House.

“Then it was finding out whether we would have access, who were related to, etcetera. And that’s how it evolved…It was Tita Nars, who sits on the board of the Lopez Foundation, connected us with Nelly Garden and with the Boat House.”

Preserving heritage

Siobhan notes that despite the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 delaying their plans, “it probably helped us as well,” explaining, “It gave time for people to hear about on what we had done the first shoot before Covid. So, it kind of started the interest.”

Gina concurs, “In the end, after we made that list, it was fairly easy because the criteria really as I mentioned are kinship and friendship — who we were related to in some way, and to the friends of the friends of close friends or next of kin. Because one thing about, especially of some of these houses, apart from those that are open as museums, they are private homes.”

‘It evolved,’ Siobhan says of how they approached the book project.

Siobhan admits to having to overcome some challenges: “We had time constraints in some houses. So, when there was a time constraint, I kind of had to edit in my head because I didn’t have time to shoot everything. I really had to work out what would have made the main shots in the house.

“The Boat House would be an example of that. We had a very tight schedule on that one… Of course it’s quite a beautiful house and it’s so symmetrical and everything. It was definitely a house I could have spent much longer in.

“But the process usually is to walk around. I like to do it quietly with nobody in the house, preferably. Which is fortunate in this situation because a lot of the houses were — I wouldn’t say they were abandoned but there were not a lot people around on the days we were shooting. Of course, Gina was there, and she was interviewing people or whatever.

“I kind of look for traces of the past or hints of the people that lived in them, and the kind of architecture. Nice architectural perspectives that I know will be pleasing when they’re in the book. I generally don’t use light. I guess it’s an aesthetic that I like. If you take architectural and interior photography and you have lights on, you can’t see the fittings. You end up with a very yellow cast over your images.”

Another unforeseen challenge was stopping for lunch that’s been graciously prepared by the homeowners themselves. Siobhan says, “The fact that we moved house to house, all my equipment had to be packed up and actually I had to take pictures of that house for an hour. Although I went for lunch, I didn’t sit at lunch for a long time. So, we realized afterwards that doesn’t work. It’s better that Gina does the socializing and I continue working.”

Looking back, Gina gets nostalgic when thinking of the first time she and her collaborators talked about putting together a book on heritage houses in the Philippines. “It’s only a dream at the moment. I really want to thank the homeowners, the 23 families that allowed us into their homes and all the people who tried to help us. We had advisers. All of this was all privately funded.”

Their corporate sponsors included the SM Prime, headed by its chairman of the Executive Committee, Hans Sy; Union Bank, ICTSI, Double Dragon and Aboitiz. 

“We were hoping to preserve, you know, the aspects of our heritage,” Gina acknowledges, as Siobhan points out, “And also get it known elsewhere. One of our biggest aims was to for it to be seen internationally. And I think we’ve succeeded in that by getting an international publisher. We went to a number of publishers, and ORO Editions was really interested from the first meeting. They also do a lot of books in Asia and all over the world. So it felt like a good fit. And we worked very well together.”