Inside The Contemporary Asian Escape Of Zsa Zsa Padilla's Partner, Architect Conrad Onglao
For this sitting room, visual symmetry and balance is achieved with decorating in pairs, from the armchairs, accent chairs, side tables, lamps, wall sconces and artwork.
The home of architect Conrad Onglao is a contemporary Asian escape in the middle of bustling Makati. One enters to find a complex of structures with glass walls that allow the eye to move from the kitchen to the dining area in the next structure, the sala in another. The climb up the elevator reveals a roof deck where the noonday heat can be balanced by a cool breeze, higher than the home seems to be than the rest of the residences on this side of the city.
A certain kind of high animates this shoot as well. Conrad is fascinated more than anything else by the hoopla that the shoot requires, where the whole Metro Society team—stylists, makeup artist, editor, and all—arrived at his home to make this cover story happen. He maintains a distance from what’s going on, more worried about feeding the team than how he looks—and will look—as the issue’s prime subject.
It seems that staying in his normal self is what Conrad is about—that is, despite the fact that there is so much attention on him these days. Recently he was told: “You’re trending!” To which he replied: “What does that mean?”
The self-effacement is not put on, and much of it is really about this man suddenly thrust into the public eye, when much of his work the public has enjoyed without knowing his name as architect. He seems far from enjoying the attention, but is not bummed out by it either. More than anything, what Conrad seems to know to be true is this: finding love in this day and age seems an impossibility. He will take whatever trappings go with it.
In a 2006 interview, he was asked about being one of the more eligible bachelors in Manila, and Conrad spoke of staying under the radar. It could only be a surprise that he would find himself in such a high-profile relationship as this one.
Enter the woman in his life, “Divine Diva,” Zsa Zsa Padilla.
Society’s darling architect and local showbusiness’ Divine Diva’s new relationship has made them media magnets. Conrad says, “The attention that we get is not something that’s familiar to me. And I’m surprised that even my clients are asking me, if I’m getting married because they read it in a blind item. And I’m like: ‘Buti ka pa alam mo!’”
He said, she said
It is stuff for a romantic-comedy, albeit one that’s about two people separately going through the empty nest syndrome, their adult children now independent and free to live their own lives: two sons for Conrad, and three daughters for Zsa Zsa.
The two met through Megastar Sharon Cuneta, whose house Conrad was doing work on. The architect was hesitant about dating an artista. “When Sharon said that she wanted to introduce me to Zsa Zsa, I said, ‘Sharon, I don’t like artistas, because I’m not used to the attention. I’m very low key.’”
Conrad narrates how he was convinced to go on that first date with the actress. “But Sharon told me, ‘Conrad you have to trust me. My batting average is 97 percent. Zsa Zsa was with Dolphy until the day he died, and in that relationship for 23 years.’ I thought, that’s quite a quality.”
Unknown to Sharon, Zsa Zsa was desperately wanting to move forward from two years of grief she had wrapped around herself. “I had my geomancer come to the house, and I asked him what’s going on, it’s been two years, but I’m still always crying, and I’m still so depressed, and I really just want to be able to move forward with my life. And he asked me where Dolphy’s stuff is, and I said it was still all here, as we’re waiting for the museum to happen,” Conrad says.
“His energy’s still here, you have to take his things out, the geomancer said. So I spoke to Eric Quizon and he said, sige, we’re going to get it. And as soon as nawala, a weight was lifted. The hardest were the pictures, ang dami kong photos and the geomancer said I have to take them all out. So I left just one and a family photo. ’Yun iniyakan ko talaga for two days, all the memories while we were clearing things. Because you think you have already let go, but then you have bits and pieces of memories. You think the grief is over and hindi pa pala.”
But Zsa Zsa was ready to move forward, two years into grieving. She realized she needed to take control when she took a long hard look in the mirror. “You know when I decided that ayoko na? Nakita ko 'yung itsura ko. My eyes were always sad, I gained so much weight, wala na ’kong kabuhay-buhay. How can you have an audience if you don’t look your best? For two years, I boycotted Christmas, and it was so hard for me. Hindi na ’ko nagko-concert, because hindi naman maganda to have a cry-fest in the concert. So I just concentrated on my acting,” Zsa Zsa narrates.
Soon after Dolphy’s things were cleared for storage in the house that they shared, Zsa Zsa received a text message from Sharon asking her if she was ready to date. “I answered, yes! All caps pa! I told her I’ve been asking the universe to please give me somebody to meet, someone who’s older than me. Sharon said: ‘Oh he’s perfect, kase he’s 58 na!’” Zsa Zsa was suspicious. “My question was: are you sure he’s not gay?”
Zsa Zsa almost wanted to back out of that first date. “I didn’t want to push through with it because my tooth chipped and I thought: Oh no, bad sign! I won’t go through with it anymore. But my sisters, all of them are in Las Vegas, and we were iMessaging, and they kept telling me to just push through with it. But they wanted to see what I’d be wearing first, tapos may approval pa! Sinasabihan ako ng: ‘Ano ba ’yan, pang-Sunday mass! May cardigan pa! O ’yan, puwede yan!’ Fitted but not showing anything.” She narrates the absurdity of going on that first date. “I kept telling them I can’t go anymore, because of my chipped tooth. And they kept saying, hindi, okay lang ’yan, ilagay mo siya sa side na hindi niya makikita. So may blocking pa!”
Zsa Zsa speaks like a giddy teenager, going on a date for the first time. “Conrad waited for me in the parking lot, and then we had dinner. I found him fidgety so I thought: Uy, nervous!” That first date was about three hours of conversation between the nervous Conrad and the appropriately dressed Zsa Zsa.
She told Sharon after: “You know we talked and talked for three hours, so I think he could be a best friend, but there were no sparks.” Zsa Zsa soon realized it was because she had no idea what she was supposed to look for. “I don’t know what to look for because I haven’t dated in forever, so how was I supposed to know? When I got home I kept crying, I was talking to Dolphy, and asking him why couldn’t I move on, why is it so hard?”
Told by Sharon about Zsa Zsa saying they could be good friends, Conrad replied, “Eh bestfriend lang pala ako! But Sharon told me: ‘Hindi, ligawan mo raw siya.’ And I told Sharon: ‘Ano ’yun? Sa edad kong ito meron pa bang gan’on?’”
But Zsa Zsa did tell Sharon exactly that: “What if ligawan niya kaya ako? I don’t know, eh. Ang kapal ng mukha eh ’no? And then we started texting, and we hit it off. Because we could talk to each other naman talaga, eh. And then I was asking him, are you working? Because we were texting each other from morning until 5:00 p.m.! Ito ba 'yung work mo, nakaka-text-text ka lang?”
On Sharon’s advice, Conrad asked Zsa Zsa out on a second date. He says: “That was when we became more comfortable with each other. We just talked and talked, and I asked if she wanted to go out again. And she said, yeah. Really just casual, because at our age, wala nang rituals masyado.”
Conrad says, “Even my clients seem to be happy for me. My clients introduce me to people as the boyfriend of Zsa Zsa.” In this section of the house, East meets West is the prevailing theme in this home. A brand new modern structure paired with European flair and oriental accents. / Zsa Zsa on Onglao’s humility: “Whenever you praise him for his work, he’d look at the floor. He’s embarrassed, ‘gan’on siya.”
Coming in blind
Both Conrad and Zsa Zsa speak of not knowing about each others’ work, and this might be what allowed them to start off on neutral ground and tabula rasa.
Conrad narrates: “When she met me, she didn’t know my stature in my world. And I had no idea about hers either, and when I met her I told her, don’t get offended that I don’t watch Tagalog films. I knew of her, because of her association with Dolphy, but I didn’t know what her achievements were as far as acting is concerned, I don’t own any of her records.”
Zsa Zsa says of this aspect of the beginnings of their relationship: “Sabi ko naman sa kanya, alam mo naman siguro ang itsura ko, kase ako ginoogle kita, para alam ko naman kung ano'ng itsura ni Conrad Onglao.”
A week into knowing each other, Conrad told Zsa Zsa that his weekend ritual is going to the Legazpi Market. “I go to the market and buy stuff, that’s my sense of being grounded. And she said, ‘Can I come?’ So I said sure! I had ordered customized banigs and I was supposed to pick them up, so I kinda held her hand, and ’yun na, blind item na. Ang term niya do’n: outed. I was really totally clueless,” Conrad says with a laugh.
Zsa Zsa loved that trip to the Legazpi Market, as she has gladly discovered that Conrad enjoys the simpler things that she herself has always liked doing, and now she can do with someone special. “Conrad told me: there’s a sense of familiarity with you. And I said: yeah, that’s how I feel too, it’s like I’ve known you forever. He’s also a Leo, so I get along with him, and the things he likes, I like, too. It’s so hard to find somebody who likes the same things. Watching movies, and going to the mass with somebody. Those simple things. We like those simple joys. So when he introduced me to the market, I was so happy! Dun ang launching eh. Dun kami na-out!” Zsa Zsa narrates.
Conrad had his apprehensions in the beginning. “Looking back, now it’s hilarious. But at that time I had asked myself, what am I getting myself into? Parang gusto ko na yata mag-back out.”
Yet, as with the more mature relationships, there was nothing a conversation couldn’t fix. “I told her that the more I know of her, the more I feel like she’s a person I’ve known for so long. She feels like the missing piece, in that sense. And even my kids said: you know dad, you seem a lot happier these days. Even my driver, na nagulat ako may opinyon pala siya! And all my friends. They’re very happy about us being together. I was in a relationship before for almost 10 years, and that obviously didn’t work out. But with her, it’s like I’ve known her for so little time, but there’s an ease to it, there’s such a familiarity, it’s an effortless relationship. We don’t even have to say things to each other, it’s an understanding that’s about being on the same wavelength. You know there can only be possibilities.”
And lest the grapevine goes crazy on that possibility of a wedding, Zsa Zsa herself is quick to explain this away, given the kind of relationship she has with her public. “See, I have to explain that you know there was that big story before that Dolphy and I were getting married, but it didn’t happen. And then I became a widow, and now I have a boyfriend, so of course the next wish for me is sana she gets married. If I were following one person’s story and it was like my story, that’s how I’d want it to end, because it’s a happy ending, di ba.”
Zsa Zsa continues about the marriage question. “Sabi ko nga, I lived with Dolphy for 23 years, and it was never a problem. So wherever this leads us… sabi ko nga kay Conrad, you know why people celebrate ‘monthsaries’? Because relationships are so hard to keep. With us, because of our age, we just have to be honest and open all the time. And you have to remember that it’s not something you can’t hurdle, things can be worked out, you don’t just walk out, you don’t just say it’s hopeless.” Zsa Zsa speaks like a woman how has lived in love, and has lost it. And who now she has the world at her feet, a man beside her, and with love making her eyes shine.
Conrad, for his part, is really still quite surprised at the kind of attention this new love has meant for him. “Even my clients seem to be happy for me. My clients introduce me to people as the boyfriend of Zsa Zsa. My clients are quite private, that’s why I’d rather not mention them really. But that’s also why I’m surprised that they’re the ones who would ask me if the relationship is true, or if I’m getting married.”
The happy couple couldn’t be more radiant than when photographed together. There were stolen kisses between shots, sweet whispers and lots of excited giggles. Their energy was contagious.
Design come to life
The simplicity of Conrad, the low-key lifestyle, is in the conversation he keeps, the home that he’s in charge of. Zsa Zsa is surprised at how independent the man is, how he’s on top of everything, even her 50th birthday party he has convinced her to have in this home.
“I told her, you know you’re turning 50 and I think since we’re out in the open, and we’re not hiding anything, why don’t we just throw a party here, and you can meet my friends, I can meet your friends. It’s a good occasion for everybody to know each other and be comfortable,” Conrad says.
Zsa Zsa, antisocial as she is, has since been convinced. The party will welcome people into a house that by all counts awed Zsa Zsa the first time she saw it. “When I saw this house, I was floored and I thought, oh my god, he’s good!”
Staying under the radar has left Conrad short of fame. He is considered the darling architect of Philippine society, as he is th
e evasive and elusive man who would rather not show up at grand openings, even of his more high-profile architectural projects. “For the longest time, I had no picture, except that one that they took of me in Seda Hotel in Bonifacio Global City; it was the first Seda Hotel we did. It used to be the only photo of me out there.”
Not that his work does not speak of the architect himself and his own particular evolution. He had worked in the United States for years before deciding—for career’s sake, really—to build an office in Manila. “I was based in the States for 15 years, and I moved back to the Philippines in 1996. I met these Japanese clients in Los Angeles, so I was traveling so often to Japan. And they said, why don’t you open an Asian office, so that it’s easier logistically.”
It turned out to be a test in aesthetic for the architect, who could not relate at all to Philippine paintings, having been removed from it for most of his professional life elsewhere. “In the beginning it was difficult. I couldn’t even relate to Filipino paintings because I hadn’t seen them in ages, and I was used to a different aesthetic. In time, I adjusted to it, and then I started developing a taste for anything local or Asian.”
Conrad gestures to the rest of his house, pointing out how this stands for years of acquiring knowledge through travels, and being grounded in the Philippine context for the past 17 years. “You will always see Asian artifacts in my design, and there’s always an openness. I like to bring the outside in.”
The house itself feels warm and cozy despite the complex of individual structures and the larger installations of a Buddha in the sala, and vases and paintings in the reading area in the second-floor hall. Even the roof deck with its guest accommodations (where Zsa Zsa was preparing for the shoot), was homey and comfortable despite dark heavy furniture and the Asian carpet. Architectural Digest magazines and books fill the shelves.
There is an ease to this design, an openness and comfort. It is much like the man who designed it, in fact. He who takes things in stride, and seems to have found the most unlikely romance with a TV and movie star, no matter his apprehensions.
There is also a sense of humor that is refreshing, one that’s born of humility. When the rest of the Metro Society team arrive, Conrad quips: “The diva is upstairs. I’m just her ‘tiga.’ Tigabuhat at tiga-dala ng gamit!”
We laugh. And this residential complex of contemporary Asian structures and design suddenly felt like home, given this man whose lifestyle is now also about being oblivious to public interest and deciding that it is all but part of his newfound romance. One that is for keeps."
Zsa Zsa says of Conrad: “It was in the Legazpi Market that I saw someone gawking at Conrad like a fan. He was buying ‘banigs,’ and this guy was looking at him in awe. And I thought: this Conrad Onglao ‘pala’ is a rockstar! I did not know this!”
Facade: White. Glass. Space. These are the elements that dominate in the Onglao’s home. The white walls (finished with Venetian plaster by TGE) leans into soft grays and browns subtly, eliciting calm feelings. He likens a white space to an empty canvas—with which everything is compatible. The enormous glass doors and partitions on the ground floor allow the eye to easily take in the layout. High ceilings complete this vision of lightness in this multilevel home.
Pocket garden: An antique door and buddha adds drama to this pocket garden by the living room.
Vignette with mirror: Conrad says that what one will always see in his architecture and design are Asian artifacts, as well as an openness. “I like to bring the outside in.” Mirrors reflect the openness of the home, while paintings and precious carpets add color and texture to the neutral palette.
Living room and dining room: Zsa Zsa says of Conrad’s design aesthetic: “I love the white walls here, I love the scale of things. I appreciate the space. He has a lot of stuff but you don’t feel it. I love the windows and the high ceilings. And you know what I’ve always loved are gardens and plants which is part of his design for this house!”
Staircase: A view of the ascending stairway from the entrance foyer showcases Onglao’s masterful mix of wood, glass, and well curated furniture pieces collected from his travels around the world.
Formal dining room: A streamline and modern rectangular dining table with a Volaska marble top is flanked by classic Louie XVI oval back dining chairs, where the grand piano takes pride of place in the center of the formal living and dining area
Nook: All around the home, oriental and traditional elements are combined to create dramatic corners of interest, custom-made furnishings and antiques provide a contrast to the modern and linear details of the home.
Sitting room: Wide open spaces and clean lines are part of the contemporary Asian aesthetic that Onglao is known for, where large windows utilize the natural light, and well-chosen pieces of furniture allow for a homeyness and comfort.
Rooftop terrace: It has a fantastic city skyline view is perfect for intimate gatherings.
This article was originally published in Metro Society June 2014 issue.
Photography by Philip Sison
Styling by Rex Atienza of StyleList, Inc., assisted by Aldrin Cabalu
Makeup and grooming by Juan Sarte
Hairstyling by Raymond Ko of L'Oreal Professionnel