A View From The Edge

first published in Manila Bulletin, 2005

RJ Ledesma’s wholistic approach to property development is turning things around.

A scenic view of Taal Volcano from Tagaytay.

A scenic view of Taal Volcano from Tagaytay. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If one didn’t know RJ Ledesma any better, you’d think he was on something. Able to juggle more jobs than you’d think would be humanly possible, there’s something almost super-powered about his multi-tasking abilities. Maybe it has something to do with his enthusiasm for comic books, or the regular power-yoga sessions he attends, or his great devotion to the church and active participation in parish activities. Businessman, TV personality, new age guru, and devout Catholic, RJ somehow manages to keep all his balls up in the air while most people would simply keel over from both mental and physical exhaustion. Whatever keeps RJ up and running, he should package and sell it. And in a way, that’s what he’s trying to do. As one of his many occupations, RJ is also the Executive Vice President of Ledesco, one of the country’s pioneering real estate companies. Of all their projects, the one closest to RJ’s heart, his “baby” so to speak, is the Taal View Heights Nature Villas and the adjacent Buena Vista Nature Park & Country Club, a 26 hectare property in Talisay, Batangas, part of Metro Tagaytay. The development distinctly incorporates elements drawn from RJ’s varied interests and passions, thus making him the perfect front-man for the project.

We discovered a surprisingly speedy route to Tagaytay via the new STAR highway and before long our ears began to pop due to the lower air pressure and high altitude. Having reached the site, the unhindered view of Taal’s majesty is enough to win most people over. But with RJ, a tour of the location turns into something much more than the usual ocular inspection. “We want it to be a multi-sensory experience. You have the tactile experience by actually coming here. And then the auditory experience. You hear the wind, and also the water elements,” he explains.

No doubt made easier by his eclectic social circle, RJ actively attracts talented people to his projects. Pointing to the wooden figures accenting the grounds, he reveals that all the bamboo and arches were hand-sculpted by Amin El-Bahraoui, a very creative half German-half Moroccan sculptor who grew up in Cebu and has done a lot of work in Germany. “He just took all the driftwood in the area, started working on them and came up with all these sculptures. He uses the same paint that you find in old German churches”.

RJ also enlisted the services of green architect Pablo Suarez, who has studied indigenous architecture, feng shui, and other traditional architectural ideologies. Their philosophy is that these ancient principles continue to work up to this day because there’s an inherent soundness to them. “This area has particularly good Feng Shui because in front of you is a body of water,” RJ explains. “Water is a strong source of Qi. At the same time behind you are the mountains and they protect you from the bad elements. So as the good Qi emanates from the water, it is trapped here because of the mountains at the back. So that’s probably one of the reasons why people feel better and more energetic here.”

RJ and his team strove to preserve the innate beauty and energy of the landscape by retaining its ruggedness. “Some designers do it the easy way by flattening the area, so that they don’t have to build terraces or make use of the slope. But we tried as much as possible to use the existing contours. We always try to acknowledge the slope, the view and the wind. We agreed that all the greenery within the vicinity should be retained,” states Mr. Suarez. RJ backs this up with, “Nature doesn’t create straight lines. So all our lines are curved, uneven, organic. It’s appropriate because we’re promoting the organic lifestyle.”

Rene L. Ledesma, Sr., RJ’s father, feels that he is blessed to have a son who is as innovative and motivated about property development as RJ. Among the profit-driven realm of real estate, where the lowest common denominator commonly reigns, the Ledesmas stand out due to their high principles and forethought. “We are part of nature and we are part of this cultural area. We are not only located near Tagaytay, which is very beautiful and popular with tourists, but also historically rich Talisay. Apolinario Mabini was born there, and it is also where the Katipuneros were based for a time. And in nearby Taal you can still see 16th to 17th century architecture among their houses and churches. Much of the architecture of the buildings in our development is inspired by this area. We are doing all this out of respect for the culture and history of the region. We realize that as developers, we are also Filipinos who have to try to live up to our cultural heritage. We are borrowing from the vernacular of the place and making Filipino architecture come alive,” he states.

UNESCO awardee Augusto Villalon acts as the development’s cultural heritage planner and he intends to put up a showcase Filipino heritage home on the site. “Filipino architecture has been around for a really long time. It works very well for our climate and geography. It satisfies our environmental, cultural and spiritual needs. Mainly because it is a kind of architectural envelope that makes the Filipino more comfortable. We’re not as comfortable wearing super western clothes and living in outrageous western environments,” the master architect articulates.

Other developments sprouting all over Tagaytay feature a mishmash of architectural styles from around the world, from Swiss chalets and American log cabins to Mediterranean Villas. This housing hodgepodge results in a rather disharmonious landscape. Pretty soon, if development progresses unchecked, without any guidelines, Tagaytay will end up looking less like the natural and cultural Filipino wonder that it is and more like a tacky version of a Disney theme park or Las Vegas. Taal View Heights is one of the very few developments with a set of strict architectural and ecological guidelines to ensure that the community as a whole succeeds both aesthetically and environmentally.

As a real estate firm, Ledesco’s respect and sensitivity for the land’s natural and cultural assets serves as an example for others. In a country where both the public and private sector can hardly be bothered to consider such esoteric matters as land conservancy, RJ boldly wears his convictions on his sleeve. And he reveals himself to be something of an undercover conservationist, a guerilla defending the land from inside the industry that seems bent on destroying it. “Property development is a legacy business, whatever you build you leave behind for the coming generations. It doesn’t mean that if you develop property you can’t also be ecologically sustainable and culturally aware. It’s not a mutually exclusive thing. Although many have tried to keep it separate or even abhor it. We embrace it,” he affirms. These are fighting words to say the least, and not what you’d expect to hear from your typical developer. We’re fortunate though that RJ is zany enough to think outside the box, but canny enough to pull it off.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

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