To Whom is the City for?
On Architecture and Urban Development
Written by: Jerome Matthew Ramos
This article is part one of two of the series of articles that discusses architecture and its societal impact. In this thinkpiece, the author reflects on his observation and experiences of the structure of the city and the people who reside within.
It took me time to realize what the mathematical concept of “area” really meant. The area of any shape could easily be calculated using a provided formula. To me as a child, the value of area simply stopped at being a number upon solving. It was only when I designed my first architectural plate in college did I realize its practical use: it provides how much space objects could occupy. However, more than determining its capacity, the objects also involve organization within the said space. In an architectural plate, one cannot simply dump all the features at one place. Instead, they must be given roles. In the living room, it would be composed of sofas, a television set, and tables where parents slow-dance to 90s music while the children watch Tagalog-dubbed movies on a Sunday afternoon. In the kitchen, it would be filled with the aroma from a cooking pot simmering on a kitchen stove containing the reminiscent lutong-bahay with its supplementary ingredients and seasonings resting on the countertop. In the dining room, it would be highlighted by a woodwork table topped with a thick glass which your parents tell you not to slam your glassware on. Finally, in the bedroom, it would comfort the weary body from the mind-boggling and soul-crushing demands of the modern world; only to wake up in the morning feeling energized and revived, not only because of the given period of rest, but also because of the continuous pursuance of the dream.
The 1x1 unit space, in its multiplicity, forming various shapes and sizes, goes beyond the mathematical value. Rather, it also includes organization and memory formation necessary to establish a harmonious relationship. Such concepts could also be applied to how cities are organized. We have business centers and malls that drive the economy of the country forward. We have the recreational parks and plazas that serve as the point where people could connect to nature and refreshen themselves. We have historical monuments that remind us of our identity as Filipinos and the lessons of the past to resolve the challenges of tomorrow. And finally, we have the residential areas that provide a place for refuge and rest with various objects that constitute our humanity. However, it is as if in the current organization of the city, it is not anthropocentric or eco-centric but rather, business-centric: parks and open spaces converted to malls, residential areas turned into high-rise condominium complexes, and ancestral lands and forests transformed into the ‘green’ and sustainable city of the future. Therefore, in this essay I assert, to design the city considering only the numerical and economical value in mind is to forget what fueled its progression and stability: the people.
Living within the city comes as a challenge to someone who grew up in the province, yet, a delight to someone curious of its historical background. From the ancient walls of Intramuros established during the Spanish era, the (almost) City Beautiful-inspired design implemented by the American urban planners, the localized Art Deco architecture brought by the first generation of Filipino architects, to the contemporary city serving as a melting pot of various cultures and a center of economy. However, in viewing this, I would like to borrow a description from sociologist Edwin Wise, regarding the metropolis: it is a city of islands. At one point, we have the internationally renowned cultural center complex as well as the exquisitely designed hotels, casinos, and malls that cater the cosmopolitan lifestyle of the middle and upper class and entice the consumerism culture. This is in stark contrast with the poorly patchworked houses of the urban poor community often labeled as the “burden of progress”. This societal disparity is also visible as I walk through the streets: behind a high-rise condominium is a low-rise residential community and beside an aesthetically designed structure with a clean open field enclosed in towering gates and walls is a heavily-polluted estero. It is as if the roads beside each structure act as rivers that create each of their own islands, enclosed in their own world and reality, thereby creating an archipelagic city that refuses to connect.
As an architecture student, I was taught that each part of the structure must be connected to one another to create harmony and balance, to boost human interaction within and on its peripheries, and to establish memories that amplify the daily experience of the urban citizens. However, what memories do we instill in this city? Is it the memory of the grandiose development of a ‘climate-resilient’ city at the cost of the displacement of the indigenous community who watch as their ancestral lands be bulldozed while holding a pamphlet of the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act? Is it the memory of the fisherfolk community being constantly threatened to move out of their area only for their community to be eventually covered in flames and reduced to blackened remnants of their homes for a massive land-reclamation project? Is it the memory of the sight of conflict where SWAT forces equipped with water cannons and tear gas are up against people who stood ground on their homes in the face of demolition and raised their placards saying, “Disente, abot-kayang, pangmasang pabahay, ipaglaban! (Fight for decent and affordable housing for the masses!)”. This I manifest yet; I refuse to consent.
I wanted to remember the city in the time where an open library was constructed in Intramuros, where students and street children were free to take a book to read and to interact with one another without discrimination. I wanted to remember the city at that time when my school organization, along with our adviser, went to Manila Bay to pick up the piles of trash that were simultaneously crashing with the waves and realize the necessity of a proper rehabilitation and cleanliness effort for the betterment of the bay. I wanted to remember the city in hoping that in the constant demand and fight to have the right to the city for the masses, it would one day be given and enjoyed not only by the people of today but also, of the people of tomorrow. Thus, I wanted to believe that the cities belong to its people because it is the spirit of humanity that constitutes its strength, utility, beauty, and growth. As Ar. Choie Ylagan-Funk would say, architecture is the reaction of the people to its environment expressed through built forms and spaces, but the question is, if there is a reaction, what is the stimulus?
The stimulus is the dream to have an area where we could celebrate the best of our culture, maximize our human experience while living in the world, establish a relationship that conserves the environment, and allow ourselves to creatively express our ideals without fear of judgement. Thus, we form a social contract where we would set aside our differences and kinship to achieve this goal of harmony and prosperity and mold the architecture of the land that reflects them; this we call: the city. With this in mind, the question now is, why is exclusivity, privatization, and societal disparity existing and prominent in the fulfillment of this dream? Therefore, in this acknowledgement of the struggle to create an inclusive city that considers nature and people in its design and growth, I believe in its possibility despite the long road to traverse.
To conclude, I do not disagree with development of the city but rather, I hope that the progress would be attentive in incorporating the wellness and well-being of all people regardless of their socio-economic class and the preservation of nature parks and places of recreation; the city needs a space for it to breathe. I fear that the direction we set in the process of urban development would lead to the loss of the united human spirit that stabilizes the city as well as the degradation of the environment that would cause unprecedented consequences. It is not too late to create a change that would benefit all constituents. We can still create a city that values and fulfills the dreams of our humanity through built forms and spaces. However, this begs the question: how?
Jerome Matthew Ramos is an architecture student from the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde and a writer for the Institute for Nationalist Studies.