DO we deserve the cities that we have in the Philippines? Whenever I ask family, friends, colleagues, and students whether or not they are happy living in Metro Manila or in other areas in the Philippines, most of the time they answer that they are not. When you turn on the news, read the newspaper, or listen to the radio, you would often hear about the perennial problem of traffic congestion, bad roads, crime, the lack of access to basic services, and corruption, among others. In short, many Filipinos are not happy with how Philippine cities are designed, most especially Metro Manila. But out of all these complaints, what have we done to improve them? Is the government solely to blame for the current state of our cities? How can we help the government improve city life in our own little way?
Winston Churchill said, “we shape our cities as our cities shape us”. The image and design of the buildings and streets reveal the citizens’ priorities and aggregate aspirations. The thought suggests that the city reflects the collective identity of the citizens.
Let me then ask a few questions that all of us can reflect on:
1) Does your family own more than one car?
2) Did your house construction respect the setback required for sidewalks?
3) Do you have a car parked along the street?Or parked directly on the sidewalk?
4) Do you segregate trash at home? Do you know how to identify poisonous waste?
5) Does your home have high perimeter walls or gates?
6) When you ride public transportation, do you know the proper loading and unloading stops of your city? Or do you hail a jeepney, bus,or taxi whenever and wherever?
7) Have you ever attended a public consultation in your barangay or city?
The noble role of an architect and planner is to stay true to the calling of putting purpose in creativity and never losing creativity for the sake of need. Other forms of art have purpose in the sense that they serve as inspiration, expression, reflection, enlightenment, and commentary using craftmanship. But it is the role of the architect to put all of these inspirations and sentiments together and imagine it in built form.
Every single line that you draw, think of the beneficiaries and the sufferers. Think about your grandmother tripping over poorly designed and slippery sidewalks, steep unusable ramps (which you’d be surprised to see a lot of in Makati), and stairs without hand railings. Also think about the effect of ugliness on the surroundings.
Looking at Philippine cities
Whenever we look at our beloved cities in the Philippines, remember that it speaks volumes of who we are as a society. The tallest buildings, the widest and longest structures, and the land uses reflect what we value as Filipinos.
Our government centers need not look like substandard buildings that could be prone to collapse in an event of an earthquake. Schools and institutions need not look like factories with rundown windows and muddy gardens.
Malls need not look like pure boxes but they could have parks and green spaces. Many hospitals are too whitewashed that sometimes it feels like you are on a pre-departure area to heaven. It can be filled with gardens, color, and greenery. Studies from Hong Kong and Singapore show that gardens help patients with mindset, therapy and healing.
Architects, planners, engineers, and other professionals in the built environment who design and approve floor plans and building designs know that they always have the opportunity to prove that better, more humanistic and sustainable designs are more beneficial in the long run.
Architectural activism, simply put, involves being a professional who is steadfast in his values in designing works that are in harmony with the natural environment, making sure that social equity and livability are emphasized, and optimal economic gain is acquired.
One of my Harvard professors told our class: “You may be the best architect in the world…But if you work in a society that does not address corruption, criminality, [protection of]the environment, poverty and pollution, [you have the duty]to be an architectural activist.”
Through my professional practice, I am constantly given an opportunity to guide business and government leaders in learning from the mistakes of Metro Manila. I am constantly given an opportunity to convince them to adopt principles that champion humanity, a better quality of life, and ecological balance.
In the end, the real mission and meaning of humanity is to be able to uplift others in becoming better people who care, respect, give and love. As an architect and urban planner, my way of affecting change is through planning and designing buildings and cities that will shape the people who will use them.