A Belgian architect works with informal settlers in Pasay in dreaming up their future home
by Tracey Loontjens
“It wasn’t always easy: we needed to let go of our European way of thinking to create architecture, and to consider and understand a completely different way of living, different circumstances and traditions.”
As part of my studies in urban planning, which I combine with a postgraduate program about North-South issues, international relations and development cooperation, I decided to come to the Philippines and do an internship at TAO-Pilipinas. The Philippines is one of the fastest urbanizing countries in the world. As an architect and future urban planner, I wanted to learn more about the characteristics of Philippine cities and villages, about their history and present, and about their actual problems by examining the specific cultural, political, economic, and social context of urban forms of this country and to compare this with other cities or regions.
I had certain ideas and expectations about my stay and work here before I left. But, although I had travelled already before in Asia and prepared myself well by doing research about the country, I knew it quite well only in theory and could only guess how it would be to live and work here. I didn’t know what the urban poor communities would look like, how the people would be, what stories we were going to hear, or in what way the culture would influence me. But in the past few months those words and images came alive. It became my world and I became every day a bit more part of it.
So far, it has already exceeded every imaginable expectation, and I’m still getting surprised every day.
I come from Belgium, a small European country with only 10 million inhabitants – a quantity which generally equals the population of an average, medium size city in Asia. So living in a megacity such as Metro Manila is quite overwhelming. Although we (because I’m here together with Brecht, my partner, who is also volunteering at TAO-Pilipinas) experienced Manila at first as a bleak, overpopulated, and polluted concrete urban jungle, we discovered every few days new things, learned to read the complex urban tissue and appreciated its cityscape, given color by the Filipino people and their daily habits.
TAO-Pilipinas played an important role in this. During our stay here, we were confronted with homeless people and visited poor communities in informal settlements. But we couldn’t help but notice also the luxury of the high-end, sometimes gated communities, the high-rise buildings, and the shopping malls. It’s not always easy to comprehend this enormous gap, but our work at the NGO helped us to understand the development of this megacity, as well as the living conditions of its inhabitants.
From the beginning, we were involved in a lot of different projects of the NGO and had the opportunity to combine the work at the office with field trips or community and project visits. Through these visits, we realized that being poor is not necessarily an obstacle to creating a well organized and functioning community and that people with a limited income are not only often much more socially active, but also more creative than most others, in how they use space for example. We learned that you do not necessarily need to have an incredibly complex design to provide new housing areas for former slum dwellers, but that simple interventions can also improve the housing environment, and the general quality of life in that area – remarkably.