From the archives

Check your space bubble at the MRT entrance

Do you have space issues?

I do. My space issues make me a freak of the Filipino, and on a larger sense, Asian culture. We are supposed to be a warm, welcoming people. But if you invade my personal space without permission, maybe it’s the Leo in me but if I were a cat, my back would instantly arch up and my hair would stand on end.

When we studied space bubbles in design class my friends joked about an older girl who had an impenetrable space bubble. She was so aloof that although you could be good friends, you knew always to leave some pocket of air between the two of you, no matter how crowded it was on the bench you were sitting. She never took the campus jeepney. I wasn’t that girl then, but now, I’ve become her. I didn’t realize how bad it was until I started to hyperventilate mildly on the MRT. And it wasn’t even sardine-packed that time. This guy who was standing about a foot away just stretched his arm in front of me to hold on to the vertical railing, and for about five stations I felt my breath come in short gasps. I didn’t breathe easy until he got off the train.

I’ve been reading these blogs lately, trying to understand the local culture better, and I came across one complaining about the incredible shrinking five-room HDB flat. Then of course there is the incredibly flexible 18-square-meter minimum size of public housing as recommended by my country’s National Building Code and HUDCC, in which a family of six can live. It’s all relative, of course, but anthropometrically we are just the same. In space bubble terms? This is where it gets crazy.

Historically a Filipino family co-habits in a one-room box: the bahay kubo (literally translated as “cubed house”). Pre-indoor plumbing, the cube served as kitchen, living, dining and bedroom all-in-one for one entire family; the great outdoors was your loo. With the introduction of indoor plumbing, the box acquired a second door and two interior walls to make a bathroom. The rest of the space remained, and remains communal. Hence, sad to say, the escalating number of incest cases among the debatable 40-60% living below the poverty line.

I propose that this anathema is not about economics nor is it culture, although both factor in. At its most basic, it’s a space issue. Call it an ethics of space. When there is no distinction between private and public space, individual and communal space, something snaps. Filipinos are inherently gentle and good people (I still believe that, even after joining the diaspora); anyone would go mad living in a three-by-six-meter box with five other people, rubbing each other the wrong way. The economic situation only makes it worse, a chicken-and-egg cycle that may not end in my lifetime. No matter how hard architects try to design a change (and heaven knows they try) the one-room cube will have to shelter the families of Metro Manila’s growing population (13 million within 636 square meters, as of latest count…how about that for overcrowding?) as Filipinos continue to flock to the nation’s capital in search of greener pastures. I feel the frustration from stifled design solutions and as a formerly angst-filled, occasional student activist. Which is probably why I have space issues. Although thinking about what’s happening back home puts into great perspective my drama-queen hyperventilating on the MRT.

Blogged on Dish On Design, September 19, 2007

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