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Messy UrbanismUnderstanding the "Other" Cities of Asia$

Manish Chalana

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9789888208333

Published to Hong Kong Scholarship Online: January 2017

DOI: 10.5790/hongkong/9789888208333.001.0001

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Concrete Jungle or Geocultural Cipher? Reading Lineage into the Perils and Prospects of Metro Manila

Concrete Jungle or Geocultural Cipher? Reading Lineage into the Perils and Prospects of Metro Manila

(p.61) Chapter 4 Concrete Jungle or Geocultural Cipher? Reading Lineage into the Perils and Prospects of Metro Manila
Messy Urbanism

José Edgardo A. Gomez

Hong Kong University Press

Abstract and Keywords

With a daytime population breaching the 12 million mark, Metropolitan Manila, capital region of the Philippines, presents itself as a sketch of urban anarchy to the casual observer. Despite successful drives in the last decade to tidy its main streets, squalor, din, and recalcitrant slum-dwellers remain ensconced in ill-defined spaces while the rush-hour surge of commuters vies with the tempo of Jakarta and Bangkok for most-gridlocked sprawl in Southeast Asia. Borrowing the approach of forest-canopy scientists, this study initially reframes the messy urbanism as a storeyed-mosaic. It describes the metropolis spatially and experientially, starting with street-level transgressions of hawkers versus pedestrians, through the infrastructure that forms its mid-rise entanglements, and up to the billboards and skyscrapers that hustle to hoard public views, swamping the popular imagination with media icons and subtle temptation. Amid increasingly effective attempts by government to sort out this city-hodgepodge, the author concludes that the forces of order and chaos seem to fall into a deeper pattern of cultural physicality. This alternative decoding of Metro Manila’s landscape resonates with a cosmological schema endemic to Austronesian communities, which suggests an impulse towards a distinct spatial hierarchy that emplaces citizens and artifacts in both the literal and figurative senses.

Keywords:   Urban anarchy, Urban landscapes, Urbanism, Metro Manila


Concrete Jungle or Geocultural Cipher? Reading Lineage into the Perils and Prospects of Metro Manila

Figure 4.0 Map and aerial photographs of Metro Manila and an exemplary site.

Illustrations by Weijia Wang.

With a daytime population breaching the 12 million mark and a density of 18,650 persons per square kilometer (NSCB 2008), Metropolitan Manila, capital region of the Philippines, often presents itself as a sketch of urban anarchy to the casual observer who wanders beyond the insulated neatness of tourist spots and business districts toward the port and riverbank neighborhoods where old universities and slums spill unruly masses. At its present stage of history, it is often portrayed as a teeming stew of urbanity where migrants in search of greener pastures may be driven to desperation, as poignantly illustrated by British director Sean Ellis’s Metro Manila (2013), the UK’s official Best Foreign Language Film entry to the 2014 Oscars. In the buildup of Ellis’s film, the protagonist, newly arrived in the metropolis, is soon swindled of his savings and compelled to live in a slum with his pregnant wife and daughter, until he finds a job as a security guard for an armored van company that services banks. His supervisor soon entangles him in a plot to steal a safety-box key from their employer, which eventually leads to the hero’s death. His demise, however, results in a bittersweet emancipation for his wife and child, who return to their rural province with enough loot to free them from the clutches of Metro Manila.

Another of this metropolis’s latest claims to infamy was the unflattering and exaggerated—if fictional—city of Manila described by international best-selling author Dan Brown as “the Gates of Hell” in the novel Inferno. This was done through the narration of his character Siena Brooks, who endured “six-hour traffic jams, suffocating pollution, and a horrifying sex trade” (Brown 2013, 459). Cut to the quick Attorney Francis Tolentino, chairman of the metropolitan government, felt compelled to defend the Filipino reading public and retorted in a letter dated May 23, 2013, through Doubleday Publishing:

Dear Mr. Brown:

We write to you with much concern regarding your recently published novel Inferno and its mention of Manila being defined by a number of terrible descriptions…. While we are aware that yours is a work of fiction, we are greatly disappointed by your inaccurate portrayal of our beloved metropolis…. More than your portrayal of it, Metro Manila is the center of Filipino spirit, faith, and hope. (p.62) Our faith in God binds us as a nation and we believe that Manila citizens are more than capable of exemplifying good character and compassion towards each other, something that your novel has failed to acknowledge. Truly our place is an entry to heaven…. We hope that this letter enlightens you and may it guide you the next time you cite Manila in any of your works. (MMDA 2013; author’s emphasis)

In fairness to Mr. Brown, even the local literati admitted in opinion columns and blogs1 that the American writer’s rendering may not have been entirely off the mark, as the urban setting indeed needs much housekeeping. Simultaneously, the seeming sprawl of Metro Manila’s streetscapes bears an ironic familiarity to Westerners, inasmuch as the metropolis emplaces US iconography and suburban imitation in a region that hints at a more profound Southeast Asian spatial vernacular. Different from the deterministic delineation of sites in European medieval tradition or turnpike-and-skyscraper urbanism in parts of the United States, the Southeast Asian patterning can be historically traced to either trade-oriented settlements that sprouted along coastlines and estuaries or inland civilizations, many influenced by ancient Indian notions of hierarchy, that commanded wet-rice cultivation and commodity exchange (Hall 2011). Such protocities were less enduring than their Western counterparts, and they were eventually transformed by successive colonizations, built over, or pushed into decline by newer, proximate cities of similar provenance that were—and continue to be, dependent on the ebb and flow of sociocultural and commercial exchanges among numerous peoples. While the resultant layering of multiethnic urbanity may appear disorderly to outsiders, it nevertheless hints of an urban concordance that will be explored in this paper.

Established on November 7, 1975, during a period of authoritarian rule (Republic of the Philippines, Presidential Decree 824) that carved much of it out of adjacent Rizal Province, Metro Manila sits on a flood-prone alluvial plain bisected by the Pasig River and consists of a rough semicircle of seventeen local government units (LGUs) of which the littoral core is Manila, a city enfolded within the westward-facing Manila Bay on the main island of Luzon. Despite its 400-some years of existence as a planned coastal settlement, at least since its designation as such by Spanish conquistadors in 1571, Manila, now grown into Metro Manila, remains largely a megalopolis of young people. Energetic, if often impoverished, its youth follow demographics that are a reflective microcosm of the conservative national total of at least 80 million Filipino citizens, growing at a rapid 1.8 percent, with a high density of at least 269 persons per square kilometer (Demeterio 2007), at least half of this population aged below 25 years—or more precisely, a national median age of 23.4 years as of the 2010 census2 (p.63)

Concrete Jungle or Geocultural Cipher? Reading Lineage into the Perils and Prospects of Metro Manila

Figure 4.1 This close-up of concrete flyovers and the pedestrian footbridges that literally dip and rise, snake-like, beneath show how infrastructure has been built in increments, lending a seeming “messiness” to the landscape of Metro Manila, at least for the untrained observer.

Photograph by José Edgardo A. Gomez Jr.

the youngest by proportion to the whole in Southeast Asia. Moreover, already identified by Douglass (2000) as one of the Mega-Urban Regions (also known as Extended Metropolitan Regions following McGee and Robinson 1995) of Asia, Metro Manila is swept along in varying degrees into the dynamics of consumerist concatenations and megaprojects. Simultaneously, its feverish globalization is checked by local civic resistance and administrative interventions by LGUs and the overarching Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA), whose landscape projects represent well-meaning, if sometimes indiscriminate, attempts to repair and beautify whatever policy makers perceive to be unsightly or spontaneous construction. Urban messiness is commonly framed by politicians as an eyesore that could repel visitors, but it is ironically ignored every election season, when shanty demolition would be unpopular. Moreover, government interventions are limited to main thoroughfares and city centers. Thus, rather than overpowering the informal and permuting elements that enculturate the landscape with its own Filipino logic, metro governance is digested and absorbed, along with accretions and economic rationality into the daily (p.64) city-in-the-making dynamic. All told, the combination of a vigorous population, regulatory attempts, the prodding of worldly propaganda, and the region’s trading boom caused in no small degree by the nearby Chinese juggernaut economy, results in the transformation of contested space that becomes a compelling subject for scholarly analysis.

This essay describes that contested space by making some sense of its superficial chaos and argues that even the jumble of transactional dynamics observed at the roadside up to the skyline are mediated by historic and cultural forces that lend Metro Manila its distinguishing “messiness.” By finely reading this complexity, the researcher can elaborate on Metro Manila’s profile in a region whose demand for migrant workers, development potential, and environmental vulnerability imply any number of growth trajectories. The research draws on archives as well as fieldwork that describe the metropolis’s defining nodes by employing a vertical hierarchy as a framing device. Key interviews were conducted to validate findings and uncover areas for insight. Interspersing the review of literature, the author’s discussion seeks to bridge the technical findings toward a sociocultural interpretation that suggests the persistence of native symbolisms and preferences amid the glut of seemingly globalizing structures.

Urbanization in Asia, the (Dis)ordering of Space, and Urban Semiotics

Many cities in Asia remain at the forefront of socioeconomic growth and have become loci of innovation. Such cities make the meeting of actors from different worlds possible, where there is enhanced inclusion of diverse groups and causes and where civic capabilities are strengthened, but also where major conflicts may erupt (Sassen 2012). But critics of such writers on world cities remind us that the spaces occupied are not static platforms on a single scale but can be messy, juxtaposed, and consisting of multiscalar flows, performances, and practices (Smith 2003). In the urban context, the debate about globalization can thus be significant and reified, involving attempts to comprehend the forces at work but neglecting smaller-scale impacts and meanings that may affect the quality of life of residents (Jenks 2003).

Despite different views on the matter, the growth of Asian megalopolises also resonates with literature on the rise of metropolitan areas as governmental solutions to spatially anchored problems. Whether de jure or de facto, the millions-strong metropolis has become commonplace despite earlier attempts in the 1970s to control migration and growth (Simmons 1979). As explained by Gaussier, Lacour, and Puissant:

The concept of metropolitanization is more than a simple synonym of urban growth according to its accepted and statistical meaning: a whole package of trends, such as urban sprawl, or increasing urbanization rates in spaces already (p.65) strongly urbanized. The phenomenon of metropolitanization exceeds all these tendencies. (2003, 253)

Simultaneously, alternative interpretations of the apparent spatial quilting are not uncommon in the literature. For instance, geographer Lynn Staeheli (2010) explains how the seeming disorder and regulatory attempts over city spaces can be both the cause and effect of a vibrant democracy, insofar as civic exchange is encouraged, as opposed to restrictive or undemocratic planned uses. In similar fashion, buildings in the urban space are designed by architects as acts of cultural production that nonetheless bend to capitalist funding, so that the resulting edifices make up a landscape that is as much the product of commercial impulse as it is of the design profession (Jones 2009). Urban growth may be the result of investment in creative industries, as a means to renew industrial areas and blighted districts by injecting innovation (Evans 2009). These same culturally productive spaces not only are physical creations but also must be recognized as sites of signification and communication prerequisite to human society, as explained by Kim O’Connor (citing Umberto Eco 2003). That is, they are a system of coding that must be agreed upon by interlocutors, which precedes transmission of that code into the city’s cultural space. Eco himself (1981) writes about the evolution of semiotics from a preoccupation with symbols and structures to text-grammars, and in more recent times to reading and interpretation, which factor into the legibility of the city. Similarly, Pauwels (2009) describes the city as a huge, out-of-control arrangement, a combination of paradigmatic choices by actors with conflicting interests, where some signs persist after they have become obsolete. The point that one may draw from these streams of commentary is that the interpretation of the city’s symbols, including its totality as a landscape or a mélange of signified edifices, demands a certain prior comprehension of semiotic elements—which themselves may vary from one urbanized society to the next. Ergo, chaos or order becomes a matter of translation by readers/beholders.

Findings: From Streetscape to Skyscraper

Bottom Story

In Metro Manila, the bottom is as good a place as any to start. The dregs of urban society often literally cling to the nooks and crannies of the terrain, imposing habitability on the remaining grassy hillsides, creeks, and murky foreshore areas that lie beyond the pale of incessant urbanization. For informal settlers, the physical geography of the delta and its climbing eastern hinterlands often determine whether a ramshackle wooden hut can be cantilevered over a ravine or hung under a bridge, in a remarkable colonization that resembles the nests of wasps or the fixtures of barnacles. This is readily observed in the many reeking esteros (natural canals, sometimes (p.66) subsequently re-engineered) that wind through Metro Manila’s cities. In other cases, squatters occupy unguarded idle lands or government property like the edges of railroad tracks. These colonies persist in cities like Taguig and Muntinlupa, where shanties on stilts come right up to the shoreline of Laguna de Bai, the country’s largest lake forming the metropolis’ southeast border. The rest of the environment, especially in the rural fringe, continues to be regarded as land for tilling or to be left as wild areas, where local beliefs hold that nature spirits (i.e., equivalent to dwarves, naiads and dryads of European lore) hold abode. Such superstitions, common in Southeast Asia, abound in the metropolis, as ancient trees, particularly of the strangler fig or bo tree (Ficus religiosa) are not cut down or bypassed without uttering a supplication, for fear of inciting the curse of some malevolent gnome. (The relevance of such a phenomenon in the urban setting will be discussed later in the analysis.)

The persistence of such raw informality has been explained by Shatkin (2004), who leans toward the view that development of an export-oriented economy originally meant to improve national income has instead led to downward pressure on wages, environmental destruction, and the dislocation of poor communities, resulting in increased immiseration, skyrocketing land prices in city centers, and the consequent occupation of peripheral spaces by dislocated clumps of informal settlers. In such slums, strategies to eke out a living from the floor and underground of the vaster cityscape are surprisingly diverse and continue to resemble the behaviors of organisms that thrive on others’ leavings: scavenging of plastics or bottles, disassembly and bundling of metallic objects—including fences and lampposts, and peddling of refried slops and double-dead meat—an unhygienic recycling of fast-food waste called pagpag, that was featured on BBC in February 2011.3 Shading toward legitimacy are the various twenty-four-hour informal vendors who ply their wares on the streets and hog the sidewalks, yelling to sell such proletarian delicacies as kwek-kwek (battered quail eggs), adidas (boiled chicken feet), isaw (chicken intestines), and balut (unhatched duckling), along with overripe fruit and greasy spiced peanuts. This has been observed around train stations, validating the study of Recio and Gomez (2013), which points out that there are subtle and organized rhythms and uses of space even by the seemingly random scattering of hawkers. For instance, itinerant vendors rarely persist all day on the same contested sidewalks. They arrive, in almost tidal fashion, to set up just before the lunch hour and late afternoon surges of office workers and students. Neither do informal vendors colonize space haphazardly but often obtain prior permission from some neighborhood figure of authority; in some cases, formal stallholders in adjacent markets may offload their perishable inventory at day’s end (p.67) by passing these to the hawkers gratis (or for a nominal fee). Those who defend such unorthodox and relentless pedestrian trade underscore the need for survival and optimistically point to the resources that slums offer the chaotic city, as explained by Bolay:

The slum is characterized by the precarious nature of its habitat. But it is much more than that: it can genuinely be seen as a “hothouse” of cultural creativity, economic invention and social innovation. Classic urban planning principles are based on comprehensive planning…. In the slums, however, this technocratic approach is undermined by the social practices of individuals, families and social groups, particularly the poorer ones. These actors resort to their own emergency solutions to urban integration problems, and they do so at the micro-level at which these problems are posed—generally the plot of land, the house, then the district. (2006, 286)

Such a view is seconded by Pugh (2000) in his study of changing multilateral donor and government policies toward informal settlement from an “eradication” mentality to an “assimilation” into the urban fabric, which he argues can be accomplished with a great deal of self-help and employing the natural creativity of residents. Nonetheless, some grounding in reality is needed here: TV news proves that many of the crowded and older sections of Metro Manila remain havens of crime and banality—to draw on our ecological analogy, these are the lairs of bottom-dwelling predators: hold-up gangs, pickpockets, and drug cartels. In the littered and narrow alleys of Manila’s Tondo or Quiapo neighborhoods, for instance, abundant anecdotal evidence suggests that one might get mugged, lured into a brothel, or simply be coaxed into buying pirated DVDs or shamanistic potions of risky provenance.4 Similarly, the slums in other parts, both inner city and at the perimeter, are typical of those described by Davis (2006) in his book Planet of Slums, of which he estimates there are some quarter of a million worldwide. This, then, is Metro Manila from the worm’s eye: unkempt,

Concrete Jungle or Geocultural Cipher? Reading Lineage into the Perils and Prospects of Metro Manila

Figure 4.2 This area, developed in the last decade by conversion of an old army base shows an unusual split between a formal, ultramodern district separated only by a highway from a convoluted mass of older shantytowns.

Figure by José Edgardo A. Gomez Jr.

(p.68) coarse, labyrinthine, and blighted but a place whose denizens possess an uncanny will to self-organize and thrive.

Middle Story and Historic Overlay

But Metro Manila’s artful pandemonium reaches its climax only when one steps into broad daylight, main roads, and commercial complexes and observes its citizens: its well-starched and pomaded yuppies running the rat race, uniformed students playing noontime hooky, and its blue-collar workers enduring the workaday grind, so to speak. This is the metropolis of rush-hour congestion, with vehicles creeping along between twenty-nine and thirty-three kilometers per hour, where colorful jeepneys weave maniacally from curbside to fast lane, picking up and depositing harried passengers in puffs of tailpipe smoke, while three rapid transit lines of varying heights, the LRT Yellow Line (1984, 170.72 million passengers/year), LRT Purple Line (2004, 70.33 million passengers/year),5 and MRT Blue Line (1999, 180.00 million passengers/year)6 ferry at least 1.1 million commuters overhead each day, and the revived (2010) at-grade train carries some 25.2 million passengers each year. Crisscrossing the metropolitan airspace are elevated roads, locally called flyovers, which proliferated in the 1990s as an effective, if unsightly, engineering solution to worsening traffic. Together with the ubiquitous ten- to fifteen-meter utility poles, between which power and telephone cables dangle, the overall visual impression, especially at intersections along the metropolitan main artery of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, could be that of a dense entanglement of black vines and cement trunks, rising between three and seven stories above ground level, interspersed with medium-rise buildings or the gentry’s gated subdivisions. This midlevel geography is the result of a tension between private and public sector investments that have been built with each socio-political epoch, as each layer of growth and decay in structures or shift in land uses can be read as a bullish gamble or a cautious response to the opportunities for profit and the demands for public infrastructure investments.

Contrasting against other Southeast Asian agglomerations like Jakarta and Singapore, Metro Manila’s vertical profile is relatively lower. It grows out of an organic sprawl of land parcels, with four sizable clusters of skyscrapers found only along the historic Escolta Street near Chinatown (City of Manila), the Cubao Araneta Coliseum complex (Quezon City), the Makati Central Business District (City of Makati), and the newer Ortigas Business District (City of Pasig). The tallest buildings are no higher than a modest 259 meters, the PBCom Tower—smaller than the 280-meter towers (p.69)

Concrete Jungle or Geocultural Cipher? Reading Lineage into the Perils and Prospects of Metro Manila

Figure 4.3 This panoramic shot depicts the full-blown layering of Metro Manila, particularly the middle story. Note how the train tracks and the footbridges are elevated above the main intersection. People are busy crossing this midcanopy, while buses and jeepneys rumble below—where street vendors and pickpockets also may be found. In the background, the relatively low but continuous skyline is dominated by the roofs of old houses, midrise (four- to five-story) buildings, and fewer skyscrapers.

Photograph by José Edgardo A. Gomez Jr.

of Singapore and the 452-meter Petronas towers of Malaysia, not to mention the 508-meter Taipei 101 in Taiwan.7 Yet the field observer cannot absolutely conclude that the surrounding urban mosaic is unambitious or awry; rather, the metropolis appears to have evolved its own polycentric hierarchy through four decades of existence. Throughout this patchwork, urban space along major nodes is punctuated by shopping malls, most notably the box-like emporia of the SM Group of Companies, a homegrown Filipino-Chinese retail and real estate giant versus its close rivals the Ayala Group and Robinsons Group, followed by a host of smaller conglomerates.

Just as important, the most accessible spaces also constitute a Metro Manila of tourist routes, of picturesque views of Manila Bay’s sunset, anchored onto the visible and palpable remnants of historic city planning that governed the earlier incarnations of the capital city. It is through the planned layouts of avenues and the coastal boulevard that one connects at last to a rootedness of Metro Manila in a colonial lineage absorbed largely from the rule of the United States (1898–1946) and Spain (p.70) (1565–1898), as well as local architectural and cultural icons—all of which have become bastions of order that somehow dispel or oppose the wanton encroachment that so afflicts the urban understories. To begin with, the original Manila grew out of the urban seed of Intramuros, the squat walled city near the mouth of the Pasig River, whose wartime rubble had been partially restored to its 1800s fin-de-siècle ambience by the 1970s (Santiago 2003) and that remains the primary exemplar of Hispanic plaza complex and gridiron layouts in the metropolis. Just beyond the walls and deliberately located as a contrast to the segregation of the port enclave that Intramuros stood for, fan out the government edifices, grids interlaid with radials, and parks that make up the legacy of American architect Daniel Burnham of City Beautiful fame. All these made for a pleasant if small city at the dawn of the twentieth century, when the burgeoning millions of today could not have been anticipated. And only some five kilometers south stands the spacious Cultural Center of the Philippines, completed in 1969 under the watchful eye of then–First Lady Imelda R. Marcos. These are the areas to which tourists and vacationers flock. Together, this blend of public spaces combining colonial heritage with the grandiose buildings of the authoritarian era makes up the first of a dual massing of administrative structures that act as reference points to counterbalance what would otherwise appear to be an incoherent sprawl of low-rise residences and slums.

The other end of Metro Manila’s dual institutional core is found in the Elliptical Road that forms Quezon City’s hub, a city named in postmortem homage to an energetic former president who in the 1940s initiated moves to transfer the capital to what was then still a rural hinterland some fifteen kilometers away and less prone to naval attack or annual inundation by the monsoon. Its centerpiece, designed by architects Harry Frost and Juan Arellano, became the rotund park and mausoleum-cum-museum of the late President Manuel Quezon, whose dream for a new capital was fleetingly realized from 1948 to 1976, although a later law (Republic of the Philippines, Presidential Decree 940 of 1976) reverted the title to historic Manila. Lastly, a word must be mentioned about another ubiquitous structure that typifies the metropolitan patchwork: the Roman Catholic churches, as well as houses of worship of other denominations, including the unmistakable faux-neo-Gothic facades of a wealthy local Christian sect, the Iglesia ni Kristo, all sprout amid the litter of low-slung cement and rusty corrugated roofs. The former’s spires, bell towers, and crosses puncture the slew of girders, wires, and elevated pedestrian walkways, as if to compete for the light of day through the midstory spaces of the metropolis.

Taken all together then, with the blocks of shopping malls, the snaking flyovers and the elevated trains, the houses of the better classes, and the anchoring effect of religious structures and government complexes, Metro Manila’s loosely strung mid-story embodies the city dynamic at its best. While feigned pandemonium prevails to the untrained eye, one can already begin to make out horizontal and vertical (p.71) patterns of repetition, directed energies of citizens and the technologies that they utilize. Simultaneously, Bessey (2002) reminds us that such temporal and spatial discontinuities are as fundamental to the system as other seemingly orderly parts of the hierarchy, at any scale. This means that even the observed disjunctions contribute, in certain situations, to overall coherence of the urban system.

Upper Story

Fieldwork to decipher the babel of Metro Manila ultimately leads the researcher to gaze up and explore the upward limits of city growth. It is here, touching the metropolitan horizon, that the summits of material aspiration of Filipinos are erected and here as well that the minds of commuters and residents below are swayed—or, as moralists argue, corrupted, by commercial signs and symbols that jostle to overwhelm the urban panorama. Of late, the metropolis has been caught up in the Southeast Asian economic boom that has resulted in a rise of real incomes by yuppies and families sending children to urban universities, which in turn has fueled aggressive construction of thirty- to fifty-story condominium buildings since the 2000s and the consequent spiking of the urban skyline.

However, often more telling in their impact are the stacks of billboards or movie-screen-like LED displays and other outdoor advertising that are literally hung or pasted over the metropolis—on the walls of private property, atop roof decks, on bus stops, and across other public surfaces. Here, messiness assumes new implications, as the veneer of ads utilizes both local and global (or Western) symbols and jargon of sex, prosperity, and popularity to scream or whisper “buy me,” “eat me,” “do me,” “try me,” and so on. In an earlier study by the author (Gomez 2013), it is noted that billboards are the result of complex, and thus difficult to regulate, chains of businesses from producers through advertisers and lot owners. Their location is just as much a function of the political geography of the metropolis, in which the moneyed elite hold monopolies in partnership with transnational agencies that have taken root locally in order to gain indigenous knowledge and promote face-to-face contact with target consumers (Leslie 1995). When such billboards were still shoddily regulated in the last decade, a few were recorded to have toppled during typhoons, damaging property below or killing people. On the psychological level, they tend to become sources of controversy when they exceed the bounds of decency in terms of slang usage or skin exposure, not to mention the common complaint that they ruin once-pristine vistas. Indeed, commentators will readily observe that much of the advertising that adorns or destroys the façades of Metro Manila caters to a relatively small segment of society, the struggling middle classes and the upper crust, and only reinforces desires for products that the majority of citizens cannot afford but are urged to consume. This, then, is the contested upper story of the metropolitan landscape—a place where (p.72)

Concrete Jungle or Geocultural Cipher? Reading Lineage into the Perils and Prospects of Metro Manila

Figure 4.4 This section of Epifanio De Los Santos Avenue on a typically busy day shows a cross section of the upper story urban skyline, from billboards and buildings rising up the hill to outreach one another, while the traffic snarls below.

Photograph by José Edgardo A. Gomez Jr.

economic wherewithal determines control of space in what seems to be a jungle-like race to grow vertically and spread out one’s canopy of glass, steel, concrete, and materialistic messages as far abroad as possible.

Analysis and Discussion

Just as nearly all cities in the developing world have informal settlements, so do they possess in contrastive measure unique ordering patterns for space, which reflect their inhabitants’ usual diurnal and nocturnal activities. These autochthonic regularities persist despite the chaos that accompanies droves of migrants vis-à-vis the coping strategies of governments trying to bring public services and job creation up to speed. This chapter gives but a brief affirmative treatment of ordering: hierarchy, sequence, and coupling, which are more expertly treated in voluminous research elsewhere on pattern languages (Salingaros 2000). Rather, what is emphasized here is how the extant spaces are deeply sociocultural productions on an “as is, where is” basis and should not be dismissed cursorily as some city-in-the-making whose final crystallization will fit a familiar mold found in textbooks from the Global North.

(p.73) “Generic” Underlying Order

Under the first rubric of analysis, it is obvious from the findings that Metro Manila is an amalgam of both the planned and the unplanned, beginning with the typical Southeast Asian city described by McGee (1969), which grows out of a port location that may or may not have been colonized, in Manila’s case, Intramuros, although the surrounding American-designed government complex appends a distinctive arc. This is followed by planned suburbs and new industrial and commercial districts. Eventually, the metropolis fans out desakota-style, into the periphery, where urban and rural enmesh. Hierarchy infuses this metropolis—echelons of centrality, with offices and residences clustering around the Central Business Districts and echelons of growth, as corporate headquarters and hotels loom over gated subdivisions, which in turn distance themselves from slums and weathered neighborhoods struggling to keep up a respectable façade. Such settings are neither permanent nor universal, but they reflect concentrations of wealth around areas with high access and a diversity of amenities considered to be pre-eminent during the eras when they were built. There are orderly sequences of activity as well—commuting rhythms and the surge of office workers and students who mob shopping malls and entertainment complexes. And there are couplings and multiple matching too: of one-stop shops and parking spaces, of schools and sports areas. Thus, the only truly random elements here might be the presence of litter dropped by pedestrians and the incidence of violent crime in particular areas.

Customized Order: The Filipino Street Space

Because of a degree of abiding untidiness in the paramount Philippine metropolis despite government interventions, one might venture to ask whether this is not in fact a tolerable phenomenon that its citizens might consider less objectionable as long as it trades off certain perceived conveniences. This is neither to condone the impoverished state as acceptable nor to excuse the paucity of development interventions, but it is rather to recognize that rich and poor alike have found remarkable ways of navigating through the din and shambles. Until they get used to walking longer distances despite tropical heat and poorly maintained sidewalks and until a more efficient and predictable mass transit system is completed, locals have had to bear with the undisciplined jeepney and pedicab8 drivers who ferry commuters from the safety of their doorsteps and back every day. Within the limitations imposed by site geography and torrid climate, the majority of Filipino public spaces bluntly speak of neighborhood-specific conveniences for the blue-collar worker, housewife, and student, sometimes (p.74)

Concrete Jungle or Geocultural Cipher? Reading Lineage into the Perils and Prospects of Metro Manila

Figure 4.5 This neighborhood, which is part of a state university, shows how mature informal settlements in the interior of a housing allotment have changed from partly wooden makeshift dwellings to two- to three-story concrete structures over time, juxtaposed along the rows of bungalows for the university’s rank-and-file employees.

Figure by José Edgardo A. Gomez Jr.

at the cost of convenience to other transients, as informal service providers swarm the streets. However, the properties for the well-to-do are often gated and served by automobile, while places for upscale entertainment have dress codes and high price tags. This physical segregation betrays social schisms that result from unequal wealth and land distribution in and around Metro Manila (Ortega 2013; Shatkin 2000; Strassman and Blunt 1994). The result is a sort of customization of spaces for citizens of average means with particular predilections; in contrast to mainland Southeast Asians for instance, Filipinos do not heavily spice their food, favor saccharine drinks, call toilets “comfort rooms,” and often ignore stoplights late at night when no cross-flow traffic is visibly approaching. The landscape adjusts accordingly: outdoor advertisements tout simple, high-fat meals with rice and a soft drink, “CR” signs hang above rudimentary public toilets, and traffic lights recently equipped with countdown timers guide motorists. This is, in the author’s final analysis, no excuse for inefficiency or dysfunctionality of the urban spaces that must be repaired or re-engineered, but it does argue for some leeway against more strictly aseptic and rule-frozen cities that result from doctrinaire planning and management.

Deeper Connectivity—a Southeast Asian Pattern?

While Metro Manila’s origins as a formal entity are herein acknowledged in the colonial founding of Spanish Manila over the remains of the native palisaded port (p.75) settlement of Rajah Sulaiman (Corpuz 2007), the author would like to close here with the suggestion that a recursive cultural hierarchy manifests itself in space that draws on an even deeper precolonial cosmology. This is supported by the evidence of present structures, where the powerful and wealthy occupy and command from the upper stories or more centrally accessible areas, while those who are impoverished or just getting by occupy the lower and middle levels, sometimes in border areas between districts, so that a gradation of sorts is established. This cultural gradient shades down to the imagined realm, still socially relevant, of creatures that inhabit the desakota edge, from animals to nature spirits respected by those migrants who have retained their folk beliefs and who may shun hoary groves and swampy creeks at the urban edge because they believe these places to be dwellings of earth spirits. This resonates strongly with what anthropological studies describe as a layering of the universe of indigenous peoples in the Philippines, different from Christian notions of heaven, purgatory, and hell into which access depends on earthly actions. For instance, hinterland tribes like the Manobo in Mindanao speak of a fourteen-layered universe (seven above and seven below the human plane), while many Visayan ethnic groups reduce this to seven layers in total, and as one goes farther north, tribes like the Ifugao and Bontoc limit their skyworlds and underworlds to four layers (Demetrio et al. 1991).

While there is no cosmological numerology involved in contemporary construction techniques, the hierarchical notion seems also tacitly reinforced by the siting of places of worship in elevated or central areas, often manifested as churches of different Christian denominations but also occasionally a Buddhist temple or an Islamic mosque built in a grand manner. And yet persistent at the level of the personal property owner, the author has heard of the engraving or embedding of coins, talismans, and other charms beneath doorsteps or into lintels to attract prosperity and fend off intrusive beings. In relation to urban surroundings, however, the most plausible relationship that can be mirrored seems to be the whole syncretic approach: the layers of pan–Southeast Asian animism have been subsumed into the monotheistic cosmologies of colonizers, even as Filipinos still retain a propensity to dig deep into their cultural consciousness to employ whatever notions can be hybridized—that is, the concept of an Almighty does not dispel or erase the utility of lesser sources of spiritual or material succor. Taking the above patterns all together, it cannot be dismissed as too remote that some of this hints at a subtle influence of Hinduism, a belief system that touched the archipelago before fourteenth-century Islam and sixteenth-century Christianity swept over it (Osborne 2013). Borrowed from Hinduism are those existential schemes where gods lurk and where humans and the elementals travel freely between levels to interact beneficently or mischievously. This layering or permeable zoning of the universe and its relatively loose borders reflects in the Philippine urban experience, especially in its culminating manifestation as a metropolis. (p.76)

Concrete Jungle or Geocultural Cipher? Reading Lineage into the Perils and Prospects of Metro Manila

Figure 4.6 What resembles chaos may actually reflect a deeper affinity for a multitiered coexistence with other forces of nature, as Philippine mythology and religious iconography recognize a many-layered universe, inhabited by a supreme being, higher deities, and humans or elementals who freely travel between levels. Lower planes contain earth spirits, as well as malevolent beings. Given this cultural lore as background, does it seem strange that many Philippine cities reflect a layering as well?

Figure by José Edgardo A. Gomez Jr.

As a deep-seated cultural notion, it is also radically different from the Chinese feng shui, a framework that prescribes positioning of houses and towns in auspicious locations and juxtapositions. East Asian cities are laid out more according to what is conducive to the flow of good chi (vital energy) and reserve spaces for society’s upper classes, as opposed to the looser blending found in what anthropologists collectively call the Austronesian races of Southeast Asia. And, because a significant portion of this latter region did have Indic ties in antiquity, rather than the Sinic predominance over North Vietnam and Taiwan (Reid 1993; Diamond 1999), it is not far fetched to proffer this alternative reading as an explanation of the spatial dynamics and social structure of Metro Manila as a kin to other regional ports whose lineage and Austronesian polities shared ties of language, material culture, and superstition, centuries antecedent to the waves of European stock. The insistence of layered cityscapes that are permeable to mobile citizens may indeed seem discomfiting at first glance, but this is a porousness that fits right into the societal context: there are no rigid socioeconomic enclaves here, neither are there sharp gender inequalities nor barriers to interclass dialogue in a nation-state that has never had an indigenous monarchical tradition.

Ultimately, the layered but intermingled landscape serves as a comfort zone and mirror to both the present fecundity and historical accretion that has defined—and will define—Metropolitan Manila as it completes its first half millennium. While the author does not assert this as a definitive explanation for the studied messiness of Metro Manila and many other highly urbanized areas in the Philippines, one can reasonably suppose that embedded cultural patterns do tend to resurface, as proven, for instance, by the ubiquity and appeal of neo-/faux- Hispanic sites throughout a country (p.77) that has long since evolved beyond Latin urbanism and even later Americanization to emerge as an independent republic that is continually redefining, and physically expressing, a contemporary Filipino identity. This repurposing of colonial style is another creative means of taking ownership of a formative heritage that, unlike other Asian countries, has been undeniably Western in provenance. It nevertheless must be rooted in the same original geography, temperament, and material bases that have durably shaped the Filipinos as a race before and after colonial experiences. In this sense, the veneer of colonial art, architecture, and semiotics become subsequently parts of the midstory as well as the fabric for recreation of another layer of the urban landscape. This new layer may draw nostalgically from the design of the old but will always be different, as its structures will have been erected for other purposes, following changes in governance, environment, and the performance of real estate markets.


This chapter has woven a narrative of the physical environment and activities of Metropolitan Manila, a seemingly tumultuous metropolis representative of developing Southeast Asia. It demystifies the superficial disarray by describing in vertical fashion structures and circumstances that impart uniqueness. Beginning with the unplanned underground, slums, and street-level rhythms of commuters, this work moves up to the designed residences, gathering places, traffic intersections, and malls that anchor urban sprawl. The importance of enduring historic icons and places of worship is recognized. Finally, the physical aspirations of Metro Manila’s economic elite find spirited expression in abundant office construction and the recent rash of condominiums that protrude above flyovers and tenements.

Taken together, all these physical and operational elements tell the story of a recurrent, if inelegant, logic in the metropolis—one that tolerates degrees of friction or loose fit that local citizens may not fret over too much but that may seem unfinished or undesirable by Occidental standards. Ultimately, the author suggests that such architecture and syncopations are perhaps rooted in an Austronesian cultural pattern found in Southeast Asian nations, one that differs from Chinese, Indian, and colonial Western notions of how the universe is, or should be, ordered. The messiness thus becomes a sort of layered and pervious scheme of things, through which citizens can navigate and negotiate their lives, depending on their circumstances and endowments.


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R. Lunas. Planning officer, MMDA (various dates, informal chats).


(1.) Among numerous articles citing or reacting to the Dan Brown’s novel and the chairman’s letter, here are examples from local journalists, used in the chapter: Melican, Gamil, and Felisse Mangunay 2014;Torrevillas 2013; Seares 2013.

(2.) Philippine Population Pyramids from the National Statistics Office, “The Age and Sex Structure of the Philippine Population: (Facts from the 2010 Census),” accessed June 10, 2014, http://www.census.gov.ph/content/age-and-sex-structure-philippine-population-facts-2010-census.

(3.) British Broadcasting Company, “PagPag: ‘This food someone else has already eaten”, accessed June 10, 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00fcxll. Pagpag is a verb that means to strike or slap down an object against a surface, often with the intention of superficially cleaning it by shaking off grit, as is done by impoverished scavengers who fish out this partially eaten food from rubbish bins, prizing and shaking off the bitten or rotten parts and recooking the leftover, for resale to knowing customers.

(4.) While there are no statistics for these Manila City neighborhoods specifically, longtime residents of Metro Manila will tell you that Tondo and Quiapo are not for unaccompanied tourists to visit. For written narratives, try Silverio 2014; Zialcita 2006.

(5.) Basic train performance data from Light Rail Transit Authority, accessed May 10, 2013, http://www.lrta.gov.ph/kp_line_1_system.php and http://www.lrta.gov.ph/kp_line_2v2_system.php.

(6.) Estimate, based on website figure of 500,000 passengers a day × 360 days, from Department of Transportation and Communication, accessed May 10, 2013, http://dotcmrt3.gov.ph/about.php?route=3, and http://www.inter-aksyon.com/business/38531/mrt-3-daily-ridership-hits-nearly-half-a-million-exceeds-capacity-for-6th-year.

(7.) Figures for building heights from the Skyscraper Center, accessed June 7, 2014, http://www.skyscrapercenter.com/taipei/taipei-101/117/.

(8.) Pedicab: a bicycle with a side-attached steel-frame cabin, covered with thin tarpaulin, and driven by the urban poor as a means to earn a living. As a nonmotorized vehicle, it is used to drive one or two passengers to and from alleys and culs-de-sac.