Sunday, July 30, 2006

Mission accomplished. Big success!

It seemed like the plane had just landed the day before, yet there we were already presenting the fruits of our labor to CCT and wrapping up for departure, hence the rush in order to be able to present as much as possible. For a week, the appartments CCT had provided looked rather like our once beloved studios. Printings taped on the walls for crits, food leftovers scattered everywhere along with dried cups of coffee, not to mention the group taking turns napping on a makeshift couch of mattresses and pillows. Everything was in place to remind us indeed of good times, yet late hours at school working on the computers.

On Wednesday, July 19th, students from different schools of architecture across the metropolis of Manila, yet mainly from the University of the Philippines (UP), finally met with CCT staff, and were all ears at our final presentation. All the Malibay projects were shown and explained to both parties, along with our recommendations for the future. A first draft of the package was also handed, which included all the projects BuildAid has worked on for the past two months, a model house design, and a guide explaining the construction of houses. Its goal is to guide CCT and their partners in making the right choices with regard to building their houses appropriately and efficiently.

All this would not have been complete without handing personnally the drawings to the "nanays" (mothers), who are at the foundation of all this.

Mission accomplished. All of us left the Philippines with incredible experiences in our minds and hearts – professionally, culturally, and foremost, personnally. What comes after? Although we all require lone time to process, we also realize it’s not time to stop there. Indeed, next year BuildAid will be busy at maintaining good communication with CCT and UP, as well as recruiting new McGill architecture students for next summer’s internship. Actually, the vision goes further to try and develop a long term relation between McGill and CCT. Thus, BuildAid will have reached its goal of raising awareness of an architectural practice that serves those who really need it.
The improvised "studio"
Jed Yabut from UP (left) and Roderick Ramos from CCT (right)
Cindy Williams showing Sheryl the drawings of her new house

Friday, July 21, 2006

Last Break in Laguna

To celebrate this summer's outcome and the approaching end of our time here in Manila, the CCT group had organized for the rest of the team the "Friendship Tour", a 2-day side trip in Laguna, that was held on July 15 and 16.
It is thus with great apprehension that, on an early Saturday morning, Cindy, Danielle, Emanuel and I were getting on the van, accompanied by Elpidz Estares and Pastor Dick Ramos, two of our CCT hosts that were to become our tour guides and driver for our little excursion.
But before getting into the heart of the subject, I must apologize for the lack of pictures, our technical support being gone/damaged, no pictures could be inserted in this text, hoping the narration of our weekend will be descriptive enough to provide you with your own images of our adventure.

Five o'clock, time to go,
With the rising sun in our back, it is without any regret that we drove away from the capital city, its highrises disappearing in the horizon. Before reaching our first destination, a stopover at CCT Cavite branch office to assist to their morning worship and a break at Ronald's Kingdom for breakfast were negotiated. Our stomach full, we once again hit the road to get to our first adventure, a boat ride on the Bombongan river and its main feature, Pagsanjan Falls, location known worldwide as a legendary site in the cinematographic art. Movie lovers will remember the site for featuring in movies such as Tiger Joe, 13 Days about the 13-day crisis in Cuba under JFK, Behind the Enemy Lines in which the story takes place in Vietnam, and the classic Coppola's Apocalypse Now.
Eyes wide open, confortably installed in our small embarcations, the ride would start with our 2 canoes being towed by a third motorized vehicle up the stream to reach the Bombangan River. Along the way, water buffalos, giant and docile beasts, grazing along the stream in the shallow water, other tourists' boats going down the waterway and many merchants, promoting and selling handicrafts in their barks, litterally aboarding and invading the tourists, would compose part of the landscape that would welcome us to the gorge formed by the water.

Breathtaking is probably the word that best describes the view that was being formed as we were navigating up the river. The Bombongan River and its fourteen rapids is, for most of its bed, trapped between two massive vegetated walls. The meandering chocolate-colored river, due to the severe monsoon rains washing the area over the past few days, and our navigating wooden vehicles would appear miniature and fragile next to those gigantic cliffs. The sinuous greenish canyon, with its silent trees and screaming water, would give rise to amazing views and sights, which was completed by the calls of the tree-jumping monkeys, the whistling of the exotic birds and the screaming of the rapids as soundtrack. Our devoted boatmen, working in pairs on each boat, bravely fought the strength of the current at every rapid we would meet. Jumping from rock to rock, stepping in the shallow river, pulling on the wooden floating vehicles up the rapids, the sweat on their face, but mostly the marks left by their many excursions, were the signs of their dedication and passion to their work.
After an hour of paddling, pulling and pushing, our little crew had finally arrived at its final destination on the Bombongan, the Pagsanjan Falls, mythical site for movie lovers where the many cinema crews exploiting the land have left scars on the cliffs. After having appreciated the powerful falls and the many tourists risking their lives behind the falls by visiting the Devil's Cave on bamboo floats, it was time to go back down the river.
Shooting the rapids, as exciting as going up the stream, was unfortunately much faster. Before we could even fully appreciate the ride down, we had already come to our starting point and were back in the car, ready to see more of the Laguna Province.

Caliraya and Paete,

After driving for nearly half of the afternoon, the now-called "Fab Four" and our two guides had arrived to the site where we would spend the night, Caliraya Re-Creation Center. Located on the shore of the man-made lake bearing the same name, the resort was a drastic, but how much appreciated, change from the noisy city. Surrounded by the unspoilt jungle forest and its palm trees, the hotel, on its elevated platform, faces the reservoir formed by the dam feeding the hydroelectric powerplant and Mount Banahaw. Attainable by motorized boat, the only sound coming in were the very few motorcycles and Jeepneys heard from far and the karaoke machine that would become later in the evening the major entertainment source for Danielle, Elpidz and Pastor Dick and give rise to surprising performances. Unlike our previous experience in Banaue, Ifugao, the very few companions we would share the site with overnight were to stay outside our apartments, guarding our rooms and enabling us to fully appreciate the serenity and quietness of the area.
The morning after was to be spent at Paete, a small town located 15 minutes of car ride from our temporary installations. The place, known as the Philippines' wood carving Capital City, is famous for its many handicrafts exports. We obviouly could not spend a weekend in Laguna without stopping over and spend some time shopping for wooden bowls, tools, chairs, sculptures and other artefacts made in the area. Our bags filled with some of these goodies, we later left Caliraya and took the road back to Manila.
A few stops on our way woud make the trip longer and more enjoyable. A break in Santa Cruz, Balut capital city, a taste of buko (coconut) fresh juice and pie, and some time spent at UP Los Banos in the Botanical Garden in Mount Makiling would complete our stay in the country side.

Minds and bodies rested, we were now ready to face the last stretch of the first BuildAid internship, to hit the table again and complete our CAD drawings and other documents to be submitted later this week. We couldn't complete this post without recognizing and thanking our tour guides, hosts and friends, Pastor Dick and Elpidz. For the incredible time we've spent with them, for sharing part of their country with us and the time devoted in our company, we are thankful to you.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

All Hail The Ambassador!

On July 5th, 2006, we had the wonderful privilege of having the Canadian ambassador, Peter Sutherland, at our primary site in Malibay, Pasay City. CCT organized a welcome committee and assisted the whole party through the slum area. We had the barangay police and the ambassador’s bodyguards following us and watching every move we made. I was nervous and thought that we were quite safe in our area…but then I remembered that a diplomats work in a different system where protection is necessary and normal.

We were all very excited by the visit. The ambassador had brought some of the media with him, which from our point of view, was a great way to promote awareness about the needs of the people we’re working with - CCT and the nanays of Malibay.
I must say that I really appreciated speaking with Mr. Sutherland. He actually asked us questions about what and followed up our answers with comments on the nature of the projects. He showed an interest, and for that I’m grateful.
The visit was primarily the establishment of relationships. It was nice to find other Canadians in a culture that only knows "Canos" (americanos). For future projects of this nature, these contacts are very helpful.

I must say as a side note, that the evening on the town that David DaSilva, the head of the department of political affairs and communications of the Candian embassy, invited us to share with him on the following monday, was really nice. We all ate at a Middle Eastern restaurant in Makati and lounged in good company and good conversation. That gesture on his part went a long way to make us feel welcome. It was a much needed taste of home and relieving to discuss the differences of culture that have marked us during our respective stays. I know for sure that no one back home will understand the way we've lived here because they themselves have not experienced it. And so it was good to get the cultural differences "off our shoulders!"

I am very honored to have met all these people!

Sunday, July 09, 2006

McGill takes the charge!

From June 30th to July 3rd, BuildAid witnessed the visit of the director of their own school of architecture – David Covo, a team of Hong Kong based McGill Alumni professionals (Philip Lo, Herman Au and his son Jeffrey, Alex Chu, accompanied by his wife Lily and their niece Tiffany Hu from Los Angeles), Edwin Keh, an entrepreneur also from Hong Kong, as well as Freeman Chan’s return to the Philippines with his two sons, Christian and Adonian, and Jeffrey Tsai – a family friend.

The objectives of this visit differed from one party to the next. David Covo witnessed the work completed so far by the BuildAid team and what was to follow. His very presence was another demonstration of his support. The McGill School of Architecture enlarged its international relationships and potential collaborations by one additional school, as links were made with the University of the Philippines School of Architecture. Through a successful meeting with professors, administration staff, and Prosperidad C. Luis – director of the school of architecture at the University of the Philippines, student exchanges and involvement of UP students to support the cause of BuildAid, holds hope for the future.

For the younger visitors, i.e. Christian, Adonian, Jeff, Jeffrey, and Tiffany, it was an opportunity to experience the slums of the Philippines and to recognize an alternative side to architecture. In the case of Adonian, it became the subject of a photographic study he later exhibited at his school.

Lastly, for the McGill Alumni team, the objective of their visit was to become further aware of the issues of housing relief in the slums of the Philippines, especially within the working range of CCT.

The visit began with brief presentations by the BuildAid team for CCT and the Hong Kong Alumni, which included present conditions, the work completed so far, and the necessary work to be followed up in the future. Following the final remarks by Ruth Callanta (CCT President), and David Covo, further discussions were conducted around dinner. The next few days were followed by site visits through Malibay, Gawad Kalinga – Southern California and Concepcion villages, Baseco, and Parola. Discussions were rich in emotion, in the exchange of knowledge, and in opinion.

On July 3rd, it was already time to wrap up, share experiences, visions, and most importantly develop a plan of action for the future. The Hong Kong team expressed strong support towards the cause of BuildAid and are willing to facilitate the upcoming efforts. As for David Covo, the internship posed great opportunities to move from theory to practice in the architectural field, as well as ways in which to reconnect the profession of architecture with the issues of community and housing development. Such experiences should restore the ways in which we see our world and communities, and the coming years should aim towards raising awareness of these issues to a broader community of the students at McGill.

Finally, as Freeman Chan put it: “The common denominator of all the teams is the desire for ‘Community Transformation’. The challenge is to make this personal, to take some risks, and to make some personal contributions.” These visions have a tangible plan of action, and are yet to be unveiled through the work of the different parties we formed links with. There is hope for the future; BuildAid crossed another bridge towards a broader awareness of architecture for the people.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

the politics of poverty

I was surprised when my cell phone vibrated with an invitation to participate in a political demonstration. The caller was a woman named Melba Maggay. She knew of my interest in the politics of the Phillipines. She knew that I am a competent guitarist. She might even have suspected that my presence at the protest rally would be a significant message; my being a foreigner and all.

So there I was, alone on stage before a crowd 300 people, all of whom would like to see the current president ousted. The congress building loomed beyond a row of trees, stark and imposing. Cheers erupted as I strummed a minor chord. Many have been recently killed for advocating the same cause I now supported with my music. I shuddered slightly when that realization eventually came.

Melba is a one of the first women we met when we arrived in the Phillipines. She is the director of an NGO by the name of the Institute for the Study of Asian Church and Culture (ISACC). Her organization was responsible for our cultural orientation. She herself is holds a doctorate in English literature and studied at Cambridge University. She gave us a lecture that opened our eyes to the Filipino idiosyncracies of social conduct. She inspired us with the intellect and depth of insight that I would expect from an ivy league professor. I was taken by awe and admiration for her keen perceptiveness and ability to articulate sophisticated ideas in a clear and succinct way.

During the dinner after her lecture, I eagerly plied her for political views, seeking a greater understanding of the systems of governance and the history that has shaped the Filipino society. I learned details of the Spanish colonial rule, features of the American occupation, and how the indigenous culture subversively manifested itself amid these external influences. She wove an intricate and erudite narrative. I tried desperately to absorb her knowledge.

I became particularly fascinated when she spoke of the more recent political history, the People Power movement of 86 the ousted the president Marcos. Dissatisfied with his dictatorship, the mass of Filipinos took to the streets and demanded he leave. The military was dispatched, but soldiers were met with smiles, flowers, and baked goods. None had the heart to open fire. One by one the military leaders stepped down. An authoritarian regime collapsed under the passive weight of the will of the people. ISACC, Melba's NGO, had played a major organizational role in this successful political act.

The current president is, to many intellectuals and concerned citizens, reminiscent of Marcos. It is almost common knowledge the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo stole the election that hoisted her into power. A recorded phone conversation between her and a sycophantic election official has been widely disseminated. Most worrisome is the impending threat of martial law. The legal process to validate such a drastic measure has already begun. Many political opponents and detractors have been assassinated. More journalists have been killed in the Phillipines the last five years then anywhere else, save for Iraq.

If there is one thing we've learned during our stay here in the Phillipines, it is that the population suffers from a tremendously uneven distribution of wealth. Beyond that, there is a complete neglect for the basic amenities and infrastucture in many areas that we've visited that we in the west hold as keystones to civilisation: water, roads, electricity, waste removal, houses...

The Phillipines desperately needs good governance to help the available ressources reach the desperately needy. Unfortunately, the questionable ethics of corruption seem to be widespread among the elite and ruling class. I have heard from informed Filipinos including Melba that the aristocracy regards the poor with apathetic disinterest.

We, as architecture students, have come to the Phillipines to involve ourselves in the problem of housing the poor. We hope to bring skills and provide assistance as best we can, but we are students first and foremost. The role of the university student is to learn, to integrate studies into a comprehensive worldview, to discover the issues that shape the lives of individuals and societies. Architectural thought and discourse have provided us with a context and framework by which delve into the problems we've been exposed to here, but it is obvious that the root cause of the problem is far more systemic than poorly designed housing, or even lack of money.

When the full scope of the problem of urban poverty is glimpsed, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Any work we do can feel like we're addressing the symptoms, rather than combatting the disease. Large social structures must mobilize to repair torn urban fabric. Government exists for this purpose: to respond to societal needs and allocate resources where they can best be used. It is clear that the goverment of the Phillipines has much work to do.

When Melba called me I was both thrilled and honored; honored that she would think of me since I think so highly of her, and thrilled that I could in some small way address the problem of poverty by appealing to the highest levels of political power. I saw that as a complement to the grassroots work we've been doing, which is equally important. In dealing with these families and providing them with designs for their homes, we are not solving their problems. We are trying to give them hope; we are trying to help them articulate their dreams and maybe even contribute our limited knowledge to their benefit. People must want to help themselves if they are to receive the help of others.

The rally itself was touching and energized. It began with ISACC leading a short service of worship that included a Latin-american hymn and a Filipino protest song, both of which I accompanied. After there was a ritual performed be a single woman that was rooted in the indigenous culture of the Phillipines. Passionate speakers followed, as well as a choreographed dance number. I was asked if I would like to perform and I agreed. There was some concern over who I would be representing: BuildAid, McGill, Canada, White Man, etc. I finally agreed to be completely personal and not implicate anyone else. I decided to recite a poem, then perform an improvisation based on the melody to which the poem has been set to music. I'd like to transcibe the poem as the conclusion of this lengthy epistle. It's by a guy named Ed McCurdy:

Last night I had the strangest dream
I'd ever dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war

I dreamed I saw a mighty room
Filled with women and men
And the paper they were signing said
They'd never fight again

And when the paper was all signed
And a million copies made
They all joined hands and bowed their heads
And grateful pray'rs were prayed

And the people in the streets below
Were dancing 'round and 'round
While swords and guns and uniforms
Were scattered on the ground

Last night I had the strangest dream
I'd never dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Return to Malibay

It's been a while since the last post on here.

Don't worry, we have been scurrying about like crazed mice during the past few days. It has been an excellent weekend, marked by the visit of the Director of McGill's school of Architecture, (also bearing the title of Friend) Prof. David Covo, as well as a group of McGill alumni currently based in Hong Kong, along with some of their family. Not only did these past few days bring us some unexpected camaraderie and like-minded cooperation, they also marked a watershed in BuildAid's development. A basic plan of action for the coming months - and eventually school ye
ar- was laid down.

But to talk about all that would be a bit too punctual, and some of you might start worrying that I have stopped being lazy. So instead I will give a recap of our latest work in Malibay last week, where things have definitely taken major steps. First off, through the ever-resourcefulness of Freeman Chan, we managed to secure a contact within the Manila branch of Ove Arup & Partners. This engineer, named Raul M, gave us some much-needed assistance in the evaluation of the housing projects we adopted in the Malibay area.

As you may remember, there was a devastating electrical fire there this past December, leaving 80 families without houses. Since our first visit we have formed teams that work w
ith some of these families in order to assess the state of the re-construction they have been undertaking. As these families will be potential recipients of CCT loans, it is crucial that we evaluate if the current construction is technically acceptable - and financially feasible.

Raul from Arup (in light blue) explains

Poorly poured concrete - a structural issue

Last Saturday, then, Raul M got to endure our presentations on our findings thus far, and soon after we headed out to Malibay. Upon arrival, he immediately set to work interviewing the nanays - the mothers heading their families' rebuilding projects - to discover as much as possible about the foundation and reinforcement work. Using Tagalog and some quick sketches, he was quickly able to get the information he needed, which was a most pleasant surprise for us, who had had to laboriously decipher (and no doubt crudely misinterpret) whatever the nanays tried to explain, due to the language barrier.

Raul was immediately able to make some basic recommendations, which he has since expanded upon. Soon we will have more complete drawings showing the structural workings of each nanay's house, allowing us to sit down with them once again and work out the details of their future construction. Our goal is to minimize the amount of redundant materials used whilst still providing a home that can be seen by the families as being secure and well-constructed (no doubt a fear after seeing their last home burnt to the ground), and incorporate some smart planning as well. We have observed that much of the construction work is haphazard and lacking in foresight; it is therefore our aim to get the desired final result down on paper, that construction work can then follow.

A big thank you to Raul for taking the time from your work to help us further our Malibay projects - I hope this partnership can continue.

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