Design that speaks | Inquirer Opinion
Pinoy Kasi

Design that speaks

/ 12:06 AM January 20, 2016

After a long day at work, I practically had to drag myself to attend a student event last Monday night. I begged off from delivering a speech and told the organizers I might leave early. But after the students presented their project, I felt so recharged that I stayed throughout the whole event and gave a closing pep talk.

The event was “Hiraya: Design and Dine,” which was organized by interior design students from the University of the Philippines Diliman College of Home Economics. It was intended as a benefit dinner to raise additional funds to allow the students to complete a renovation project in Payatas for a center working with deaf youth. Payatas is an urban poor area once notorious for garbage dumps on which people literally lived. The situation has improved, but the people still live in abject poverty.

Social activism

The UP interior design class—41 graduating students—showed how a different kind of social activism is alive and well in the university, even for a profession usually associated with the rich and famous and their plush homes. Registered in an interior design class under Prof. Raquel Florendo, the students raised, in one semester, P1.4 million, and are finishing up their renovation of the youth center for a group called My Children’s House of Hope. The charity group was founded by an American and has several children’s centers scattered around Payatas. The center renovated by the UP students is called Bahay Bata 127.


In their presentation, the students showed “before” and “after” photos of different parts of the center: the foyer, a speech rehab room, a playroom, even the kitchen and the toilet. The contrasts were sharp, yet everything was done by the students, who learned to do proposals and designs, get permits for the renovation, and, of course, raise funds. The presentation reminded me of those cable TV shows where teams of interior designers tackle the most challenging of residences—tiny units, cluttered homes—redoing them and shocking the owners, some of whom break down in tears at seeing their new homes.

In the case of the UP students, there was a different proof of concept, showing how spaces in urban poor areas can be transformed with fairly low budgets but with benefits for an entire community—and in this case, a generation of deaf youth. At Monday night’s presentation, a group of the deaf youth performed two dance numbers. Although they can’t hear, they could dance to the vibrations of the music.

Appropriately, the project was called “Tinig: Design that Speaks.” I thought of how the design speaks of young people’s aspirations and the friendships built between the UP students and the deaf youth of Payatas. The rooms’ designs also speak of activities that can now flow more freely through the center, each room actually becoming multifunctional. As with more expensive homes, the UP students were able to tear down the boundaries between the outdoors and the center’s interior, weaving in themes from nature, and providing a sense of a home—described by the Filipino word “pugad,” which means nest.

A few weeks back I wrote about how in Britain the prestigious Turner Prize, usually given to artwork, had been awarded to a group called Assemble, which is into urban regeneration. Assemble members have revived areas in cities that were ready to be demolished, built playgrounds for poor children, and generally created new multifunctional spaces out of neglected or even abandoned areas.


The UP students were not aware of Assemble, but I told them there were just so many similarities, showing how social awareness is transforming professions throughout the world. The UP students have a website ( where they sell postcards and a comic book to generate more funds for their project. Assemble also has a website with products done on a larger scale: all kinds of artisanal stuff made from recycled materials taken from the communities they “reinvented.”

I’m looking forward to the formal inauguration of the Payatas center in a few weeks. In the meantime, readers interested in helping out can visit “UP Interior Design Class of 2016” on Facebook.


Common-sense architecture

I also wanted to write about another transformation going on in architecture, one which I hope will inspire our interior design students as well. This year’s Pritzker Prize, considered architecture’s most prestigious award, went to a Chilean architect, Alejandro Aravena, whose designs are dazzling, whether done for the rich or the poor.

The Pritzker Prize has a cash award of $100,000 from the Hyatt Foundation, which cited Aravena thus: “His built work gives economic opportunity to the less privileged, mitigates the effects of natural disasters, reduces energy consumption, and provides welcoming public space.” Sounds exactly like what we need for the Philippines, doesn’t it?

Aravena describes architecture as “the rigorous use of common sense,” and consults communities for their ideas on how to tackle problems. He is best known for a housing project in 2003 where he built 100 homes for the urban poor at $7,500 each (at current exchange rates, P375,000). His projects for affordable housing are now known for the “one and a half house” approach, where the urban poor get one completed side and the other just a space which they can expand in the future, when they have the funds.

You have to see the photographs to appreciate Aravena’s work, so google “” and “Aravena” to look at what he’s done with common sense. His designs for the Catholic University of Chile are heartbreaking … because you realize what we could have done in the Philippines (and, for me, UP in particular): spaces both formal and casual.

But who knows, maybe new generations of Filipino architects and interior designers will follow Assemble and Alejandro Aravena to blaze new trails, build new cities, reinvent old ones, and introduce designs that speak of hope and renewal.

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TAGS: Architecture, Payatas, university of the Philippines diliman

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