Thursday, April 7, 2011

Culture Share: Philippines - Gates and Exterior Walls by Charles Tan

This post is part of The Writer's International Culture Share, in which writers discuss their personal experience with world cultures: Charles Tan discusses gates and exterior walls in the Philippines.
Gates and Exterior Walls by Charles Tan

As a Fine Arts student, I was taught various design aesthetics. Gothic architecture. Modern architecture. It's even more interesting when you apply it to Philippine homes, mainly because we've been heavily influenced by our previous colonizers like Spain and the US. And yet, when I compare the image of houses here to houses elsewhere, there is a significant difference between the two. I couldn't quite pinpoint it at first and it was the simplicity of it all that eluded me: Philippine houses have gates and exterior walls.

This is a significant cultural detail. It's not because Filipinos are paranoid by nature, but if we analyze Philippine history, we're very much a feudal country and that kind of legacy has had a lasting impact. Just as an example, land ownership is a significant portion in our Constitution and land reform is a never-ending political issue. The obsession with land is a factor in our architecture, be it consciously or unconsciously.

Every single house in the Philippines has a gate and an external wall (the only exception are squatter's homes). Whether you're rich or poor, your home will always have those two. Sometimes, it's just a token presence rather than any practical hindrance: I've visited houses where the gates are only waist high and the "wall" is actually a short fence. At other times, it's a secure fortress, with steel gates more than twice my height and equally towering walls that are reinforced with barbed wire. Because of this, certain US concepts are foreign to us. We do have lawns but they're hardly open to the public so the morning paper will never end up on our lawn. Similarly, automated garage doors are redundant so most people--even wealthy citizens--simply don't have a garage door.

What's interesting with gates and exterior walls is that there's variation in design and not all of them are practical in keeping out intruders. Our gate for example looks like a net so anyone passing by can see through it, and when I get locked out of the house, I easily climb the gate. (Of course it has to be said that we live in a village, which is a walled-off community.) On the other extreme is a gate with the paint faded and all you have is this huge metal slab with a peekhole. Exterior walls have a lot of variance. I've seen some home owners allow vegetation to cover their gate while others make do with a paint job. What's on top of the exterior wall however is what's surprising. The school near our house, for example, has shards of broken glass embedded on top of their walls to deter trespassers. Some houses incorporate spikes and fences into their design. And others are simply flat, relying on sheer height to deter intruders.

The presence of gates and exterior walls is so commonplace that many of us take it for granted and it's simply assumed when discussing architecture. From a cultural perspective, this all ties back on how we value land in the country and this is simply one manifestation of it.

Charles Tan lives in Manila, in the Philippines.