Measuring the Manila square meter

This essay originally appeared in the catalogue for the exhibition titledLiving Spaces: Hyperreal Estate and the Architecture of Dispossession“, curated by Alice Sarmiento. I wrote it in conversation with, and with thanks to, Alice Sarmiento, Andre Ortega, and Maria Khristine Alvarez.

Consider the average Manila billboard.

It is many times larger than the average Manila home. Perched above Manila’s hypertensive roads, it gets better breeze, sunlight, and sight lines than the average Manila home; its floodlights consume more power than several average Manila homes.

The visuals of the average Manila billboard are also larger than the average Manila life—especially when they peddle condominiums, those new average Manila homes for the 21st century. They feature models with impossibly white, impossibly smooth skins, living impossibly carefree lives of minutes-away convenience from the best that the city can offer, all under impossibly blue skies.

From a messaging point of view, the average Manila billboard needs to be larger than life. It must, after all, be heard above the jostle of shoulders, the knots in our backs, and the blare of last night’s death toll—all before we heave and lurch our way onto the next billboard.

It then needs to tell, within the limits set by 216 square meters,[1] convincing lies: small lies, about the life of grandeur possible within an eighteen square-meter unit,[2] about how the baked air takes your breath away, or about the mysterious dues and fees that await.

Fig. 1. About twelve 18m2 Manila studio units can fit within a 216m2 Manila billboard.

And big lies, too, to make telling truths seem impudent: about the way our city is being remade, about the kind of independence bought, and the kinds taken away, by condo living, and about the forms of divisions and injustice created by real estate booms.

To do this, the average Manila billboard must tap into our desires, both civic and selfish: After all, who wouldn’t want their city to have a world-class skyline? World-class malls? Who could possibly object to the dazzling LED sneers of these micro-abraded, glutathioned, high-definition celebrities—when they tell us that their lives and skins and smiles can be ours as well?

The resulting visuals are often remarkable feats of advertising, with a blunt, brash tackiness seen nowhere else in the world.[3] It renders, in inhuman scale, the best and the worst of being Filipino—for all to see, and for all to look up to.

In this manner, the Manila billboard sells the Filipino Dream:[4] homeownership, prestige, and security for ourselves and our loved ones, by way of a few square meters we can call our own. Entire square kilometers outside can burn, drown in floods, or be targeted for police saturation drives—so long as those we hold dear are safe.

The Manila billboard is effective at what it does: so effective, that within the space of a decade and a half it had become the defining feature of Manila’s landscape. And yet the Manila billboard never completely conceals the harshness of the average Manila life.

The average Manilense knows this—because the lies these billboards tell periodically collapse, but also because our billboards also cannot help but tell, ever so subtly, uncomfortable truths.

They show us that neither the lives we live, nor the city we live in, are nowhere near as-advertised—especially for the millions among us for whom becoming these bodies, and inhabiting these spaces, will be forever out of reach.

They depict a city that is incredibly profitable for a vanishingly lucky few, even as it deals us daily, hourly indignities.

But perhaps worst of all, they visually render for us the grinding, abrasive screech of desire, deception, and reality in a low-speed collision: that asthmatic wheeze of an idled, gridlocked SUV, that rattle of a poorly-mounted AC unit at full tilt, and that needling, tinnitic, characteristically Catholic guilt in our heads, telling us that perhaps our desires are complicit in our misery.

Are they?

Consider the average Manila square kilometer.

It is worth asking this question because, for the first time in several decades, there are now more Manilenses who can afford to attain what they want. Remittances, salaries for offshored service work, and investment to meet the demands of these new, globalized middle classes, is pulsing through Manila.[5]

Their money, and money made from their money, is remaking the city: the way the land is used, the way our jobs and our homes and our schools are located, the way we get around.

The last time that the city saw an injection of this much capital, it was in the form of petrodollar debt in the seventies. Imelda was very much in charge, and wanted to remake it in the image of “the city of man:” which to her, meant world-class hotels, hospitals, and performance venues for her bisita—and public art, preferably on high enough canvases to hide the poor.[6]

But our desires are much simpler.

We simply want homes to call our own, because we see security in owning property. But we don’t want homes for the millions among us who live in a permanent housing crisis.

And so we ploughed billions of pesos into the land, and 40.6 million square meters of new residential construction was built in greater Manila from 2000 to 2014.[7] But too little of it was for those of us who needed homes the most; when it was, it was built at the very edge of the city, by shady contractors on padded budgets, and decrepit even before they are turned over.

We want cars, because we want conditioned air for ourselves on our way to work, and our children on their way to school; because we’re sick of wading through floods and elbowing through crowds. We might think we want better public transit or better sidewalks, but we seem to be unable to say it in a way that the politicians we elect, and the businesses we enrich, can understand.

And so we bought millions of new cars, demand wider roads, refuse taxes on gas at the pump,[8] and buy another car for coding days—which we promptly park on our sidewalks.

We want malls, because we want a bit of the good life. And we aspire, too, to golf courses, to beach resorts. Because if we work hard enough, we too can be a part of these spaces; we too can fence off our leisure time from the unwashed, the same way we segregate our neighborhoods, our schools, our hospitals, and our cemeteries on the basis of income.

And so 2 million square meters’ worth of new commercial space were built in the city[9]—over people’s homes, over floodplains, on reclaimed land.

And so the average Manila square kilometer is remade in the image of middle Manila’s aspirations and Philippine capital’s bottom lines: a city where there is never enough land for dignified socialized housing, but where there are 5.73 million square meters’ worth of golf courses within city limits—often, right next to concentrations of jobs.

In this way, we’ve built a city where inequality in wealth widens, transmutes into inequalities in housing, education, commute length and quality, and environmental health, and is then engraved into the landscape in a way that perpetuates this perverse logic.

In this way, we invested a decade and a half of growth into maldevelopment: spending our modestly higher incomes to make the rich obscenely richer and more powerful, and to disappear and dispossess those whom we consider beneath us.

Consider the above-average returns to real estate.

In this way, too, we’ve transformed the way money is made in the country. The property boom had seen the Filipino one percent through the demise of domestic industry and the stagnation of export-oriented agriculture.[10]

Unlike property booms elsewhere, ours is neither fickle nor financialized: instead of global capital, it is underpinned by our globalized labor, and as I outline above, is sustained by sentiments of hope and home. It is possibly the most foolproof scheme for making money from an urbanizing, globalized country without an industrial base.

This is a complex development that deserves more scrutiny. But one simple way that we can make sense of the property boom is to take as axiomatic the idea of property as theft.[11]

Seen in this light, a property boom is simply a looting spree: a heist coursed through millions of square meters of new-build real estate.

This theft involves many interests, and takes many forms:

It takes the form of rent-theft, seen in the immense wealth accumulated by the biggest Philippine companies, underpinned by a return to rentierism, and away from value-creation;

Of extortion, seen in the way landowners big and small keep their plots idle as speculative assets, withholding them from the common good until they can get a higher price—which, in turn, is invariably too high for a dignified life for most Manilenses;

Of dispossession, of those forced from “prime land” for a new business district, from farmland for a new subdivision, and from the coast for a new resort;

Of disenfranchisement: of a city built in a way where our civic role is not that of the citizen, but that of the consumer;

Finally, it also takes the form of interest: of theft from future generations, born into an ever-more unequal, selfish, and exclusionary city; made to pay ecological and political debts more onerous, and potentially more devastating, than the looting sprees that feature so prominently in our national story.

In many ways, this story isn’t new. Its logic is as old as cash-crop agriculture, where power is based on land. And any relationship founded on land involves questions of rights to its use, and rights of exclusion.[12]

For instance: you can use your eighteen square meters however you see fit, but the building and the land is mine. You can have a home here, but only if I can ensure that your take-home pay ends up in my pocket. So the phone lines and the power supply I let in might also be mine, or at least not my competitors’.

And thus the logic propagates outward:

To our urban landscapes, which bear a suspicious resemblance to monoculture cultivation. While in the past vast tracts were given over to sugar, or to pineapple, or to banana, today they are given over to households of specific income brackets—segregating our city along socioeconomic lines in the process;

To the uncannily feudal hierarchies we form inside the condominiums, with minor absentee landlords owning several units, some of which remain empty for most of the year, with the rest leased out to tenants, sometimes in conditions no better than hovels;

To the business interests of our biggest companies, which seem to have specialized in finding novel ways of extracting rent from a globally-deployed labor force, by diversifying into those businesses so necessary for life, both embodied and at a distance: water, land, energy, telecommunications;

To political power, and the way decisions about our public goods—from the design of our mass transit systems to our water to our skyline—is driven not necessarily by the public interest, but by the interests of our new urban latifundists.

Consider a more just Manila square meter.

And on it goes, or could go. Much of it is sadly out of our hands, at least until we find a meaning to citizenship that isn’t reduced to the taxes we pay, or the candidates we support.

But one of its driving impulses is something that is in our power to refocus, rethink, remake: that desire for home, and how we’ve conflated it with a few square meters that we can call our own—however unjust or illusory that ownership might be.

Perhaps the questions that should be asked, then, are:

How much of the anger we see today is a residue of a failed revolution, an unmet need not just for shelter or sanitation or short commutes, but for change in the way we live together?

And if it is: are there better names for our indignities, names that do not push bodies into funeral parlors or homes onto esteros—names that allow us to properly locate cause and effect?

If land is again the basis of power and wealth in this country, and if the most painful wounds of our past involve moments where our land becomes their land—what are the lessons from our past that we should seek to surface and apply?

As more of the country becomes urban, and as more of our urban places are transformed into ischemic profitscapes: Do we really want this kind of city? Are there ways to upend its logic, where doing good by ourselves and our loved ones neither means depriving those in need, nor enabling those in power?

Can we untangle home from ownership? Are there other ways that we could have a home, ways that are not accessory to hunger and humiliation? And if there are: what kinds of politics would these involve? What kinds of places would these create?


[1] The mandated, but oft-flouted size limit for billboards in Manila.

[2] The typical floor area for a new-build bachelor condominium unit in Manila.

[3] I found an essay by Roger Pe for Mumbrella Asia on the aesthetics of the Manila billboard from the perspective of an ad industry insider (“Why do billboards in Manila look like they’re crafted by salesmen?”, 24 July 2013), very helpful in situating these visuals within the context of the ad industry.

[4] In his PhD dissertation, Andre Ortega describes the messaging thus: “‘modern,’ ‘world-class’, and ‘secured’ built environments mimicking an eclectic mix of Anglo-American, Mediterranean and Pan-Asian architectures…a mixed-race or light-skinned family performing suburban life practices…and living in a secured community that includes or is strategically accessible to institutions considered essential in Filipino social reproduction: schools, malls, workplace and church.” Ortega’s analysis speaks specifically to suburban, ‘house-and-lot’ developments in Manila’s fringe, but equally clearly to the underlying, and often underexamined desires projected onto bodies, households, properties, and communities.

[5] In addition to Ortega’s work, there has been a lot of interesting work on the political economy of, and urbanisms created by, the globalized flows of labor that underpin Manila’s transformation. Eric Pido’s Migrant Returns (2017) and Jana Kleibert’s Expanding Global Production Networks (2015)

[6] For essential reading for the Imeldific period of Philippine urbanism see Gerard Lico’s Edifice Complex: Power, Myth and Marcos State Architecture (2003).

[7] My computations, using data from the Housing and Land Use Regulatory Board.

[8] By my own computations, Manila has some of the lowest pump prices in the world among oil-importing countries.

[9] For the period 2000-2011. Based on Colliers data.

[10] I develop this point further in “Urban Property Development and the Creative Destruction of Filipino Capitalism”. In W. Bello and J. Chavez (eds.) (2014). State of Fragmentation: The Philippines in Transition. Bangkok: Focus on the Global South.

[11] A way of seeing things that we owe to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s 1840 work, What is Property?

[12] I owe this specific framing of urban land, property rights, and power to a chapter by Richard Harris in Parnell and Oldfield’s Handbook on Cities of the Global South (2014)titled “Urban land markets: A Southern exposure.”

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