How an act of resistance reinvented the Western Bicutan Tenement

July 10, 2018



Aaron Quinto

It was the year 2014 when the residents of Western Bicutan Tenement staged a noise barrage against an eviction order from the National Housing Authority (NHA) after it declared the seven-storey building structurally unsound. Protest banners waved like flags from balconies. Pot covers banged against gritty concrete walls in concert with cries of “Walang aalis!” (Nobody’s leaving!). A brute dispersion would have left bloodied noses in its wake, as the relocation would force about 1000 families out of their homes. However, the odds were stacked in the residents’ favor that day.

Left: “Never say die.” A timely mural is stamped right at the heart of the Tenement and a fresh montage of NBA basketball stars painted on the central court served as a backdrop to the “Picnic Games” last year. Right: The faint afternoon light shows how all levels of the tenement enjoy sufficient amount of sunlight that is helpful to the residents’ overall well-being.

Part of the late President Diosdado Macapagal’s mass housing project, the Western Bicutan Tenement, or succinctly “Tenement,” is a 700-studio residential complex based on the Corbusian housing model. It was constructed in 1963 for the urban poor as an offshoot of Japanese reparations after World War II. The post-war building has U-shaped wings that face Northeast and Southwest, and are connected by a central volume framing a large courtyard.

Two-meter-wide hallways double as balconies that overlook the central voids and are seamlessly woven together by 2.5-meter-wide ramps serving the vertical traffic. Having ramps with an inclination of 1:14 instead of stairs is indicative of well-planned foresight and inclusivity. These fundamental considerations build on the case that the design solution for this typology is way ahead of its time projecting future needs of its inhabitants, especially those who will live out their lives here.

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A group of curious onlookers and residents fill the corridors of the Tenement awaiting LeBron James on his second visit to the area in 2015. The 20m by 55m central courtyard is dotted with players, dancers, rappers and artists.

The central courtyard, enclosed by the east and west wings, functions as the heart of the building as fiestas, games, pageants, and daily congregation glue the community together. And with eyes on the courtyard from all angles and multiple levels at almost every hour of the day, the space is one of the most guarded areas in the Tenement.

The typical studio unit of 36 square meters can be configured to the needs of the family inhabiting it. The original beneficiaries in 1967 were minimum wage earners and relocatees from different parts of Metro Manila. The fee of P14 per month during the early years eventually grew to P200, excluding electricity and water consumption. For Tenement tenants, the nominal fee (P200 will buy a couple of beers and chips from a convenience store) is the biggest boon of owning a unit, which many see as the most valuable possession they can pass on to their children. The fee is also their argument against claims that they are illegal settlers. Unfortunately in 2010, all leases were cancelled and succeeded by a series of eviction orders that beset the community to this day.

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The condemnation of the Tenement as an unsafe building by the NHA has always been an exercise in smoke and mirrors. While the current physical conditions do not lie about the deterioration of the structure, residents cite a study by DPWH that the building need only undergo retrofitting to make it safe, contrary to NHA’s recommending total demolition. The rapid urbanization within the FTI Taguig area right next to where the Tenement stands makes them suspicious of the true motives behind their eviction.

Left: Viewed from the ramp, this Northeast corner of the tenement shows restraint and clean horizontal lines as a defining design element of the housing complex. This wing of the Tenement is a just a few meters away from the public elementary school. Right: A graffiti artist doing his individual piece on a meter-high parapet of the Tenement’s open deck.
A large-scale portrait of irony: a tower crane in the background lifting for new construction while the Tenement remains mired in decay.

Lito Sarsilla, one of the oldest residents, recounts how they have been lobbying for the rehabilitation of Tenement, the designated funding for maintenance, and a concrete plan, but how their sentiments would always fall on deaf ears. The biggest disadvantage of an eviction and why they adamantly oppose it is the planned relocation site: Cavite. Moving there will divorce people from their sources of income.

The government has acknowledged this detriment through House Resolution 790 in 2014, prompting the Committee on Housing and Urban Development to investigate the supposed eviction. The committee recommended the following: the NHA will create a temporary staging area for the displaced people to stay while retaining their basic needs; the affected residents will be given the right of first refusal to the units constructed on the Western Bicutan site; and the NHA will request for the needed budget for the rehabilitation of the tenement project. Perhaps the resolutions sank to the bottom of an office pile as the Tenement persists in its antique state until this day.

The increasing tension between the residents and the bureaucrats against the backdrop of private institutions waiting to take advantage puts the Tenement at a disadvantage. Some see it as bullying—powerful agencies kicking out the less favored. Some read it as an uprising of ignorant masses too stubborn to move out for their own safety.

Whether the government decides to dig up the House resolution or serve a new notice, the Tenement offers us the ingredients for creating thriving social housing communities. On the same year the eviction notice was served, a rapper named Mike Swift organized The Picnic Games. The simple barangay basketball league open to anyone became a clarion call to save the Tenement.

Left: Exposed reinforcing bars from the underbelly of a slab slowly chipping away right in front of a unit. Multiple blue containers store water for the residents. Right: Potted plants soften and contrast against the cold imposing mood of concrete.

Mike enlisted musicians, muralists, and movers to give the basketball court a new face and heighten its reputation as an active public space. This regularly attracted people from different disciplines: graffiti artists and rappers who injected a subcultural edge to the place. Performances were open to all. Everyone became observers. Children and adults alike would join. And the residents felt empowered as key agents in their own security.

The 28-by-13-meter central basketball court gained public exposure for its morphing surface, transformed by passionate muralists pro bono. The entire structure is now a canvas for anyone who wants to leave an imprint. What started out as a series of small, individual attempts to create community cohesion blew up to a remarkable patchwork of solidarity for the preservation of the Tenement.

An elevation of the east wing showing vertical relationship and elements of a typical Filipino housing community: a basketball court, laundry lines, make-shift sari-sari stores, and native lanterns.

When citizens resort to small-scale improvisation like this, they’re doing what city planners would call Tactical Urbanism, short-term and temporary interventions that achieve lasting urban improvements. This phenomenon even led to opportunities of untold proportions like NBA Stars LeBron James, Paul George and Jordan Clarkson visiting for an exhibition game, and a prominent sports brand producing a pair of shoes as homage to the Tenement and Filipino basketball culture.

It wasn’t long before several media outlets picked up on the news, even making waves internationally, bringing the Tenement’s neglected cause to light. A crowd-funding movement named Save The Tenement has raised over $4,000 as of this writing with a goal of $15,000 (approximately P750,000) for immediate repairs of cement cracks, repainting, and leakage problems.

In an essay entitled, Can Spirit of Place Be a Guide to Ethical Building? by Isaac Brooks, the empowerment of ordinary people can be closely associated with the spirit of a place. Spirit of place is a concept defined as the celebrated aspects of a place or the collective aspirations of the people within a particular built environment. This can be reduced into one simple word: ‘soul’. The Tenement is successful in its form.

If we look past the cracks, rust, mold, and paint drips, the decaying architecture gives us a framework where mobility is comfortable, neighbors feel connected to each other, and humanity can be creative. This is no longer about what the Tenement needs to be. It’s about what it wants to be. The people opened their courtyard to new possibilities and embraced a new future that could possibly save their home. 

This article was originally published in BluPrint Volume 1 2018. Edits were made for BluPrint online.

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