When I was a kid and we would travel to my father’s province of Cavite for the town fiesta, we would always pay my grandmother’s ancestral house a visit.
I would marvel at its thick and high entrance doors and would wonder why the ground floor was almost all in concrete and the piano was located upstairs, which was the part of the house almost all in wood.
My fantasies of the family’s history and how it unfolded in their century-old residence would become even more vivid and embellished when I was told that the reason the doors were so high was that the first floor was used to hold horses and carriages.
Two of my grandmotherís sisters still live in that house, which up to now contains many old relics of the family’s past. For those years that we would go there on a pilgrimage for the fiesta, my memories include climbing up to the balcony to watch the gilded procession; trying to stay still in my seat in the conjoined living and dining room while listening to the multitude of relatives talking to each other on the seats, the sofas, and the benches by the door; and I would especially remember trying out and sharing with my siblings and cousins the sweet cakes that my grandmothers prepared. These are already distant images because it must have been more than a decade since our last visit.
At home in the city, recalling those times, makes me realize how similar and different my own house is from my grandmother’s. In Cavite, it seemed that even with the presence of doors and curtains, there were no barriers between family members – in contrast to the compartmentalized rooms we have in Manila. There is that soothing and relaxing mood of space and airiness in the ancestral residence that must have inspired greater openness between people. I myself admit that it is much easier to escape from my parents or from my siblings in the city since locked doors are more binding signals privacy. In the province, I feel less compelled to protect it.
The design of the Bahay na bato (Stone house) is not accidental. It reflects the culture of Filipinos. It shows how people value the company of family, where (almost) every activity is done together, if not beside each other, in a wide and spacious, common room. This is in contrast to the city (or at least in more westernized homes), where it is more common for family members to have their own television sets inside their rooms, where areas are separated into the den, the library, the living, and dining rooms.
Of course, many architects and interior designers encourage their clients to build uniquely Filipino homes – not just to suit the climate (with the use of wood and slats) – but also to promote and preserve a cultural legacy that is uniquely our own: one that has been influenced by the native rural house (the nipa hut), Spanish colonial architecture, and more importantly, by traditional values. If not for any of these reasons, I myself would live in such a house if only to always return to the feeling of home.