Bahay Kubo and the Filipino Concept of Space

Under one roof
By Augusto F. Villalon

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A traditional bahay kubo which can still be seen in most rural areas of  the Philippines

THE WAY we live tells us who we are, so our homes are dead
giveaways. The way we arrange our homes show how we like to
live and how we relate to the other people who live with us. The
positioning of furniture and choice of embellishments are
personal choices. However, the arrangement of the different
spaces inside a house and their varying degrees of privacy
demonstrate the lifestyle patterns of each culture.

The traditional bahay kubo follows the centuries-old Southeast
Asian rural archetype of the single-room dwelling where all
family activities happen in one space. After sleeping mats are
rolled up in the mornings, the same space is given over to
daytime activities that sometimes spill outdoors to the shaded
areas underneath the house.

The rural bahay kubo evolved into the bahay na bato, where
the size of the house was enlarged but much of the single-room
lifestyle remained. It was not uncommon for sleeping mats to be
laid out in the living room for the children every night.

Unlike today's homes with separate rooms for parents, children
and other family members, the ancestral home's two or three
large bedrooms were shared. Rows of canopied four poster beds
were laid out in the rooms with each occupant assigned his own
aparador to keep his things. Although the wooden walls
visually separated the different rooms, a strip of calado fretwork
between the ceiling and the tops of the walls circulated both air
and sound freely around the interior. So much for privacy.
However, in houses like these, residents found enough privacy
to conceive, deliver and nurse babies, to care for the sick and
the aged.

Communal space

Unlike the westerner who places a premium on privacy, the
Filipino prefers living space that is communal, surrounding
himself with people all the time.

The idea of locking the front door, leaving the house in the
morning and returning to an empty house in the evening is not
even thought of. Someone is always at home, whether family,
distant relative or household help.

Maybe the Filipino fears being alone. He makes certain that
members of his family keep him company at home. Within his
home, everything seems to happen at the same time. Children
shriek, adults talk, servants shuffle. The decibel level is at the
same extreme as the radio or television set that is constantly

Three or more generations of the same family live their separate
but interconnected lives under one roof, most of the time
hanging out in one room. When in need of solitude, a thin cloth
curtain strung over an opening stakes out a private section.
Temporary as the privacy may turn out to be, the fluttering
illusion of an unlatchable door screens the rest of the family out.
Blissful seclusion means not being able to see the others, but
still remaining within full hearing range. In the one-room bahay
kubo, privacy is sometimes achieved by turning one's back to
the room, by facing the wall for a few moments of solitude, but
the separation is never total.

Filipinos follow the Asian concept of shared space and limited
privacy. The traditional Japanese houses are essentially
designed as a single space that can temporarily be separated by
sliding paper screens that unify the house and garden into one
single area.

To westerners with a non-Asian concept of space, sections of
downtown Manila appear chaotic. Houses, apartments, shops,
markets, all seem to burst with people. Crowds are everywhere.
The hustle and bustle of the people reflects in the architecture.
There is a jumble of buildings, unruly roof lines jutting out
everywhere, balconies and laundry hanging over sidewalks and
streets under a spaghetti of electrical wiring that dangles over
neon signs. There seems to be no order at all. Everything
visually and noisily competes with each other. Narrow
sidewalks are filled with hawkers occupying the space normally
reserved for pedestrians.

How different this cityscape is from the orderliness of, say
London or Frankfurt, where rows of buildings are clearly
demarcated form one another, and sidewalks are wide
promenades dotted with clean benches, and people are
sprinkled into the streetscape. In contrast to that, we thrive in
crowds that teem, enjoying close contact with each other,
jostling each other when we walk down a street. We tolerate
closer contact with each other, unlike westerners who maintain
more space between each other, as a buffer to avoid close
contact among themselves.

One for all

In the western mindset, a man's home is his domain, his castle
that is built to last forever. It is where privacy is at a premium.
European homes prefer enclosing spaces from each other:
everything is definite and separate, the living room, dining
room, kitchen, the bedrooms. Everyone goes into the corridor,
disappears into his private room, and closes the door behind

This lifestyle is the opposite of the traditional Filipino way of
living, where bedrooms do not necessarily open out into an
internal corridor but to an external one, the volada, a narrow,
enclosed balcony that runs along the exterior of the upper floor
of the bahay na bato, linking the bedrooms and the other rooms
of the house to each other.

In earlier days, the se?ora of the house would look out of her
window every morning, waiting for her favorite hawkers to bass
on the street below. From the comfort of her living room, she
shopped and haggled while picking up the latest street gossip.
In some neighborhoods of Manila hawkers still come around,
and residents remain in contact with each other even if their
homes are new and designed in the rigidly partitioned western
manner, the traditional pattern of living is still Filipino, where
everyone still crowds into a few rooms to sleep, where there are
people at all times, and where life is not bound by the walls of
the house but goes out to include the lives of the neighbors
along the street. In the Filipino lifestyle, it is all for one and one
for all.

Please e-mail your comments and suggestions to

June 21, 1999
Philippine Daily Inquirer Internet Edition

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The ‘bahay kubo’: form need not always follow function
By Augusto F. Villalon

WHAT people in other
countries call
vernacular architecture
we call folk architecture
here, but mostly we
identify the rural bahay
kubo as a "native"

bahaykubo1.jpg (17692 bytes)

Image from Philippine Daily Inquirer

Vernacular architecture goes beyond the bahay kubo.
From its origins as a rural bamboo and nipa house, it evolved
into the urban bahay na bato (house of stone) during the
Spanish colonial era. From there, certain features evolved into
the houses built in the early part of the 20th century during the
American regime.

Very simple

The traditional features of
the native house have
always been the steeply
pitched roof supported by
a wooden post-and-lintel
construction that allowed
the raising of the single
room of the dwelling on
stilts off the ground,
providing an open space
directly underneath.

bahaykubo2.jpg (22129 bytes)

Image from Philippine Daily Inquirer

The house is very simple: usually a square or rectangular
structure built of bamboo, wood and roofed (and
sometimes walled) with thatch that encloses a single room
that could be small enough to shelter just a man and wife
or, on the other hand, it could be large enough to sleep the
patriarch and matriarch of an extended family that
includes their children and their children’s families.

There is a wealth of folk knowledge that surrounds the
bahay kubo. Folklore and beliefs determine the orientation
of the house on a site, rituals accompany its construction,
communal ties bring neighbors together to construct the
house, and custom dictates the lifestyle lived within the
small confines of the structure. So it can be said that these
houses are shaped in response to the local culture.

However, geography and climate, available natural
building materials and local construction skills, could be
also said to be the determining factors of the bahay kubo.
Responding to climate, the most dominant element of the
house is its thick roof of thatch that insulates the interior
from the tropical sun, rain slides off its steep roof and wide
overhangs protect the walls from water, the floor of
bamboo slats conducts air into the house even if all
openings are shut.

The houses, therefore, are a result of many influences:
cultural, environmental and technological. This is a case
where form does not necessarily follow function because
the form of the house dictates how its inhabitants function
within it.

Cebu version

A way of life evolved in response to the single main room
within the bahay kubo. In the book "Cebu, More Than Just
an Island" (Ayala Foundation, Makati, 1997), respected
Cebuano architect Melva Java describes the Cebuano payag
(bahay kubo):

"The dwelling consists of one main room or guinlawasan
which comprises the main body of the house. It is usually
left bare except for a long bench that is attached to an
adjacent wall. This is the family room, the center of activity,
where residents eat and spend the night huddled close to
one another.

"To achieve privacy, the Cebuanos have devised a
meaningful body language. One ‘disappears’ or becomes
‘no longer present’ by simply looking away. This is done
when a daughter is in the company of a suitor, or when
one changes clothes, or when a son sits by the window to
be alone with his thoughts."

The interior of the single-room dwelling illustrates the
sophisticated approach of the Filipino toward space.
Unlike the western concept of space where each space is
assigned a function—sleeping, dining, cooking, etc.,
Filipino space is open and multifunctional. An eating area
is cleared away at night and sleeping mats rolled out for
the family to sleep on, or where turning one’s back on the
central shared space of the room creates privacy. It is a
simple open space but its usage is complex—where walls
are not necessary for privacy, where spaces layer upon
each other, where a big communal space gives way to
smaller individual spaces.

Rodrigo D. Perez III writes of the bahay kubo in "Folk
Architecture" (GCF Books, Manila, 1989): "The utter
simplicity of the house is all the more impressive in the
perfect correspondence of exterior form and interior space.
The exterior form defines the totality of space in the
one-room dwelling, while the interior space enjoys the full
expanse of the structure. There is no dead or buried space

"Though small in scale, the native house reveals a sense of
architectural mass. It embodies an appreciation of the
power of simple volumes—pyramids and the combination
of rectangular and triangular masses."


One can speak of the bahay kubo in architectural or
cultural terms, even look at it as something that we have in
common with our neighbors since it appears in one form or
another in all Southeast Asian countries.

However, in this day and age, these traditional houses
have become an anachronism. The more fortunate of their
residents have, over time and generations, built new
houses of cement roofed with galvanized iron roofing. It
matters little that the new house is not safe from floods,
oven-hot in the summer and that typhoon rains deafen the
residents as it drums on the thin roof. The concrete house
is the supreme status symbol.

The less fortunate have moved to the fringes of cities,
where they live in urban versions of the bahay kubo,
temporary shanties constructed of whatever material they
have salvaged.

The traditional bahay kubo, or payag in Cebuano, stands
either alone or in small clusters in rural areas, some of
them a distance away from the nearest road, without water
supply and sewage, without electricity and
communication. Life in a bahay kubo is not easy.

It might be time to take a good look at traditional
architecture, to find ways for rural life to continue in the
bahay kubo and to bring in elements of the 21st century so
that the residents will not feel left out of the mainstream. If
steps are not taken, then we might as well write an epitaph
for traditional architecture.

January 8, 2001

Philippine Daily Inquirer Online Edition

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Striking example of modern Filipino architecture
By Marge C. Enriquez

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Images are from the Philippine Daily Inquirer Internet Edition, June 20, 1999

THE architects and designers of Francisco Ma?osa & Partners live
what they preach, especially in applying the Filipino aesthetics.

''We try to convince anyone who approaches us to patronize what's
ours. Our weather calls for tropical houses and the use of indigenous
materials. You can't go wrong with this philosophy. There's nowhere
else we can build these types of homes,'' says Maria Cecilia ''Chelo''
Hofile?a, head of the Ma?osa's interior design department.

Her abode in Para?aque is a perfect example of modern Filipino
architecture. She'd rather have an airy house, and fill spaces
with rattan furniture and plants than import a chandelier and
have crystals flowing in the wind. Hofile?a says the chandelier's
foreign origin becomes more pronounced.

However, she's not eschewing the idea of chandeliers and
Italian marble, if there's a reason such as decorating a thematic
restaurant or home or designing for a play.

''I don't see the sense of having a French look in the tropics,'''
says Hofile?a. She'd rather go to France to appreciate it in its

In turn, while traveling, she not only gets to understand the way
other people live but she also learns to appreciate what is Filipino.

Asked what's her definition of our indigenous architecture, Hofile?a
says it's a house that's airy and attached to the earth with familiar
materials such as reeds and palms.

The bahay kubo exemplifies this. But it is often looked down as a
flimsy hut for plebeians unsuitable to city living.


But this is because people's minds have been conditioned by
the story of the three little pigs and the big bad wolf. The
antagonist blew away the houses of twigs and woods. Thus,
they were conceived as frail. The wolf failed when the third pig
built a stone house.

Hofile?a believes that a house doesn't have to be completely
solid or all-cement. ''You can reinforce a wooden structure to
give it strength. But it shouldn't deprive you to enjoy
ventilation by having windows.'''

She says design evolves, and there are ways to stylize the
bahay kubo concept and adapt it to the milieu. For instance, the
traditional bahay kubo has bamboo slats on the floor. In a
modern house, these slats can be translated into planks. This is
what she had done to her house.

''I can't afford molave and narra. I'd go for other types of wood
which are within my reach such as the tanguile and bamboo.
They stand out in how they are used,'' says Hofile?a. ''As these
materials are upgraded or used in an unfamiliar way, people will
give them a second look.''

Natural colors

The colors are natural since the materials are from the earth.
Adding contrast to the color scheme is the landscape. ''Because
the colors are from nature, the house looks restful. There's no
jarring color,'' says Hofile?a.

There are no curtains. Like in most ancestral homes, moldings
hold up the ceiling.

When Hofile?a renovated her home in Para?aque, she took note
of what most Filipino homes need today: cross-ventilation so
that the house isn't like an oven in summer, and multipurpose

''Some homeowners give us a long list of rooms and end up wondering
why their houses are so huge. You end up building more rooms than
what's actually needed. Many activities can be cramped in one
room. Space is expensive. I'd rather use the space for a garden that I can
look at for days instead of building a room where I rarely enter,'' says

The living room is like a gazebo, without any doors and windows. The
flooring is made of stone. The eaves of the roof extend far out to shield
the area. When the typhoon signal hits 3, that's the only time the
furniture are brought indoors.

Visual surprise

Because the living room is on the side of the house, one can
enjoy the garden. Since the houses are not close to each other,
Hofile?a blocks them off with greenery. The pond is not only
soothing to the senses, but is also a visual surprise in the

In the second floor, one can still enjoy the greenery, as the
azotea cum family room overlooks the pond. To block off the
sight of the garage, a mirror was built on a wall of the
multipurpose room to reflect the image of the garden.

Hofile?a developed a clever way of using the space in her
daughter's room which is a long hall with partitions. The
designer built a movable wall which is adjusted when there's a
visitor at home. When there are no guests, she pushes the back
wall so the daughter can enjoy more space.

The ceiling is decorated with reflectorized stars so it looks like
an evening sky. In the dining room, doors can be drawn away
and hidden so guests can enjoy more greenery.

Unlike other homes which brandish their artworks and furniture,
Hofile?a keeps everything simple. Although her items are not
expensive, they're stylish. Edwardo Yrezabal designed the rattan
furniture which blends with the stone and wood architecture.

She favors personal things to status symbols and collectibles,
particularly family photos. Books and handicrafts also decorate
her house. ''There's so much beauty in something simple,'' says

June 21, 1999
Philippine Daily Inquirer Internet Edition

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