A City with No White Space

Posted: November 9, 2010 in Life in the Philippines
Tags: , , , ,

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

In graphic design, white space is the term used to describe (regardless of literal color) an area in a composition left blank for effect, to set off other elements on the page, or for visual rest. This post is about something completely different.

Can you imagine a city where every surface, every space, every molecule is full of something? Land, water, air? All chockablock, cheek-by-jowl, and shoulder-to-shoulder? I can: it’s called Manila, and we live here–along with 19 million other people, countless chickens and pigs (alive and grilled), fighting cocks, stray dogs and cats, goats, and lots more. But let me explain.

It’s pretty simple: in metro Manila, every horizontal surface has something on top of it (by approximate frequency of occurrence): people, concrete, shanties, buildings, vehicles, and the occasional plant. There is simply no such thing as unused land, and public land is almost nonexistent; seemingly every square centimeter, meter, and hectare is being built on top of, lived in, squatted on, dug up, or torn down.

Every vertical surface is covered with advertising, signs, graffiti, or smog-rain residue. Every unbottled molecule of water contains either bacteria, dirt, laundry suds, human waste or some redolent stew thereof. Every air molecule has humidity and exhaust, plus essences of sweat, smoke from fires or grills, perfume, odors one hopes not to identify, not to mention an assortment of sounds including, but not limited to, roosters crowing, street vendors hawking, jeepney hustlers barking, stray dogs howling, vehicles honking, basketball players yelling, workmen hammering, people singing, the occasional bird tweeting, and of course daily, rain falling. In a word, everything here is full.

But as New Yorkers (to a lesser degree) can attest, anywhere people are packed together, everyone hustling to get by or ahead, there’s an energy that can’t be duplicated in more mellow, restful parts of the planet. And indeed, Manila teems, pulses, veritably yowls with energy. If you come here to retreat from life you might be disappointed, but if you’re ready to embrace it, they’ve got all you can handle.


  1. jack davis says:

    Very dense, evocative description – so different from our suburban/rural New England setting! I hope you might consider a published collection of blog pieces titled “Manila Dreaming” or “Manila Nights and Days” or something of the sort …

  2. Bryan says:

    Great blog entry. I have a much better sense of the space and energy. Really enjoyable to read as well.

    • freeisaverb says:

      Hey Bryan, I was hoping I’d give all my industry friends a smile with that title! And we could’ve included a lot more photos as evidence . . . it really is something else. Thanks though for the encouragement, and we’ll look forward to taking our internet friendship offline when we get back next summer.

  3. Liza says:

    China on steroids. Tiring just to read about it!

  4. Dave says:

    Great post Nate. I’m sure adjusting to the density has been quite a shock.

  5. MichaelB says:

    This is a vivid slice, making Manila seem at once completely repulsive and completely attractive.

    The last time I worked in New York, which was a two-week gig a few months ago, I came back home to the comparatively mellow and spacious Bay Area worn out from the kind of “energy” you describe. But, of course, now I want to go back again.

    You’ll probably be feeling that same kind of push-pull about six times a day during your Manila life, eh?

  6. Meghan Ward says:

    I’m exhausted reading about it, too. Reminds me of New Delhi. And as for that energy that New Yorkers love, I prefer mellow California with its ocean, mountains, lakes, and deserts. I did love India, though. I remember doing yoga there and then later that same year with the same people on an island in Greece. While everyone else found Greece wonderfully relaxing in comparison to India, I found it painfully boring and quiet after all that stimulation. But I was young then. Now I like the quiet 🙂

  7. I love it Nate! I can totally picture it too! Great photos by the way! I want to see more.

  8. hilary says:

    I remember when I came home from Kolkata I rode my bike to an empty rocky outcrop overlooking the beach in Bev Farms. I remember looking out at the empty, open expanse of blue, and hardly being able to believe that this kind of view was available – available, of course, to a select few. It seemed unfair, knowing that the majority of the world’s population, crammed into such sensorily assaulting places, would never experience respite.

    But then, I craved the noise. I went to NYC shortly after Kolkata, hoping to find that sense of being crowded together with humanity. And all I found were ears crammed with ipods, isolated people who didn’t look each other in the eye, sharing space…

  9. Gladys Dulay says:

    Manila is a wicked VERB, eh? Thank you for the great story behind a city that some people may think as a type of PAPER! Cheers!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s