As the New Year dawns, so do new beginnings, in the form of New Year’s resolutions. One tradition in many parts of the world is to literally clear out the old and make way for the new, by cleaning and tidying up one’s home. In whatever culture this tradition occurs, and on whatever date on the calendar that signifies renewal and replenishment, “spring cleaning” is not just about cleaning up. It is also about renewing and reconnecting with one’s home, one’s most important and intimate physical space.
As an architect and designer, and in my work at Italpinas Design Corporation, physical space is my medium. Tidying up around the house is not just a mundane chore, but also a chance to optimize the design and layout of where one lives, bringing it back to the ideal that was intended by its design. Architects give much thought to layout and space. We think carefully about where solid matter (like walls and columns) should be placed, but we also think just as carefully about the placement of empty space. Empty space directs the eye, and as such, cues the body about how to move and whether or not to be at ease. Simply by being empty space, it reassures the mind of comfort, and directs the flow of air and light. Deliberately empty space, in its blankness, represents possibility. Filling that space with clutter or superfluous ornamentation makes it inanimate, preoccupied, and unwelcoming.
Designing built environments in any place requires sensitivity to its cultural, demographic, and physical conditions. In the Philippines, and particularly in the fast-growing cities where we develop our projects, conditions are influenced by the country’s fast-paced growth and economic development. Population density is relatively high in the cities, spending power is increasing by many measures, and a broader variety of goods are available on the market than before. At the same time, media sends us messages about “lifestyle”, which encourage us to spend on material belongings, whether consciously or subconsciously. As anyone who has cleaned out their closet will know, these material things build up, and often become a part of our physical habitat as clutter. This inevitably affects the way we live in our homes. Whether we live in a house or a condominium unit, space is now at a premium. Deliberately empty spaces, whether floor space or even a tabletop, can disappear under a build-up of objects. What makes us hold on to these things?
Among the Filipino words I have learned during my time here, there is one word, “sayang”, which comes to mind. We often cling to unnecessary belongings because we feel a chance that they will be useful in the future, and it would be a waste (“sayang”) to dispose of them. If we take the perspective of our home being our most valuable and most loved physical possession, however, then I believe that the real “sayang” is when the physical spaces of our homes are compromised. We cannot live in the same exact floor space as clutter or superfluous ornamentation. When unneeded belongings pile up in a place, the inhabitable area of our homes decreases inch by inch. The flow, visually and physically, intended by the designer, is impaired. As I do my own spring cleaning, I try to remind myself that the waste (“sayang”) of giving away an object that may or may not be needed again, is small, in comparison to the “sayang” of compromising the livability of the space itself.
Perhaps it is an especially apt time of year to think about the clutter of material belongings, because we are just now moving on from the consumer rush of Christmas shopping and the material flurry of gift-giving. The gifts that we have lovingly given and appreciatively received have fulfilled their purpose, which is to convey affection. Once this goodwill has been transmitted, however, the physical object remains, whether the recipient actually needs it or not. It then stands the chance of truly being put to good use and being appreciated for years to come, or of contributing to the accumulation of clutter in the home.
From an architect’s perspective, good design, including empty spaces, is also a gift. It’s a benefit that lasts for generations, or for the life of a physical home, whether it’s a house or a condominium, and whether it’s owned, or rented, or borrowed. It outlasts fashions and lifestyle trends. It is investment rather than consumption. As 2018 begins, one of my resolutions, not only as an architect, but, as a dweller in my own physical space, will be to appreciate the home that I have as my most valuable physical possession, and the one that contributes most to my wellbeing.