A Place to Dock

Architect Lira Luis’s temporary shelter would give Manila seafarers someplace to come home to.

When Arizona-based architect Lira Luis read about a plan to improve the living conditions of migrant seafarers in Manila, she decided to get involved. Born and raised in the Philippines, Luis had witnessed the housing crisis firsthand. Since the 1980s the Philippines has emerged as the maritime industry’s largest labor supplier, with Filipinos making up one-fifth of the world’s seafaring population. But back in Manila there is little for these migrant workers to come home to. Overcrowding and a lack of adequate supplies in the city’s seafarer’s dormitories has caused a housing shortage that is forcing many Filipinos to camp out on the docks for days, and sometimes even months, until the next job arrives. And while the number of registered seafarers seeking work has soared to 500,000 in recent years, the number of daily deployments has not kept pace, leaving some 300,000 out of work and in search for short-term housing at any given time.

Luis—who studied architecture at the Philippines’ University of Santo Tomas, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s School of Architecture at Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, Arizona—felt she was in a position to help. She sought out the project’s entrepreneur—Illac Diaz, a 32-year-old actor and model—and proposed a mutually beneficial collaboration. Diaz had a promising business plan, but Luis had a deeper understanding of the built environment.

After living off the land in a ten-foot-square canvas tent in the harsh Arizona desert (a requirement of first- and second-year Taliesin students), she had come to understand the basic requirements of shelter. “You really get to know your relationship to the environment and what it means to coexist with it,” Luis explains. “In the housing units we were given there was no electricity or running water. I felt like one of the transients back home.” For Diaz, she designed a prefabricated indoor unit resembling her Taliesin dwelling, which she modified to meet the seamen’s needs and the conditions of the site-the interior of an abandoned waterfront building. Luis is applying for grants to offset the cost of gutting and renovating the building, which Diaz is seeking to purchase with the help of the Filipino government. And by doing so she is securing her first large-scale solo commission in the Philippines.

The collaboration is an expansion of Diaz’s Pier One Corte Real Seamen’s Dormitory, which he built in Intramuros, Manila’s historic walled city. Luis is proposing a strategy that will help optimize the design of the new pods: invite the out-of-work seamen to assemble their own units in exchange for rent. The trial will begin early next year, when the first prototype is expected to be shipped to Manila.

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