The Atrium in Makati City is a quaint, dry and dusty building. It sits on Makati Avenue, across from the Ayala Triangle, and right beside the tall, solid glass wall of the Zuellig Building. Although both are unmistakably commercial edifices, being located centrally in one of Manila’s business districts, there is a striking contrast between the two structures’ appearances. One speaks of modernity, and admirable is the manner by which it blends with the sky. Viewed from a distance, on overcast days with a uniform gray sky, the Zuellig nearly disappears behind the reflection on its mirror-like exterior, and if one had poor vision she might not see it at all while gazing at Makati’s skyline. The other building, meanwhile, is from an older era. The Atrium is more at home with the utilitarian offices like those which house SGV & Co. and National Life Insurance on Ayala Avenue; its architecture belongs to that style which still dominates Legazpi Village and the many roads that feed into Ayala and Buendia. But not on Makati Avenue itself—here the ultra-modern reigns over all. Here, steel and glass captures all attention, turns all heads, and leaves nothing for the quaint, the dry and the dusty.
I found myself entering The Atrium on a rainy July morning. I was looking for an official BlackBerry service center, a store which has found its nest in this old building. My mother texted me the address earlier; I looked it up on Google Maps, and found out it was just a few sidewalks and underpasses away from where I worked.
On the entrance, where the security guard is supposed to inspect the belongings of all visitors but is often too indifferent to try, or simply sleepy, there was a life-sized image of the Virgin Mary. It was the kind that is found in random corners of neighborhood shopping malls, and like the others it had a donation box waiting for coins in front of it.
Beyond the short corridor from the entrance, the eponymous atrium greets all tenants. It was cavernous, and quite glorious. From the outside, The Atrium does not look too large, perhaps dwarfed by its glassy neighbor; but from the inside, standing in its heart, I felt dwarfed. I had a sense of space that I have felt before when I first saw the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Pasay City, or its neighbor, the Philippine International Convention Center. This is the powerful architecture of a past era, tucked away into insignificance behind an unassuming exterior along Makati Avenue.
After I had moved on from shamelessly gawking with childlike wonder, I proceeded to look for the BlackBerry shop. The Atrium has seven or eight floors, stitched through with sets of escalators that neither went up nor down—property management probably does not want the extra electricity billing required to keep them running, and besides there are not that many tenants. I imagined that in its heyday, The Atrium was filled with the buzz of business, the warm busyness of commerce occupying all its floors. But today The Atrium is occupied only by several banks and government front offices in the lower floors. As one goes up, he encounters fewer and stranger shops.
Like that BlackBerry store. It stood in between some unoccupied stalls, some empty commercial spaces, dusty floors behind dusty glass walls. Business was quick for me. There was no other customer, and I simply inquired about replacement batteries for an old phone model, then I was out. I thought that the lady I talked to was only too happy to have conversation with a customer. On the way out, I noticed a Manila Bulletin advertising office, which looked a little busier.
The BlackBerry needing a replacement battery was not mine. My mother, despite having owned fully modern smartphones in the form of a Samsung Galaxy and an Apple iPhone, prefers using her old BlackBerry, because she finds the physical keyboard so much easier to use. The only problem is that it had started to randomly reboot on its own. After the unit was checked in a telecom shop near our home, it was referred to the BlackBerry service center in Makati, for possible battery replacement. I imagined the telecom staff saying, There are not that many BlackBerry phones still in use in the country, and you have to take a pilgrimage to Makati, to one of our few remaining shops, should you wish to keep this phone alive.
That is what I found funny about discovering the BlackBerry store in The Atrium. Here is a repair shop for a product no one buys anymore, in an old place overshadowed by glitzier, shinier buildings. It is an almost irrelevant business, opening shop in a place that was all but waiting to die.
And this is what I love about the city: how many more such paradoxes, how many more stories hide in the thousands of streets in this urban jungle, our Manila?