Lightscapes: Balay Kōbō by Aya Cabauatan

Photographer Aya Cabauatan finds her place in the sun with Balay Kōbō, a self-established home studio and communal space for Filipino creatives

Words and Interview Gabrielle de la Cruz
Images Aya Cabauatan/Balay Kōbō

Kanto Creative Corners Balay Kōbō by Aya Cabauatan

“You never know how one decision can lead to the biggest changes,” answered Aya Cabauatan when asked what she learned from the experience of establishing her home studio Balay Kōbō. “I never thought a studio was possible for me,” the photographer continued. Cabauatan shared that she has always seen photography as a passion, separating it from her professional life. “After completing a degree in Business Management, I always envisioned myself working in the corporate world. I’ve been doing photography since I was in Grade 6 or 7, and I’ve always considered it a hobby. I love the craft so much that I often forget my sense of reality. I guess I was afraid of losing that magic should I decide to mix passion and practice. But I realized that it’s possible with the right boundaries.”

We sat in Balay Kōbō’s audio room for the interview, which followed the aerated concrete walls of the studio and housed a full turntable setup and vinyl records. Mood lighting was available, and the space was adorned with thrift vintage rugs. I told Cabauatan that the room speaks to me as it would make a good writing spot and I have vinyl records of my own back home. “Creatives who have been here also tell me about their favorite spots, and I have no complaints! I envisioned Balay Kobo to be an all-in-one space for anyone who wishes to pursue their craft, hence the provision of spaces for different functions,” she replied. “I want everyone to feel like there’s a place for them.”


“Balay Kōbō started as a single room in my parents’ garden,” the photographer revealed. The initial vision was to build a small backyard space that could cater to her needs in filling up her photography portfolio. “I just wanted a space with a lot of natural light. I pitched the idea to my friends at 260 Architects, and they saw the potential in my drawings. They asked me to consider a larger space for what I had in mind. Luckily, this family lot was available, and it is only a few minutes away from where I live.”

When did the idea of building a home and studio come to you? What were the goals you initially set?

Aya Cabauatan, founder of Balay Kōbō: There wasn’t a single moment when I said that I wanted a home + studio. I started accepting freelance photography gigs in 2012, and I always felt like I was saving up for something but never knew what that thing was. It wasn’t until I talked to 260 Architects that I realized I could make it happen. One thing I was sure of was that I wanted to help fill a gap in the creative industry. Existing studios are often located in prime Metro Manila areas such as Quezon City and Makati, and I wanted to help bridge creatives by giving them a space here in the South.

The goal was simple: creating a space to help build and strengthen the Filipino creative community. I drew initial plans myself and conceptualized the entire studio, mainly for photoshoots, workshops, and intimate events. My non-negotiables include a heavy amount of natural light, good ventilation, a high ceiling, and the provision of spaces for three main studios: daylight, cyclorama, and kitchen.

You’ve been doing photography for about a decade now. How has your observation of the Filipino photography community influenced your vision for Balay Kōbō? What do you like most about the community? What do you think merits improvement?

I still consider myself young in the industry. My take is that as a photographer, you’re isolated most of the time. You select photos, process, and edit all on your own. It’s only when you share the photos that you get to interact with others.

I find that we’re already developing this mindset of coming together. It’s one thing to see the work of others; it’s another thing when you meet them and understand why they do what they do. I want Balay Kōbō to be a part of this; to be known as a space that encourages creative exchange and connections.

I also hope we can spotlight more local talent. Recognition is one thing, but being given opportunities is another. I intend to highlight local brands here in the studio as well, as I believe that there is plenty of promising work that we have yet to see.

Balay Kōbō’s etymology also speaks about its goals. The name comes from the Bicolano/Visayan term “balay” meaning house/home, and the Japanese word “kōbō” meaning studio/workshop/atelier. I want people to know that this is a place where they can feel at home as they work on what they love.

Balay Kōbō is anchored on Filipino and Japanese sensibilities. Can you tell us more about this? What appeals to you about this concept?

I have always been drawn to the culture and architecture in Japan. Studying there for a while also helped me appreciate everything about it more—from the stillness to the scenic views. I like how they design their spaces to echo the calmness of the outdoors, so I sought to mimic that for Balay Kōbō. Of course, I need to honor my roots and make sure that the studio will resonate with everyone, hence the Filipino hints in the space. I always say that Balay Kōbō borrows wisdom from both cultures and is not necessarily a mixture of the two.

You mentioned that you reached out to 260 Architects after completing your initial drawings. How familiar were you with their work? How about landscape designer Maita Hagad? Did you consult with other creatives as well?

I knew 260 Architects and had worked with them even before planning the space, so I felt like they would be a good fit. It was 260 who guided me throughout the process and formalized my drawings. Part of the brief was to borrow wisdom from brutalism and expose certain aspects and materials within the space, and I’m glad they helped me bring that to life. On the other hand, Maita’s portfolio consisted of concepts that are Filipino-Japanese inspired. I was also impressed with her thesis, which was a dance studio with good play of light. I thought that a creative like her would understand my vision for the Zen garden.

Balay Kōbō is a result of connecting with various creatives. I bargained with brands to help me fill the space, offered my photography services in exchange for certain items, and asked friends and colleagues what to do for some of the studios. Each main studio in Balay Kōbō is a collaboration with different brands and designers: Daylight with Albero and Tahanan, Cyclorama with Aputure Lighting, and Kitchen with Lamana and Ren Marble. We also worked with BambooHub for the studio’s gate and Kenneth & Mock and Portal East for the windows. While the goal is for the space to be shared by everyone, I wanted its beginnings to also be a coming together of people passionate about what they do.

Kanto Creative Corners Balay Kōbō by Aya Cabauatan

Zen Garden is a collaboration between landscape designer Maita Hagad and furniture studio Nooke.

Fitting it all in one frame

We began the tour from the outside, where Cabauatan walked us through the Zen garden, which introduced the calmness of the studio to guests. The pocket can be found on the left side upon entrance, characterized by three large boulders and pebbles. An old Santol tree stands on the side and helps frame the structure. A floor-level teakwood deck, in collaboration with Filtra Timber, sits right next to the garden. Cabauatan shared that this strip is inspired by an engawa, a boarded floor running outside a traditional Japanese home connecting the indoors and outdoors. These decks play host to visitors basking in the sun and lush views during the day and serve as verandas for moon-watching at night.

Can you tell us more about the site? What challenges and opportunities did it present in turning your home + studio dream into a reality?

The lot area is 480 square meters. Most of the opportunities it presented can be found here in the pocket garden. We opted to keep the Santol tree as it has been on this site for decades already. I find that it adds to the Zen atmosphere of the place. The three huge boulders you see are also part of the site, and we discovered that they are larger than they seem during construction. We dug a little deeper to expose them more! It’s these little touches that helped me further appreciate the site.

As for challenges, most of what we encountered had to do with construction quality and execution. I admit there were a few tearful moments in between, but it wasn’t the site to blame. Among the major issues we had to deal with was changing contractors, but I’m glad we solved that. Execution was also very important, as I am very detail-oriented and was particular with how certain elements of the space had to be built or arranged.

Speaking of details, I noticed plenty of circular elements: the entrance handle, the painting in the hallway, and even the chandelier. They contrast very well with the structure’s sharp edges and angular aspects.

Yes! I’m glad you pointed that out because my drawings included spherical details intended to soften the space. The painting in the sun hall was a housewarming gift made by my friend Anna Bautista, and the chandelier was my pick! The chandelier is from a multi-generational business called Senseware, who we worked with along with Ware Co. for the entire sun hall. They made use of capiz and glass for the piece, and I like how it casts prism-like refractions on the floor between three to four in the afternoon. I consider the chandelier the centerpiece of the space. It hangs just right in the sun hall and can be observed from different portions of the house as well. Probably the biggest compliment I received from my architect is that I chose the chandelier perfectly!

Kanto Creative Corners Balay Kōbō by Aya Cabauatan
The home + studio’s Mezzanine comes with furniture pieces by Nooke.

Daylight is the first studio people will encounter after experiencing the welcome hallway. Can you walk us through your concept for this space?

The daylight studio is an open, 80-square-meter high ceiling space facing west. It is best for afternoon shoots and comes with its own pantry and shelving unit. Multi-story windows and modular furniture come with the space. There is also a mezzanine with a circular window, which serves as a holding area or glam room. Teams in the mezzanine also get to see what is happening in the daylight studio through the glass window we placed. We wanted to make sure that the spaces are conversational to aid in facilitations during shoots and events.

You mentioned that the daylight studio is best for afternoon shoots. Do the other studios have peak hours as well? How does the design of the spaces respond to the changes in light settings during the day?

One of the things that I emphasized when we were designing the space is that the studios need to be versatile. We considered the house’s orientation to maximize the penetration of natural light within the space and positioned the studios with respect to the amount of light they would need. 260 Architects even asked me multiple times if I was sure I wanted this many glass windows considering the weather in the Philippines, but I told them that this was the only way to achieve what I wanted for the space. I also asked for a high ceiling and good ventilation to minimize heat gain, and I’m glad that the space does not feel too hot from morning to afternoon.  Curtains are always there to save the day as well, so guests can also control the amount of light they want during shoots or events.

Cyclorama on the second floor provides different light settings. This studio is best for product or portrait shots that demand playful colors. As someone who does fashion and editorial shoots, I find that having a space like this is beneficial for creative shots. It comes with a skylight, a white corner cyclorama, and a light railing with a 100-kilogram weight capacity. It also has a blackout curtain option and natural light sources from three different angles.

We always say that we are made for the sun because the studio does not simply maximize natural light. The way light hits the spaces was also considered. We designed all studios to welcome shadows and patterns, adding flare to each corner.

Capturing light

I’m curious to know more about your inclinations as a photographer. How would you say your relationship with light differs when working with natural light versus artificial light? How have your observations about this impacted your process over the years?

Balay Kōbō welcomes as much natural light because I love using natural light. I find that no matter how good you are, you cannot copy or cheat natural light. Things are more beautiful when you see them through it. Things are more beautiful in the natural, in the organic.

I like shedding light on what people don’t see, and I have learned to embrace imperfections over the years. I used to strive for the perfect image, but now I just capture the beauty of my subjects as they are.

Your current portfolio is a mix of editorial, product, and lifestyle photos. At what point in your journey did you decide that this will be your focus? What emotions do you try to elicit through your work?

It’s hard for me to define what I do because I like learning from every experience. It’s a never-ending process. I currently enjoy portraits, objects, and nature. I want people to feel joy when they look at my work. My Instagram photography handle,_positivity, was actually from a song by Sebastian from The Little Mermaid. It stuck with me as a teenager, and it eventually resonated with my photography.

Let’s revisit your photography journey. We all know that you started because of your dad, who was a photo hobbyist. Can you name your other influences? What about photography appealed to you the most?

Instagram was my first platform. I was part of this community called “Teenager Photographers of Instagram” back then, which gathered young people from all over the world—the United States, Sweden, Europe, and more. I was introverted as a child, and that community helped me grow out of my shell. I can say that it was photography that helped me put myself out there. I even got to keep in touch with some of the people I met in that community until now!

Taking a shot

After experiencing the various Cyclorama light configurations and a series of conversations in the hallway, we headed to the Kitchen studio. This is the smallest and last of the three main studios, tucked towards the rightmost corner of the second floor. The space was designed to be comfortable, with a movable oak island by Lamana and a wide array of appliances that can be used for producing food-related content.

Outside this is a laid-back culinary space with teakwood decking and a sliding brise soleil. We stood here to breathe in fresh air, observing the play of light from the brise soleil to the kitchen floors and shelving. Clerestory windows also cast shadows on the kitchen walls, and the contrasting white and wood cabinets add to the homey feel of the space. We also got to observe the house from a new vantage point and get a glimpse of the Zen garden from above.

 “There are moments when I stand here and ruminate on the journey,” Cabauatan shared. “It’s been months since Balay Kōbō opened, but sometimes I still get emotional when I realize that these had all happened. And it’s ironic because this was never even in my plans. I literally just took a shot.”

I’m truly happy for you! How many events and shoots have you hosted since you opened?

We’ve had around 70 shoots and events since we opened last January 28. We get a range of high-end and low-end clients, and we’ve also had repeat clients. Around 60 of those were paid shoots, while the others were ex-deals and marketing. We usually host one to two shoots at a time. Sometimes I wonder if I should be more aggressive, but the space doesn’t call for that kind of environment. I want to keep the calm energy of the space so that people will feel it too.

We’ve also hosted Kōbō Summer twice, inviting local brands to come together for a series of activities and workshops such as pottery, flower arrangement, make-up, and the like. I intend to make this a regular thing through an initiative called “Kobo Club,” where we invite and/or collaborate with local brands and artists to share their craft through pop-ups or workshops.

Not a bad number at all! Any memorable anecdotes or comments from visitors during these events?

The best I can recall is that the space looks better in real life. That’s a huge achievement for me! I’ve also received comments that we were able to maximize the space and make it look bigger. I also like how people usually tell me this after they’ve gone around and experienced the space. I don’t want the community to recognize Balay Kōbō as “that space from Instagram;” I want them to experience it for themselves.

Photos 2 and 3 by Gabrielle de la Cruz

How is Balay Kōbō being maintained at the moment? Do you intend to make this your permanent residence as well?

We have an in-house caretaker, and I live nearby, so I check on the space every day. We designed the third floor as a resting or holding area, but I intend to make that my residence in the future—probably in the next two to three years. Right now, it serves as a guest area for private glam or when people prefer to stay overnight for their shoots.

You take pride in being Balay Kōbō’s founder, creative director, and project manager. What has the experience taught you?

This is my first time working with designers, and I now respect architects and designers way more than I did before. The experience has also reminded me to be okay with imperfections. Ar. Jun Fernando told me to embrace every floor crack. “Respect the behavior of the material; don’t try to cover it up.” Honesty is beauty.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that this studio is a result of my blood, sweat, and tears. I’m humbled that creatives in the South are introducing themselves and are taking an interest in renting it! I started to meet new names after establishing the studio, which only proves that creating space for people matters. I started as a teenager in the Instagram photography community, so this is truly a full-circle moment for me.

Kanto Creative Corners Balay Kōbō by Aya Cabauatan

Balay Kōbō is now contributing to the industry as a communal space. How do you see it evolving in the next few years? Do you have any other dreams for the studio?

I was just thinking about this last night! I hope Balay Kōbō can be a space for artist residencies in the future. I hope to bring individuals and communities outside of the metro into the space as well; to bring people and ideas together. I intend to keep doing what we were able to do for the past few months, but I hope that the studio can have a wider reach and open its doors for more creative endeavors in the future.

You’ve been so busy for the past few months! Any particular hobbies that helped you relax? Do you have plans to explore a different craft in the future?

All my hobbies are related to wellness. I may be wearing multiple hats, but I try to take care of my body in the best way I can. I shift between gardening, cooking, and playing tennis.

I’ll be honest. I’ve always been interested in architecture and interior design, and the Balay Kōbō experience made me think twice about exploring interior design more. I do think I’ll have to appreciate the craft from afar. After all, it’s all about having the eye, right? •

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