Bohol: The Heritage Beyond The Hills

Bohol is beautiful. Its beaches are lined with powdery white sand, and remain largely unspoilt by the junk and sleaze marring other more renowned island destinations. Its rivers, falls, wildlife parks and wooded areas reveal landscapes that could have come out of a fairy tale or a tropical jungle fantasy. And there really is nothing more one can say about the Chocolate Hills except that you have to see them for yourself.

There is enough scenery on this small island to make your jaws drop and eyes melt many times over. The people are no less of a treasure, the Boholanos are welcoming, courteous, helpful, and honest. It is no wonder then why the island’s popularity has been booming. The resorts are crawling with tourists, mostly foreign and wholesome, with families or retirees making up the bulk of the vacationers. Good, clean, quiet fun is in abundant supply, one of the most popular daytime activities appears to be lying down in the sun and reading a book, although more strenuous activities such as hiking, diving, and dolphin-watching also have their enthusiasts. A party scene does exist, but it’s not so in-your-face as elsewhere. There are a handful of hard-core backpackers hanging around, but most of the young people on the island originally came for more than just some R&R. On any given day you can meet German dental students on a medical outreach program (from whom one can learn that there are no Bavarian donuts in Bavaria), members of the US Peace Corps (surprisingly game for in-depth discussions of Philippine society and politics), and young missionaries from Canada (very pious and very polite).

The Boholanos appear to be truly mindful of the aesthetic value of their homes and public spaces. They all seem to have agreed to make their houses and streets as clean and pretty as possible. Almost every front yard is tidy and almost all the roads are lined with trees and ornamental plants. Most newly built modern homes at least acknowledge the province’s architectural heritage and try to pay tribute to the more classic structures by incorporating a few of their design elements. Boholanos seem to be not only very good homemakers, but good homeowners as well. There is a palpable respect for the gifts of the past, heritage buildings are preserved and cherished. While the distribution of riches may be not as dense as in Vigan or Silay, Bohol can still be proud of a lovely collection of stately old houses and buildings dotting the landscape. The heritage churches of Bohol alone are a subject worthy enough to fill entire books, or at least a separate feature. With all of its natural beauty it could be easy to miss the architectural treasures scattered throughout the province. Just when you think you’ve had your fill, out pops another wonder.

Driving through the island of Panglao, on the road from the San Agustin church, a vision of a gleaming, elegant bahay-na-bato, standing amidst a lush garden, surrounded by fields of green, is sure to catch one’s eye.  Displaying true Boholano hospitality, Mr. Agustin Cloribel was kind enough to welcome us into his home and allow us to enter and photograph this as yet unheralded architectural gem.

The Cloribel house was built in 1926, and its structure was originally designed by a Spanish architect in the classic two-story bahay-na-bato style. The lower half of the house, called the zaguan, may have been used to store the family carriage in the old days. The main entry door is definitely large enough to admit a horse or automobile. The Cloribels currently utilize the space to stable their motorcycle, which is a favorite means of transportation among Boholanos. It now also serves as an informal receiving area.

The main living area is on the upper level. Large windows surround the second floor, taking advantage of the cool Panglao breezes. The window sashes still feature the original sliding panes of capiz and wood, ready to be shut tight during storms. Vents above the windows, protected by the roof eaves, let air in even when it’s rainy. Small shuttered windows below the large windows, called ventanillas, are screened with grillwork and can be left open when the large windows are closed.

The family patriarch, Gaudencio Cloribel, was a respected judge and friend to such notable historical figures as former president Carlos P. Garcia. The chess table on which they used to play still stands in the sala, although because a few pieces from the chess set are missing, it now serves mostly as a coffee table. The majority of the furnishings around the house are original pieces from the 1920s, but since they have been maintained so well they don’t look like timeworn antiques at all. The Cloribels are particularly proud of their “programmable” piano, powered by rolls of punched-out paper, it’s a real collector’s item from the turn of the last century. The handsomely crafted wooden scrollwork, panelling, and hardwood floors seem to have come straight out of a museum, and go perfectly with the sepia-toned photographs, mementoes, and portraits that hang on the walls. Mr. Cloribel points out that the ceiling used to boast of ornate carvings, remnants of which still encircle the base of the ceiling fan. But before they had the carvings taken down, they carefully photographed everything to ensure that its original form may someday be accurately restored.

Except for using concrete to reinforce the stone portions of the structure and upgrading the electrical wiring and plumbing, Mr. Cloribel states that the house has never really undergone any big renovation or restoration work. He asserts that it now still looks pretty much like it did when it was first built. The family has always taken care that the house stays clean and gets a fresh coat of paint when necessary, and that the grounds and garden are kept up and manicured. Although numerous members of the Cloribel clan have settled elsewhere or gone abroad, they still make it a point to come together at their ancestral home every year during Holy Week and other holidays, thus ensuring that the heart of the Cloribel house beats strong with the pulse of several generations.

Finding an authentic bahay-na-bato has become increasingly elusive, especially one that is still being kept alive by the original family’s descendants. A lot of these ancestral houses are left to decay and be preyed upon by vandals and salvagers. The shared memory of the quintessential Filipino home, part of our national identity, is being worn away, torn down, or carted off to be sold for scrap. We must realize that protecting the legacy of the past is not a futile exercise in nostalgia, but a crucial task in defining our culture. The efforts of the Cloribel family and the province of Bohol show how Filipinos can live and progress in harmony with the land and its history. Sea and sand, hills and rivers, wood and stone, all these have come together in Bohol to build a place the entire country can be proud of.

-text and photosby Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Manila Bulletin, 2004

Chic Lit: Reading for the Red Carpet

photo by Tata Tuviera

Sometimes it’s not what you know but what you have. It’s not about the books you’ve read, but the books you own. And to some people’s eyes, luxury reading means expensive books about expensive things. However, true class is a different beast from mere conspicuous consumption. A catalog of rare Star Wars memorabilia cannot compare to a registry of vintage cars. If you want to impress, it takes more than a pair of Armani reading glasses to show that you’re a connoisseur of the printed word and the hardbound book. You need to have a kick-ass library (or coffee table at least) to back up your wardrobe and wallet. Past the medicine cabinet and baby pictures, most dates and prospective mates progress to ransacking one’s bookshelves. Barring librarians and literature majors, this roster of weighty tomes ought to raise your lux-factor considerably.

Cabernet: A Photographic Journey from Vine to Wine by Charles O’Rear, Michael Creedman

Part travelogue and part oenologue (just a fancy way of saying wine-book), the authors take us on a worldwide tour of the regions where the Cabernet grape is grown. Get drunk on stimulating panoramas of vineyards, grapes, oak barrels, and photogenic locals. Wordiness-wise, there’s just enough red meat in the text, including a foreword from renowned vintner Robert Mondavi, to go well with this particular vintage. Now you can better sip and smooth talk your way through a wine list. Just say, cabernet (that rhymes).

ART of the 20th Century (Paperback) by Klaus Honnef, Schneckenburger, Fricke, Ruhrberg

Cover of "Art of the 20th Century"

Cover of Art of the 20th Century

This attention-grabbing boxed set aims to be the end-all and be-all guide to the art of the past 100 years, a tall order for any work. Full of eye-popping pictures of modern art’s usual suspects like the crisply named Klimt and Munch, who you can now match to their respective tersely titled paintings (The Kiss and The Scream). If the art won’t work you up, at least the writing won’t put you to sleep.

Annie Leibovitz: American Music by Annie Leibovitz

Cover of "Annie Leibovitz: American Music...

Cover of Annie Leibovitz: American Music

Leaf through revealing portraits of rock stars, folk singers, and their elaborate accoutrements as shot by Vanity Fair’s top photographer. The compositions are alternately nostalgic and naughty, showing off Leibovitz’s knack for capturing icons at their most relaxed and real. Seeing these gods of cool brought down to earth will do wonders for your own cred.

Film Noir by Alain Silver, James Ursini

This ultra-stylish book even features white text on black background to go with its dramatic collection of black and white stills from classic crime movies. The elegant imagery is a stark contrast to the sordid themes, vulgar dialogue, and depraved characters of the typical noir film. Possessing this book lets you point out and congratulate yourself on how far above you live from the humble criminal lowlifes such as gangsters, hitmen, and corrupt politicians.

The Rulemakers by Sheila Coronel

Knowing about the wealthy and well-born is a step closer to being one of them (but then if you’re reading this magazine and this book then you probably already are). Although rather deceptive and academic, this is the closest one can get to a comprehensive inventory of the reigning political dynasties of the Philippines. Whether you’re wooing a militant activist (reading the PCIJ’s work earns you major radical points), or a silver-spooned scion (pointing out their family name in the power list is sure to charm), you can’t lose.

The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

Cover of "The 48 Laws of Power"

Cover of The 48 Laws of Power

Power is the ultimate luxury. And Greene’s guidelines read like Machiavelli and Sun-Tzu spiced up and simplified for modern readers. With such ruthless gems of advice as “Get others to do the Work for you, but Always Take the Credit” and “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy”, once you take these 48 rules to heart you can give even the Rothschilds and the Medicis a run for their money. Merciless ambition always impresses, maybe as long as you aren’t dating your boss, or his daughter (if she doesn’t idolize Lady Macbeth that is).

Modern Sports Cars: Roger Bell Evaluates the World’s Top Driving Machines by Roger Bell

Full of enough acronyms and jargon to intimidate the casual car enthusiast, and brimming with glossy shots of shiny hoods, gleaming engines, and plush interiors to make the hardcore auto-eroticist blow his load a few pages in. Who cares about erectile dysfunction when your hands are fondling the gear shift of a Ferrari at 203 miles an hour? If you don’t, then this motor show is for you. Just take care to mop up the saliva (or whatever) stains.

New Complete Sailing Manual by Steve Sleight

Cover of "The New Complete Sailing Manual...

Cover of The New Complete Sailing Manual

What, you don’t own your own boat yet? Then at least own this book. It’ll be handy for bluffing your way through affairs on a yacht or at the yacht club. This comprehensive manual teaches the basics of sailing from navigation to boat care. Get a tan, blow some wind into your hair, learn which side is port or starboard, and you’re all set for the next regatta (or at least the next clothes shopping trip to Regatta).

The Horseman’s Bible by Jack Coggins

Cover of "The Horseman's Bible"

Cover of The Horseman’s Bible

The original luxury conveyance, purebred horses trump sports cars or yachts any day. There’s something primal and sensual about horse-riding. In terms of prestige and sex appeal, a man on a horse evokes such noble imagery as polo matches, fox-hunting, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Horse racing isn’t called the sport of kings for nothing. Besides, having this book lying around provides you with a great back-up explanation for owning all those Mane & Tail products. Since horses don’t usually come with their own instruction manual, this classic guide is the best one you can get.

The Architecture of I.M. Pei by Carter Wiseman

Here’s a thorough retrospective on one of the most important architects alive. To even the most architecturally clueless people, you can always point out that he’s the guy who designed the Essensa towers at the Fort. This thoughtful and detailed look at Pei and his work is heavy on the textual content, sketches, and diagrams, but a bit skimpy on the color photos. If it’s a good enough hobby for Brad Pitt, then maybe there’s something sexy about blueprints that we guys ought to look into.

Hip Hotels series by Herbert Ypma

Herbert Ypma seduces us with a procession of the world’s chicest and quirkiest boutique resorts and hotels. These slickly designed paperbacks give readers a peek at the lush interiors of the ultra-modern getaways that are Ypma’s focus, while dozens of detail-rich thumbnail shots help capture each hotel’s interior mood. Although the vivid layout might skirt the edge of sensory overload, Ypma’s writing remains immensely readable and full of flair. Fortunately, some of the establishments he highlights are so hiply obscure, you can get away with talking as if you’ve been to them without having even set foot on the same continent.

photo by Tata Tuviera

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Manual magazine, 2005 

A View From The Edge

first published in Manila Bulletin, 2005

RJ Ledesma’s wholistic approach to property development is turning things around.

A scenic view of Taal Volcano from Tagaytay.

A scenic view of Taal Volcano from Tagaytay. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If one didn’t know RJ Ledesma any better, you’d think he was on something. Able to juggle more jobs than you’d think would be humanly possible, there’s something almost super-powered about his multi-tasking abilities. Maybe it has something to do with his enthusiasm for comic books, or the regular power-yoga sessions he attends, or his great devotion to the church and active participation in parish activities. Businessman, TV personality, new age guru, and devout Catholic, RJ somehow manages to keep all his balls up in the air while most people would simply keel over from both mental and physical exhaustion. Whatever keeps RJ up and running, he should package and sell it. And in a way, that’s what he’s trying to do. As one of his many occupations, RJ is also the Executive Vice President of Ledesco, one of the country’s pioneering real estate companies. Of all their projects, the one closest to RJ’s heart, his “baby” so to speak, is the Taal View Heights Nature Villas and the adjacent Buena Vista Nature Park & Country Club, a 26 hectare property in Talisay, Batangas, part of Metro Tagaytay. The development distinctly incorporates elements drawn from RJ’s varied interests and passions, thus making him the perfect front-man for the project.

We discovered a surprisingly speedy route to Tagaytay via the new STAR highway and before long our ears began to pop due to the lower air pressure and high altitude. Having reached the site, the unhindered view of Taal’s majesty is enough to win most people over. But with RJ, a tour of the location turns into something much more than the usual ocular inspection. “We want it to be a multi-sensory experience. You have the tactile experience by actually coming here. And then the auditory experience. You hear the wind, and also the water elements,” he explains.

No doubt made easier by his eclectic social circle, RJ actively attracts talented people to his projects. Pointing to the wooden figures accenting the grounds, he reveals that all the bamboo and arches were hand-sculpted by Amin El-Bahraoui, a very creative half German-half Moroccan sculptor who grew up in Cebu and has done a lot of work in Germany. “He just took all the driftwood in the area, started working on them and came up with all these sculptures. He uses the same paint that you find in old German churches”.

RJ also enlisted the services of green architect Pablo Suarez, who has studied indigenous architecture, feng shui, and other traditional architectural ideologies. Their philosophy is that these ancient principles continue to work up to this day because there’s an inherent soundness to them. “This area has particularly good Feng Shui because in front of you is a body of water,” RJ explains. “Water is a strong source of Qi. At the same time behind you are the mountains and they protect you from the bad elements. So as the good Qi emanates from the water, it is trapped here because of the mountains at the back. So that’s probably one of the reasons why people feel better and more energetic here.”

RJ and his team strove to preserve the innate beauty and energy of the landscape by retaining its ruggedness. “Some designers do it the easy way by flattening the area, so that they don’t have to build terraces or make use of the slope. But we tried as much as possible to use the existing contours. We always try to acknowledge the slope, the view and the wind. We agreed that all the greenery within the vicinity should be retained,” states Mr. Suarez. RJ backs this up with, “Nature doesn’t create straight lines. So all our lines are curved, uneven, organic. It’s appropriate because we’re promoting the organic lifestyle.”

Rene L. Ledesma, Sr., RJ’s father, feels that he is blessed to have a son who is as innovative and motivated about property development as RJ. Among the profit-driven realm of real estate, where the lowest common denominator commonly reigns, the Ledesmas stand out due to their high principles and forethought. “We are part of nature and we are part of this cultural area. We are not only located near Tagaytay, which is very beautiful and popular with tourists, but also historically rich Talisay. Apolinario Mabini was born there, and it is also where the Katipuneros were based for a time. And in nearby Taal you can still see 16th to 17th century architecture among their houses and churches. Much of the architecture of the buildings in our development is inspired by this area. We are doing all this out of respect for the culture and history of the region. We realize that as developers, we are also Filipinos who have to try to live up to our cultural heritage. We are borrowing from the vernacular of the place and making Filipino architecture come alive,” he states.

UNESCO awardee Augusto Villalon acts as the development’s cultural heritage planner and he intends to put up a showcase Filipino heritage home on the site. “Filipino architecture has been around for a really long time. It works very well for our climate and geography. It satisfies our environmental, cultural and spiritual needs. Mainly because it is a kind of architectural envelope that makes the Filipino more comfortable. We’re not as comfortable wearing super western clothes and living in outrageous western environments,” the master architect articulates.

Other developments sprouting all over Tagaytay feature a mishmash of architectural styles from around the world, from Swiss chalets and American log cabins to Mediterranean Villas. This housing hodgepodge results in a rather disharmonious landscape. Pretty soon, if development progresses unchecked, without any guidelines, Tagaytay will end up looking less like the natural and cultural Filipino wonder that it is and more like a tacky version of a Disney theme park or Las Vegas. Taal View Heights is one of the very few developments with a set of strict architectural and ecological guidelines to ensure that the community as a whole succeeds both aesthetically and environmentally.

As a real estate firm, Ledesco’s respect and sensitivity for the land’s natural and cultural assets serves as an example for others. In a country where both the public and private sector can hardly be bothered to consider such esoteric matters as land conservancy, RJ boldly wears his convictions on his sleeve. And he reveals himself to be something of an undercover conservationist, a guerilla defending the land from inside the industry that seems bent on destroying it. “Property development is a legacy business, whatever you build you leave behind for the coming generations. It doesn’t mean that if you develop property you can’t also be ecologically sustainable and culturally aware. It’s not a mutually exclusive thing. Although many have tried to keep it separate or even abhor it. We embrace it,” he affirms. These are fighting words to say the least, and not what you’d expect to hear from your typical developer. We’re fortunate though that RJ is zany enough to think outside the box, but canny enough to pull it off.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

Batanes: At the End of the Archipelago

Architectural treasures and anthropological wonders abound in Batanes, the Philippines’ ethereal edge.

Basco Lighthouse, Batanes, Philippines

Basco Lighthouse, Batanes, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The way most visitors to Batanes describe it, these far-flung islands seem to be a place that isn’t quite believable. It has gained a reputation as a land seemingly not of this world, part of some mythical realm, a peaceful pastoral haven in the middle of nowhere. If this were Middle Earth, in consideration of its peaceable folk, verdant landscape, and quaint, rounded, partially submerged architecture, Batanes would probably be the Shire. The smallest province in the entire country in terms of both population and land area, it is also known as the “Home Of The Winds” due to its legendarily stormy weather.

We spoke to architect Joven Ignacio, the assistant head of the Environmental Architecture Lab of the University of the Philippines College of Architecture. The remote province appears to have left quite an impression on the soft-spoken academic.

“Batanes was an eye-opener for me, for a lot of us actually. When we went there we were totally surprised how beautiful it all looked.”

In the year 2000 the province endured a major earthquake of magnitude 7.1 that destroyed some of its heritage structures. The Department of Tourism and the provincial government, aware of the islands’ potential as a UNESCO World Heritage site, knew that something had to be done when they realized that people were already starting to rebuild their houses, in any way they could.

“Heritage houses have value, if you put something that wasn’t there originally then it won’t be authentic anymore. If you use different materials, then it won’t be a heritage house, it’s already something else, a clone,” contends Ignacio.

Oldest house in Ivatan, Batanes, Philippines m...

Oldest house in Ivatan, Batanes, Philippines made of corals (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the provincial government of Batanes through Congressman Florencio Abad invited the UP to provide technical assistance in their preservation and conservation efforts. Ignacio first visited Batanes as part of a team from the UP College of Architecture Extension Services Program, spearheaded by Professor Christina Turalba, and supported by the Dean of the College, Professor Prosperidad Luis. His companions included heritage architect Joy Mananghaya, and other experts such as architect Augusto Villalon, mapping consultant Dr. Mani Bate, and Dr. Ronnie Manahan (former Dean of the U.P. College of Architecture).

The team may have been composed of esteemed veterans in their fields, but the depth of architectural wealth in the province took them all aback.

“We saw for the first time, that there is this whole province with several municipalities that were completely composed of intact heritage structures. There are stone houses that were built in the last century during Spanish times, and structures that are even older. They haven’t been tampered with and are very authentic. So when you walk through the munisipyos it’s like you’re walking through time”

Not only were they impressed by the age and authenticity of the structures, but also the rich variety of architectural forms.

“There are basic models consisting of stone houses and cogon roofing. But each island has its own variations, its own language, terms and names, its own explanations for things. Mayhurahed, means that there’s a stone base, Maytuab is a structure with four slopes, Sinadumparan has two slopes. The Jin-Jin or Chivuvuhung are wood and thatch houses. There’s a basic module, basic shapes and sizes, that gave us a general idea of how these structures were actually designed and the history behind them.”

Given the opportunity, the team started identifying and measuring everything in order to compose a lexicon of architectural terms and analyze the anatomies of the houses. An Ivatan teacher by the name of Felix Adami and his brother Gerardo conducted a similar study a few years ago. The team consulted them and used their work as the springboard for a more intensive survey. But it still took them several trips to Batanes to dissect the different parts and materials, understand the construction methods and dynamics of the houses, and deduce how and why they lasted.


Batanes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“We learned a lot from the Adami brothers and the Ivatan elders, some of whom are still alive and in their 90s, who very generously provided us with information. Back then, they were the ones who actually did the work. And they’re still practicing the same house building technology to this day.”

The U.P. College of Architecture sees Batanes as a laboratory for learning more about Philippine folk architecture and engineering. Civil and structural engineers analyzed the structures and realized that the reason why the houses have withstood time is because they’re all built according to the principles of gravity and compression.

“They stand on their own weight like an igloo. At the time there were no nails so every thing is interlocking. From the architectural point of view there is significant science. This is only Batanes. The whole of Philippine Folk Architecture also has to be analyzed on a more scientific level,” Ignacio proposes.

The Ivatan houses were designed according to the principles of bio-climatic design. Architectural elements like the cogon roof, stone walls, wooden slats and reed-matted ceilings all contribute to the houses’ comfortable living conditions and resilience to typhoons. Each component plays a part in helping cool air circulate within and preventing hot air from filtering through the interior space.

Many folk stories are hidden behind the various Ivatan house morphologies. For example, windows are oriented to avoid the chilly north wind, which comes in from Siberia, and is particularly forceful during the rainy season. In old Ivatan tales, it is said that the north wind causes bad luck. This is just one illustration of how history and spiritual beliefs have interacted to influence their architecture.

Traditional houses often employed design principles based on nature and climate. Elements such as the sun, wind, earth and the surrounding landscape are taken into consideration during the development phase of design. Good folk architecture is not a product of any design theory but of instinct, intuition, common sense and communal memory. Climate, site, use and purpose, available building materials, historical and spiritual experience, have defined their form.

Ignacio insists that they have merely put forward what the locals have always been practicing, and documented what was already in existence.

“Since it’s a day-to-day activity for them, they didn’t realize that they’ve been doing the right things all along. They have a cooperative system in each municipality called Kamañidungan, labor and materials are divided amongst home owners like in bayanihan.”

Old Spanish bridge in Ivana, Batanes

Old Spanish bridge in Ivana, Batanes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Teams of homeowners do the preservation of the houses themselves. Every time a house needs a new roof, each member of the community contributes some material and time to do the roofing.

The roofs are made like baskets, layer by layer, in a very unique and complicated procedure. They take coconut flower pods, soak them in water, and then slice them. The resulting material is flexible while wet, but shrinks and hardens as it dries, and is what they use for tying down the roofs. This guarantees that their roofs are very secure, able to last more than 50 years and withstand the strongest typhoons.

The concept of sustainability is deep-rooted among the Ivatans. When they gather cogon, they set aside certain areas so that what they take from nature can be replenished. The dynamics of the Ivatan people are also reflected in their architecture, structural forms that cannot be built without the community working together. The interlocking mechanism found in their architecture is the same as in their community.

The UNESCO regulations for World Heritage Sites are very strict in ensuring that the structures are respected in the manner they were originally built. If Batanes becomes a World Heritage Site it will be easier for the province to get additional funding from other international agencies. What consultants are studying is how to integrate modern amenities without having to compromise the rules of UNESCO or the mechanisms of the community.

“You can’t drill holes or use materials that will be hazardous to the structures. If you’re building new structures in a munisipyo that is filled with heritage architecture, you can’t put something modern that isn’t in context. It’s a challenge for designers to come up with structures that blend nicely with the community’s culture and aesthetics,” states Ignacio.

An Ivatan woman

An Ivatan woman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fortunately, Congressman Abad and his urban planners have instituted programs in order to address all these concerns. The province held several public hearing, attended by UNESCO Regional Director Richard Englehardt, where the officers presented their efforts to the whole community.

“The locals themselves, the whole province, were very receptive to preservation. There wasn’t any strong resistance. Their questions were mostly valid, like where were they going to get the materials, is the government going to help them, and will they get financial support if they can’t afford the preservation work themselves.”

As more attention is drawn towards the normally quiet islands. Ignacio worries that the influx of outsiders may damage Batanes, like what has happened in other places where heritage structures have been sold or demolished.

“The best that a tourist can do is not to desecrate the place. The experience alone will be valuable. If you like something that belongs to the Ivatans, respect it. Its value lies in where it’s located, it will lose this if you put it in your home, out of context. If we start taking things from Batanes, the next generation won’t have anything left to appreciate,” he stresses.

Hills in Batanes, Philippines

Hills in Batanes, Philippines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“If you go to Batanes you realize that a very authentic culture exists in the province that tells you a lot about our country, how it used to be, how it should have been, and how it should be. It’s all still there. They are a very polite, dignified and respectable people, very reserved but also very friendly. Their values are pure.”

So far, the province’s isolation has apparently worked in its favor. “Maybe because the window of travel to Batanes is very limited, so they’re self-sustaining. But they’re not far from civilization. They have satellite and cable TV. They’re educated, with a very high 98% literacy rate. I know Ivatan farmers who speak perfect English.”

Batanes has a rich history with links to Austronesia. The team also visited Lanyu, the southernmost island of Taiwan, which has a community of Ivatans who speak the same language and even eat similar food. The architecture of Lanyu’s indigenous people is submerged in the ground. Records from the studies of Dr. Florentino Hornedo of UST show that when the Spanish first came, the houses in Batanes were also submerged. The symbolisms on the carvings are particularly enlightening.

Ignacio gives an example, “The boat people of Lanyu have a symbol of a human being with spirals around the arms, which signify that they are rowing, and they have another symbol like an antenna for the eyes of the boatman when they are out at sea. Anthropologically, there’s so much to discover.”

The younger Ivatans tend to migrate and so the ones who are left behind are the elderly and the children. The UP team’s goal is to develop materials that can help re-inculcate the concepts and traditions into the younger generation.

Dusk in Batanes

Dusk in Batanes (Photo credit: dennistanay)

As an academic, Ignacio hopes they get enough funds for a complete digest of Ivatan architecture, an inventory of everything, all their beliefs and practices, “from the first straw to the last peg”. The team remains in touch with Batanes and continues to participate in their preservation efforts. Outsiders like architect Ignacio and his colleagues show that instead of just behaving like an encroaching menace, the world beyond Batanes can also extend a protective embrace to this unpretentious pocket of real beauty and true harmony at the edge of our careworn country.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Manila Bulletin, 2004

These Walls Can Talk in Spanish (and they tell quite a tale)

(first published in Manila Bulletin, 2003. photos c/o Instituto Cervantes Manila)

The Mayflower building was built in 1938 on the site of an old estate. Ancient trees, even older than the building itself and all that remain of the original lands, continue to stand guard over the grounds. A Filipino architect was commisioned by then Vice President Fernando Lopez to design an innovative structure to rise within the fashionable district of Malate. The property started out as a residential enclave of great exclusivity and elegance. Its large apartments fronted a spacious courtyard and it even featured a separate building for the servant’s quarters. During the Japanese occupation, the Mayflower saw its share of devastation, and many endangered souls took refuge in its sturdy walls. But the structure proved its resilience by surviving the ravages of the war.

After the liberation of Manila, the building was quickly put to good use. It was leased to the US Agency for International Development to serve as their offices, and also as the residence of the agency’s director. The Mayflower then became a favorite haunt of President Quirino and in turn, President Magsaysay. They would often drop by to discuss affairs or enjoy breakfast with the USAID director. In the 1970’s the building was occupied by the Embassy of Indonesia, and then in a bit of foreshadowing, the Embassy of Spain. It was then taken over by the Opus Dei in the 1980s for their Maynilad study center. But it was destined to fall back into Spanish hands when in 1994 it became home to the Instituto Cervantes. The inauguration of the new facilities was graced by the presence of no less than Her Royal Highness, the Infanta Elena of Spain.

Javier Galvan, who holds a doctorate in Heritage Architecture, has been the Instituto’s director since 2001. But he first visited the building when he was invited to give a lecture in November 1994, shortly after the inauguration. An amiable and exceedingly humble Spanish gentleman, he gamely posed for photos and allowed us the run of the facilities. At first, he half-seriously proposed that we hold the interview in Spanish, but finally agreed to speak with me in English, that is until after I’d finished a few more classes at the Instituto. “But the next time, hablamos en Espanol.” he teased.

An architect might appear to be a curious choice to head an institution that is best known as a language school. And although he is a very accomplished and cultured man, Dr. Galvan considers himself to be no linguist. He originally came to the country in 1993 as the senior architect of a multinational team funded by the EU to assist in the reconstruction of Baguio and Dagupan in the wake of the 1990 earthquake. While in the Philippines, he found himself fascinated by Spanish colonial architecture, particularly the Filipino style of “architectura mestiza”, and ended up touring the country to better appreciate its unique principles. He gave lectures, held conferences, wrote papers, and spearheaded exhibitions on the subject here and abroad. His research work and proposals helped develop the master plan for the revitalization of the historical center of Vigan. The Spanish crown clearly appreciated his efforts when “for his outstanding service to Spanish culture and his work in strengthening ties between the Philippines and Spain” he was awarded The Cross of The Order of Isabel the Catholic. All these sterling qualifications, combined with his passion for our history and heritage, singled him out as an inspired choice for the director of the Spanish government’s official cultural outpost in the Philippines. Under his term, Instituto Cervantes Manila has thrived.

However, the Instituto’s success has also been the cause of some its problems, Dr. Galvan admits. “Over the past nine years, activity in Instituto has grown. There are more students, and we need more facilities. We need a larger multipurpose hall to accommodate more people. For instance, we have a series of movies every Saturday. But the halls are often crowded and people cannot come inside.” Despite its restrictions, the director remains grateful for their current accommodations. “So far, the building is appropriate. It has served us well all this time,” he affirms.

Upon exploring the premises, one passes through arched entryways leading into narrow corridors lined with framed prints and sketches of Philippine and Spanish subjects, old maps, letras y figuras, and an eclectic assortment of paintings. “The paintings are property of the Instituto,” Dr. Galvan explains. Some of them were offered by artists who have held exhibitions in the building. The classrooms, despite being rather oddly-shaped, are all well-equipped and adorned with posters of excerpts from Spanish classics and maps of the Spanish-speaking world. The library is stocked full of books, periodicals, and audiovisual materials in Spanish. Everybody uses the building’s curvy, winding grand staircase, which Dr. Galvan considers to be the interiors’ most memorable feature, to get from one floor to another. One wonders though how most people can resist from sliding down its polished wooden bannister. Tucked behind the offices is a terrace with a view of the grounds and another, less grandiose set of stairs that also functions as a fire escape. And everywhere, huge glass windows bring light into the building. Dr Galvan points out that “because the windows are very large, there is a lack of isolation,” The sun and sounds of Manila are never completely shut out.

Most Filipinos with a passing knowledge of architecture tend to lump all structures built in Manila between the two world wars into “Art Deco”, but Dr. Galvan politely proceeds to corrects this common assumption. “The building has been said to be art deco but I don’t really think we can call it that. In art deco you have decorative motifs which you cannot see here. It’s more rationalism, that kind of architecture belonging to the modern movement. In the same period you have different styles. But all these architects in those years said you have to forget about decoration. They were more interested in ships, engines and machines, the iconography of the modern movement.”

Dr. Galvan was initially reluctant to classify the Mayflower’s architectural style. “I don’t like to label buildings. Probably, it’s very clear if a building is Gothic or Roman. But when you go past the Renaissance, it becomes unclear. You can try to find a way to classify architecture, but in many cases it’s not easy to put a label,” he explains.

He continues to ruminate on the building’s design. “The purity of lines, and the rounded corners, are typical of rationalist architecture. It has the kind of aesthetics derived from ships,” he muses. “It is very clear that these are rationalist, but proto-rationalism would be the most appropriate label,”Dr. Galvan finally concludes.

He agrees that it is fortunate that a structure with such an intriguing history and architecture has survived while many others have not. “It’s a pity because these are all part of heritage, but unfortunately the will of Filipino society to preserve old buildings is not strong. Little by little it is improving, but many have no interest,” he says with much concern..

“In Manila they say ‘this is old, let’s forget it, it’s abandoned, let’s make something new’. People prefer new developments like Makati or Fort Bonifacio, historical districts like Intramuros, Ermita and Malate are abandoned. These districts are still recuperating. It has happened already in many towns in Europe. In Spain you can see how recuperating the historical center of the city is important. The situation in the core of the city has been improved and upgraded.” As logical and well-proven Dr. Galvan’s ideas may be, it seems that local officials are only beginning to take such concepts seriously. “I hope someday Manila itself can fully recuperate. Of course there are some beautiful spots, but they are hidden by the jungle. If the entire city is improved, general services, lighting, sidewalks, all these things, business will come back here. And the value of the property will be higher,” he contends.

Despite (or because) of his own experience with local restoration projects, Dr. Galvan manages to be optimistic about the situation. “It’s very good what happened to Roxas Boulevard. It’s a space worth rejuvenating. I would prefer that efforts would concentrate more on projects like these.” Dr. Galvan receives news of other redevelopment efforts around the city, like the Avenida Rizal walkway and the Pasig River linear parks, with much pleasure. “The Pasig River also, is part of the heritage. Like other famous big rivers, it should be enjoyed by the people. I would love to live along the Pasig River. If I could, I wouldn’t ever go to Makati. If you could live in Intramuros or by the bay I’d gladly live there rather than in a new development.”

Pondering the day when the Instituto might have to relocate, Dr. Galvan reveals his grand plan. “I have proposed to move to Intramuros. It is a project that hasn’t pushed through so far. The plan is to reconstruct the Ayuntamiento then to have the Spanish embassy, the different agencies, and the Insituto Cervantes there. It’s a huge project. We are in talks, but it takes time to carry out.”

The government might be dragging its feet in helping to realize his dream, but that won’t stop Dr. Galvan’s mind from moving on. “If we were to put up a new building for Instituto, I wouldn’t like to build something like modern architecture in Spain. You can always try to have in mind the principles of the culture. For the design, I’m thinking of some principles of the architectura mestiza, the bahay na bato. Not a literal one like Casa Manila, but just using some principles, like the transparency of the light and how the windows control the entry of light. Maybe the same design as the ventanillas, but instead of capiz we use glass. In the end it will look very modern, not a literal Spanish or Filipino house.”

For now though, the Instituto Cervantes is keeping its address at the Mayflower. And Dr. Galvan always speaks of their home with much fondness. “This is an example of a building that has been used for many years and different purposes. I think that’s a good lesson to learn on how to use buildings like these. Good architecture can be used or adapted to different uses. Instead of demolishing old buildings, this should be done more. We need to maintain and preserve good architecture,” he states, ever the conservationist.

Although the Mayflower has been associated with the Instituto for many years, they are actually just leasing the building. The owner, an intensely private man, does appreciate the fact that his property is being ocuppied by a prestigious institution with a noble purpose. Although he also feels that some of the structure’s features are being underutilized. For example, the covered patios that extend from some of the rooms on the ground floor, where former residents must once have lounged, the Instituto merely uses for storage purposes. The owner also discloses that what we see now of the building’s interiors no longer follows the original floor plan. The contractor that the Instituto hired had to tear down a number of walls in order to convert the apartments into classrooms. In fact, the current rear entrance to the building is only a recent alteration, and used to be a kitchen. The circular plaza behind the building, with the cloverleaf design and Insituto logo set in concrete at its center, was supposed to be a swimming pool.

He has taken great care to ensure that any additions and improvements to the structure remain true to the original building’s lines. With the advent of airconditioning, the window shades and ledges were re-imagined to prevent the new fittings from detracting from the over-all effect. Modern plumbing, electrical, and communications requirements meant having pipes and tubes running across the building’s exteriors, but they have all been cleverly concealed behind slitted columns that conform to the structure’s aesthetic. Under the owner’s supervision, an entire floor was added to the top of the building, but it is integrated seamlessly enough that it becomes nearly impossible to tell that it was never part of the original structure. The perimeter fence and walls are also recent additions, but they blend perfectly with the general design, and do not prevent passers-by from appreciating the compound’s façade. The parking facilities were designed using sophisticated computer-aided techniques in order to maximize the space alotted.

A less devoted proprietor would have been content not to bother with superfluous details, but the Mayflower’s owner could not abide with such carelessness and indifference. To him, the Mayflower’s architecture is a treasure that must not be tampered with unconscientiously. And he wishes that all other building owners demonstrate just aó much thought and concern to the maintenance and renovation of their own properties. He also hopes that other businessmen realize that there is more to owning and developing real estate besides profits. He echoes Dr. Galvan’s disappointment at the general lack of interest and desire among Filipinos to protect their architectural treasures. Because of greed and apathy, we are losing a priceless legacy. It is this sort of narrow-minded and short-sighted attitude that haunts our country and holds it back from greatness, he avows.

History has bequeathed the Mayflower building with a grace and air that one may only perceive in buildings of a certain age and style. And yet because of the dedication and good sense of its owner, it possesses none of the mustiness and decay that usually envelops such structures. It endures as living proof that a privately owned building can preserve its legacy as an architectural landmark and still sustain its purpose as a valuable commercial property. At a time when many heritage buildings lie shuttered and neglected, waiting to be restored and revitalized, the Mayflower stands dynamic and vibrant. It’s heartening to know that a treasure like the Mayflower shall continue to serve a vital role in the urban landscape for generations to come.

Instituto Cervantes Manila transferred to a new compound beside the Casino Espanol along Kalaw St. in 2006. Federico Delgado, owner of the Mayflower building, was found murdered in his apartment at the penthouse of the building in 2007. The property has been acquired by De La Salle University – College of St. Benilde>

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved


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