Horizons Lost and Found: Architectural adventures on the heritage isle of Bohol

Most tourists to the island of Bohol normally go for its natural and aquatic attractions. Snorkelling, diving, and hiking are the must-dos, while the Chocolate Hills, dolphins, whales, corals, and tarsiers are the must-sees. However, Bohol is also fertile ground for the equally rewarding and no less strenuous sport of heritage-hunting. In this adventure, the quarry might be a bit easier to track down but are just as endangered. Species range in size from the petite urnas to gigantic cathedrals, and in age from Baclayon church, one of the oldest in the country, to the freshly woven buri and bamboo baskets of Antequera.

Making your way around the province, one can embark on a fascinating journey through the evolution of Philippine art, architecture, construction and design. The wealth of prospective prey can be bewildering. Fortunately, the NCCA has published two very important field guides for the budding heritage hunter. There is Visita Iglesia, Regalado Trota Jose’s painstakingly comprehensive guide to Bohol’s churches, and Tubod, the Heart of Bohol, a book embracing the entirety of Bohol’s cultural legacy. We also managed to ask Instituto Cervantes director, Dr. Javier Galvan, an architect by profession and ardent heritage conservationist, to lend some enlightening post-hunt commentary.

Not far from the tropical playground of Alona beach, right in front of “the biggest plaza in the province of Bohol“, stands the imposingly solid Panglao Church, and a few paces towards the seafront rises Bohol’s tallest stone watchtower. Dr. Galvan finds the hexagonal tower of Panglao particularly interesting because of its curved silhouette, reminiscent of chinese pagodas. “The angle of each section is different, it changes, leaning more and more inward, thus creating a curve out of straight lines. It shows how careful the construction was, that the people who made this building have aesthetical values that were quite elaborate for the time and place,” he rambles in his trademark tongue of Archi-Spanglish (here translated).

Journeying onward, past the previously featured Cloribel house, just before we cross the causeway to Tagbilaran, is the town of Dauis. Its church is one of the fanciest and most Gothic in the province, the project of an ambitious Recollect parish priest who also had the adjacent bridge constructed. In contrast to the suggestively Oriental Panglao tower, the tower of Dauis has a cantilevered roof with wooden trusses more evocative of buildings in Medieval Europe. “They are on the same island, very close but they are very different,” notes Dr. Galvan.

At Dauis is also where we first encountered the alarming impact of every heritage hunter’s nemeses, the dastardly architectural salvagers, and their crooked comrades the relic thieves. The church was closed to the public as protection against these nefarious elements. Unfazed, we were still able to sneak into the back and catch a glimpse of the guarded treasures. Dr. Galvan grieves for the many santos and artistic artifacts that have been removed or stolen. “You can find more santos in the antique stores of Malate than in the churches. It’s understandable how they need to close them because it’s an unavoidable necessity in these modern times to keep the antiques and relics out of reach from people who may steal them. But it’s a pity because the church is something that belongs to a community.”

Antique dealers have shamelessly plundered Bohol for years. From its venerable churches and houses have come countless holy images and icons, hardwood furniture, and the ornately carved and gilded urnas, miniaturized altars unique to Bohol. The island’s rich trove of treasures may have been remarkably spared from the devastation brought about by war and natural calamities, but greed and apathy is now threatening to keep them from being properly exhibited for all to rightfully admire. However, it is not just these portable objets d’art that are in danger of disappearing from view. Even its enduring monuments are not safe from destructive hands. Ironically, the curious history of Bohol’s churches may be partly to blame.

“An interesting feature that you only see in Bohol are these porticos that were added to the original churches by the Recollects after the Jesuits were expelled from all the territories of the Spanish crown,” Dr. Galvan explains, “Most Filipino churches did not have a portico, so as you cross the main gate you come under the hot sun or pouring rain. I think it’s very clever to have a portico in the Philippines because of the weather.”

What has happened is that recently in many old structures they have built modern canopies or concrete awnings that seriously hamper the view of the facade at the very least, and completely ruin the original architecture at  the very worst.

“In the beginning, the buildings were made by artisans who knew how to cut the stone. But these construction skills have been lost by society. With the arrival of concrete and steel, there came a particular moment in the 20th century when there was a divorce. All these skilled people, carpenters, fandejos, and guilders, were lost,” mourns Dr. Galvan. “The alterations are normally done in very bad taste because they are made by people who are not professional. They don’t have the sensitivity, the feel for how architecture was before. So the results in most cases are terrible.”

But Dr. Galvan does not rule out renovation work altogether. “I agree that it is necessary because a building in use is a living organism. You cannot freeze it and put it in a box. But restoration is a discipline, you need trained and skilled people. Not just anyone can do it. You can’t hire a contractor who only knows how to work with concrete and has never even heard about lime mortar which is fundamental for this work. You cannot put concrete on old stones, the pressure will destroy them. It is necessary to stop these people before they try to do any renovation work.”

With every church and tower we encounter, we hear about yet another forgotten craft secret and unveil even more lost building skills. Scrutinising these mighty edifices, one has to admire their methodical construction, the details of which we can only speculate on. As far as we know, pillars of hard molave wood formed the framework around which the stones were laid. To produce the mortar, known as la mezcla (the mix), that held the stones together, lime from powdered coral and seashells were mixed with beach sand washed of its salt. And then a secret ingredient (different in every region) was added to fortify the mix. In Bohol, tradition states that egg whites and molasses were used. Glass was expensive at the time so for most windows, translucent squares were cut from the shells of lampiro clams, or what we call capiz. Aside from their age, the care and detail that went into these structures should be enough to ensure their continued preservation, but that does not always hold true.

“There are many cases where there are people who have destroyed structures because they have thought that it is old and they want something new. You destroy a monument, something that has lasted centuries, to construct a new building without any character, absolutely similar to any building anywhere with no connection to Filipino history. That is a pity,” Dr. Galvan sighs.

And yet Bohol has fared better than most regions in the Philippines. Neglected in favor of more populous and popular provinces for decades, Bohol’s natural and cultural resources have managed to escape the blight brought by industrialization. The grandeur of their surviving heritage structures is where the humble Boholanos have an edge over their haughtier neighbors. “In Tagbilaran, the Presidencia is one of the very few civil buildings standing from the Spanish period, and that’s quite outstanding,” agrees Dr. Galvan. “There is awareness. The community has a sense of heritage, of the value of old things. Also, Bohol has a comprehensive inventory of its monuments, which other provinces lack. So the role Bohol might play for illustrative purposes, as a model for other provinces, is very important.”

For now, with a dutiful community on watch, Bohol’s great stone ladies stand safe, their painted ceilings and tiled floors welcoming parishioners every Sunday, their carved facades, colorful gardens, and varied configurations captivating all who pass by. Like the whales swimming through the waters off Pamilacan, these beautiful behemoths glide gracefully through time, seemingly aloof from the problems plaguing their precarious existence. But if the whalers of Bohol were able to abandon their centuries-old hunting traditions and serve as stewards of the sea, then we can hope that it will be much easier to encourage more Filipinos to become protectors of our patrimony. So fellow hunter, think twice before buying that next rebulto. The past that you save is your very own.

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


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

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