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

%d bloggers like this: