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

Heaven For Little Girls

first published in Manila Bulletin, 2005

Cheerful but comfortable, fun but functional, the rooms of the young Abalos girls show how kids can make a space their own.

It has been said that all little girls are princesses. However, Charlene and Corinne Abalos, grandchildren of former mayor Banjamin Abalos, and daughters of former mayor and current congressman Benhur Abalos, can easily lay claim to being Mandaluyong royalty. But it’s not like they’re putting on airs. On the contrary, the kids are good-natured, chatty, and fresh-faced, full to the brim with energy and ideas. During the recent holiday season, the girls were bubbling over with excitement planning the Christmas party for the family and household staff, and organizing the Kris Kringle exchange gift logistics. It turns out that the Abalos girls are not only budding event organizers, but promising interior designers as well.

Charlene and Corinne can actually take the credit for much of the conceptualization of their rooms’ interiors. Their mom, Mrs. Menchie Abalos, gave them both free reign to think of how they wanted their rooms to look like. With the guidance of their Tita Myla Tirado, who also helped design the rooms of their other siblings, they were able to realize many of their whimsical decorating ideas. Left to their own creative devices, the girls came up with a cozy combo of Neverland, Wonderland, Oz, and Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. Each room is a little girl’s personal dreamspace, a tribute to a child’s imagination, a special playground for kids and by kids. They’re best described in the words of their visiting friends, who say that once you’re in Charlene and Corinne’s rooms, you never want to leave. The rooms glow with bright hues and quirky patterns. Wooden molding and shelves in pastel colors accent the walls of warm cream. As an added fanciful detail, flowers have been delicately hand-stencilled onto every wall, geraniums for Charlene, lilacs for Corinne. Most of the furniture has been made to order, from the uniquely shaped beds to the plush chairs with the fuzzy upholstery. Continuing with the floral motif, the mantelpieces, armoires, and side tables displaying the girls’ assorted knick-knacks follow a scalloped petal outline. While in Charlene’s room, a gigantic exotic pink blossom holds up her entertainment system, its counterpart in Corinne’s room is a large dollhouse of salmon and peach, within which resides a clique of Bratz dolls. Not one to be outdone, since Corinne had her dollhouse, Charlene asked for a vanity table in the shape of a castle complete with towers from which hang her school medals. But what the kids are really proud of though are their specially-made, one-of-a-kind beds. If there was one thing that Charlene had her heart set on once she started planning her room, it was a heart-shaped bed. Her Tita Myla was able to oblige her and then some, creating a curved headboard covered in velvet, and having the mattress custom-cut out of Uratex foam to the desired specifications. For Corinne, she put together a shooting star with a rainbow tail, finishing off with flower-shaped mattress and base. Lying down on these elaborate confections, sweet dreams are guaranteed. As a convenient space-saver, full-length mirrors double as sliding doors for the girls’ wardrobes.

Scattered neatly around the premises are an assortment of stuffed toys, memorabilia, and play figures. Disney princesses and M&M candies for Charlene, Spongebob Squarepants and furry animals for Corinne. Charlene is also an accomplished golfer. She was introduced to the sport by her grandfather, an avid linksman himself. Her room displays a trophy and a few framed articles and pictures showing her enthusiasm for the game.

Eventually the kids might begin to opt for more sophisticated designs for their quarters, maybe something similar to their elder sisters’ tastes. But for now, Mrs. Abalos isn’t at all worried about the kids out-growing their rooms’ décor yet, not when she sees how much they’re enjoying themselves. At their age, there’s still a lot of time for play and toys. The fun has just begun for Charlene and Corinne, and they’ve clearly got the rooms to grow.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

Christmas Comes Home (Policarpio St., Mandaluyong)

first published in Manila Bulletin, 2004

Santa lives and the Christmas Spirit thrives at Policarpio Street in Mandaluyong City

Policarpio's Pride

Policarpio's Pride (Photo credit: d2digital)

Christmas inspires homeowners everywhere to unleash their inner decorator and bring out the ornaments, lights, and holiday cheer. In some neighborhoods, the frenzied and fancy preparations set off a friendly form of competition, resulting in streets lined with amazingly decked out houses. Regrettably, a number of these impressive displays lie behind gates and guards, in enclaves accessible only to their privileged residents, never to be shared with the general public. However, in a display of true Christmas spirit, one bighearted community has welcomingly opened its doors for everyone to enjoy their decorating efforts. For the past few years, the renown of Mandaluyong City’s Policarpio Street as a Christmas destination has continued to grow, spreading joy and merriment to all who come to visit and marvel at this colorful wonderland.
Mr. Anthony Suva, is the barangay chairman of New Zaniga, and the area around Policarpio is under his jurisdiction. He grew up in the community and his family has always been very active in the Christmas preparations.

This time of the year, the Suva residence temporarily transforms into Santa’s Philippine address. Mr. Suva doesn’t seem to mind accommodating their itinerant guest.

“I’ve been so used to it,” he confesses. “Ever since we were kids, my mother has liked Santas. The Santas come from all over the world. She buys them whenever she goes on a trip, or friends who go abroad bring them back for her since they know she collects them.”

At the Suva home, it’s really easy to believe that you’ve somehow been transported to the North Pole. The place is literally packed with everything related to Santa Claus. From figurines to lanterns, furniture and even table settings, every wall and every corner, from the garden to the roof, is dedicated to the jolly man in red. It’s quite obvious that Mrs. Suva, Ching to her family and friends, really takes her annual setting up of Santaland to heart.

“As early as August my mother starts unpacking and decorating here and there,” her son reveals. “Whenever she comes home from work or during her free time she works a little more on their arrangement. But because there are so many Santas, she usually ends up finishing by December.”

The other displays along Policarpio are no less impressive. Each home has its own particular theme, and each family within is just as enthusiastic at celebrating the season. Mr. Suva’s in-laws live across the street and their motif consists of carpeting their entire property, house, gate, and even water tower, with a blanket of Christmas lights. Down the street at Mrs. Lim’s, mechanical elves dance in time to music at Santa’s workshop, while an elaborate belen graces the facade of another home.

“All this started around ten years ago,” Mr. Suva relates. “The pioneers were my mother, and our neighbors, my future mother-in law, and Mrs. Lim. Every year they kept adding until it reached this.”

And “this” is truly a sight to behold. Sparkling lights cover almost every available surface, while life-size nativity figures, angels, and Santas greet passersby. As an added attraction, stalls selling food, gifts, and other Christmas items line the street, thus completing the festive ambiance. The street has been regularly featured in both the local and international media as a noteworthy Christmas attraction. Visitors from all over the country and even abroad, including some celebrities, have all flocked to Policarpio just to gawk at the displays and share in the merrymaking. From sunset to midnight the entire neighborhood resembles a giant outdoor Christmas party.

Policarpio's Pride

Policarpio's Pride (Photo credit: d2digital)

“In 1998, Policarpio street was officially recognized by the Department of Tourism as a tourist destination,” says Mr. Suva. “The tiangge started four years ago, and now it lasts from November 15 to January 6. We get around three to four thousand visitors a day, and this number increases the closer it gets to Christmas Day.”

There seems to be no stopping Policarpio’s popularity. It has gotten to the extent that the residents themselves are finding it difficult to reach their homes due to the additional traffic and parking woes. Mr. Suva’s responsibilities include dealing with the logistical challenge of keeping the area reasonably safe and orderly.

“The crowds and security are really a problem,” Mr. Suva admits. “There have been times when we’ve thought of scrapping the whole thing or at least toning it down. But eventually we all agree that it’s worth the trouble. Besides, it’s only 45 days out of the year.”

What makes it all worthwhile to the people of Policarpio are the smiles and happy faces they see on every child or child at heart who braves the hassles and hordes just to catch a glimpse of their marvelous decorations. All the efforts and expenses that they put into the preparation of Pasko Sa Policarpio are rewarded by the immeasurable amount of goodwill that is generated by the project.

Even Mrs. Menchie Abalos, wife of Mandaluyong’s congressman and former mayor Benhur Abalos, has been charmed by the Policarpio community’s efforts.

“As a kid, I never got to see the famous Christmas displays of C.O.D and other places,” she relates. “So I didn’t know what I was missing until Pasko sa Policarpio came about. Now I try to visit as often as I can, and each time I can’t help but feel like a child again and be amazed at all the lights and decorations. And it just gets better every year. What they’ve done is such a simple thing, but every Christmas it really means a lot to all of us here at Mandaluyong. You can’t fail to appreciate the boost in morale and spirits that their street brings.”

The continued success of a grassroots, non-profit, community project like Pasko Sa Policarpio once again proves that when it comes to celebrating Christmas, we Filipinos are all heart.

Policarpio's Pride

Policarpio's Pride (Photo credit: d2digital)

“We look at this project as our contribution to the community at large,” states Mr. Suva. “We’re located right next to Welfareville, and some families who live there don’t have much to spend on Christmas. The lights and decorations are like a free form of entertainment for all our neighbors. They can just come here, look around, and enjoy themselves. It may not be that remarkable for some of us adults, but the children get so much from it. And everyone seems to look forward to it every year. Christmas just won’t feel as complete without Pasko Sa Policarpio.”

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

Sea In The City

first published in Manila Bulletin, 2004

A Porthole Peek Into Karen Padilla’s Private Pulo

ABS-CBN reporter Karen Padilla drops anchor in her new home. Marooned in the middle of land-locked Quezon City, Karen decided to build a little island cove of her very own. With the help of her loved ones, especially her mom, pulling off the quirky design feat turned out to be smooth sailing. Karen’s airy sala feels more like a beach side park than the inside of a townhouse. Instead of the expected couch and coffee table, we have a park bench, a lounge chair, and an abaca rug stamped with nautical patterns. But what Karen is most proud of is her little strip of beachfront property. It’s not an actual piece of real estate but a unique floor decoration composed of wood, glass, shells, and sand that she thought up herself. She had the wooden base for the sand made of old planks, then topped it with her personal shell and starfish collection. Behind it stand a row of empty bottles, like you might find littering the sands at an island resort, gathered from the remnants of various celebrations through the years. This provides a clever example of turning would-be discards into wonderful decor.

The seaside motif extends to the next floor where a miniature lighthouse beams down through the balustrades. The second floor (or upper deck) is also where we find Karen’s not-so-buried treasure in the form of an antique pull-out sofa bed. This ancient piece of furniture, which Karen utilizes as a couch, is of an indeterminate age, but its solid craftsmanship and richly textured wood attest to it definitely having seen several generations of use. “It’s gone through three different houses already, passed on from one family member to another,” Karen confirms. “The stories this sofa can tell! But we’re keeping them all secret,” she jokes. She’s probably hinting that it contains a hidden stash of pirate’s gold secreted within the old timbers. Although a simple piece, it’s sturdy construction hearkens back to the days when furniture was meant to last. “We’ve had it re-finished and re-upholstered. Because of its simple design, we decided that a simple material like katsa, or cheesecloth would work best for the cushions. It’s very comfortable.” Standing beside the venerable couch is an equally aged-looking bookshelf, containing a collection of racy bestsellers that would do very well as beach reading.

Karen apologizes for her home appearing a bit stripped down. She explains that she isn’t completely done with unpacking and arranging her things. But as it is, the uncluttered spaces, bright colors, and nautical accents of her home create a light and breezy living area where you can almost smell the ocean and hear the waves.

-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

Casa Ala Cabana

(first published in Manila Bulletin, 2003)

They began seeing each other when he was a rookie in the PBL, and she was a young business student. As a player in the Triple-V PBL team, which was managed by Pia’s family, Dwight was often invited to company events, such as restaurant openings, anniversaries, and parties. Some of those parties were held in the cabana by the pool of the Villavicencio home, the setting for many happy memories of the young couple’s romance. Little did they know then that they would end up building a home on the very same cabana. Now a veteran cager of the PBA, and managing director of the Kamayan, Saisaki, and Dads restaurant chain respectively, Dwight and Pia Lago are busy preparing for their third Christmas as a family.

Cheerful garlands of Christmas fruits and flowers frame each of the large glass sliding doors that serve as entryways into the house’s main living area. Boxes of ornaments lay scattered around the room, all set to adorn the happy home.

“The first Christmas that I decorated our house, I had help from a friend with Designer Blooms. Every year since then we’ve just been getting more stuff from them and adding to what we already had last year. So each year is just a bit grander than the last,” Pia says with pride.

Today has been set aside for the family to start decorating their Christmas tree. However, it appears that Riana, the Lago’s darling three year old daughter, has already held her own dry run for the event.

“Every year, right after Halloween, we start setting up the Christmas décor, including the tree,” Pia explains. “Last year, Riana wanted to have her own little tree, just the right size for her to hang ornaments on. When she first got it, we asked her what she would like to put on top of her tree. We thought she’d ask for a star, or an angel. But no, she wanted a golden butterfly. It was a bit difficult finding one, but we did. And there it is now.”

“I love my golden butterfly,” Riana pipes in.

“Every year she gets to reach higher on the big tree though, and help more with decorating it. But her tree comes first,” says Pia. As the family goes about filling out the tree with glittery santas, snowmen, fiddles and bells, Riana scampers about purposefully and manages to hold her own with the decorating duties.

Dwight declares, “This month we’ll also be celebrating Thanksgiving. My family from the states will be coming over here. It’ll be a little funny having Thanksgiving dinner in a house decorated for Christmas, but I think it helps make the house look warmer and cosier. I think it’s wonderful how it all turned out, especially with this room,” he says, indicating their sizeable sala.

Pia says, “Our ‘sala’, if you can call it that, is somewhat hard to decorate simply because it’s just so big. This entire space used to be the original cabana and so it was meant to be large enough to hold parties in, in fact, this was where I held my debut.”

“The space is great for entertaining,” Dwight agrees. “When we have guests over we end up playing a lot of games. If it’s just my guy friends, I plug in the Playstation. But for family or mixed groups we play anything from board games to parlor games. Once, we had a lot of fun role-playing with a murder mystery game over dinner. This Thanksgiving and Christmas we’re already planning how to make things more fun for all our guests.”

“I’ve come to realize that our living room is unusually large. Over in the States, most people don’t have a room like this, or a “sala” as we call it here in the Philippines,” Dwight adds. “There’s just a family room where the TV and sofa usually is, maybe a hall to receive guests in, and a separate dining room. But we have to use all of this one big space for all those functions. It’s a bit of a problem, to be honest. We still haven’t figured out how to utilize it best. Maybe you have some ideas?” asks Dwight half-seriously.

Reserving our suggestions for later, we note that the living room is almost huge enough to play basketball in. It’s furnished with an appealing mix of carved Chinese teak and bright floral prints, not exactly a conventional combination.

Pia describes how things came together design-wise. “We just retained the furniture that was already there from when it was still a cabana and added our own personal touches. I thought that it would be a waste not to use what we already had, but we also wanted to bring in some things to make it look like our home.”

“We like to decorate with objects that remind us of our travels,” elaborates Dwight. “We got the painting of elephants in Thailand because elephants are a really big deal over there. And we got the painting of Balinese dancers in Indonesia because they represent the place so well.” He evidently appreciates these two pieces of folk art more than the three small Goyas hanging on one wall, remnants of the cabana days. What’s important is that they picked them out for themselves, even if they were painted by unknown artists. “The paintings, chairs and cabinets are somewhat Asian in style, but the couches and some of the knickknacks are Western. So the overall style is kind of eclectic,” he states.

What Dwight and Pia have yet to remark on however, is that throughout the Lago home, one person’s influence is front and center. Above everything, the house has obviously been set up to cater to Riana’s whims and desires. The lawn is sprinkled with her toys, and two whole rooms are devoted to her use, one for play, and one for sleep.

“If we have another baby, maybe in a year or so, we plan to convert Riana’s playroom into the new baby’s room,” Dwight muses.

As one would expect for a little Lago, Riana even has her own mini basketball hoop. Surprisingly though, it’s the only hoop in the house. Dwight expresses his own puzzlement at this noticeable deficiency, “I guess it’s really ironic how we don’t have a basketball court. Maybe one day I’ll put up a hoop by the pool.”

This brings the conversation to the grounds of the house, otherwise known as Riana’s private playground. “I originally thought of building another wall between the main house and the cabana, but Dwight didn’t want to sacrifice the lawn space,” Pia says.

“We wanted Rhiana to have a lot of space to run around. I believe that having a lot of running space is very important for kids,” explains Dwight.

“It was also Dwight’s idea to use buho, bamboo slats, to cover up the wall behind the pool. It used to be plain cement, now it looks a lot better,” affirms Pia.

“I saw them being used as a wall in another house and thought it was a good idea,” Dwight explains. “The old pool used to be huge, to build the house we had to take up a big portion of it. When it was done, we fixed up the garden and placed some lawn chairs. The landscaping is interesting because it was designed by Dr. Nelson, who is in charge of maintaining the aquariums in the restaurants, and he was really serious about which plants should go together. Now we like having barbecues outside by the pool.”

The Lagos didn’t always have this much space at their disposal. “When we got married, we first lived in a condominium in San Juan,” Pia recounts. “But then Dwight’s parents from the States decided to visit for a while and we couldn’t find a place good enough for them to stay.”

“So we decided to let them use the condo while we stayed here at Pia’s house,” Dwight adds.

“They ended up staying for six months. And then we had gotten used to living here. And then of course, I got pregnant with Rhiana,” relates Pia.

“Putting up the house here was the most practical decision. We realized we would be better off in a lot of ways. No more worrying about elevators, fire escapes, or where to have your laundry done. And it’s a lot more secure inside the village. Not to mention all the extra space for the garden and lawn. A condo is okay if you’re starting out as a couple, but for a family, it’s best to have a house,” Dwight declares.

And from the most unlikely foundations, it has turned out to be a lovely home. Emerging as a charming depiction of the Lago family, Dwight’s easy-going nature combines with Pia’s practical sensibilities to form a haven of warmth and joy. “All I really wanted was a comfortable sofa and a recliner,” states Dwight good-naturedly. “Everything else is Pia’s doing.”

Pia counters diplomatically, “I left the den to him, it’s his space and he can do anything he wants with it.”

“It’s nothing much to look at now, mostly things stored in boxes,” explains Dwight. “But I plan to put up all my basketball memorabilia one day, all my jerseys, trophies. From all the way back to my La Salle days up to San Miguel.” A stack of neatly labelled boxes stands testament to this work-in-progress.

“The kitchen is the one room I was very particular about,” Pia asserts. “I made sure it was built to my satisfaction. It’s because I like to cook, so I expect to spend a lot of time and do a lot of work in the kitchen.” This comes as no big surprise since Pia shares her family’s passion for the art and business of food.

“Our second home includes all the restaurants that I help run with my family. Almost every day, Riana accompanies me after school as I go about the restaurants,” says Pia. “Sometimes, Dwight tags along as well,” she teases, thus revealing how her family sticks together, in business or in health. The Lagos might have put together a quirky house, but their partnership is plainly harmonious. He might be a bit more laid-back and she a little more high-strung. But like the best of relationships, it’s a complementary pairing, as balanced as a spinning basketball or a three-course meal.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved

Plants, Paws, and Pot Bellies: Pick A Plan For Prosperity.

It can be argued that one can be too rich, too smart, or too good-looking, but one can’t ever be too lucky. Luck is the one thing we all can use a little bit more of. But how can we bring more good luck into our lives? Throughout the ages people have believed that good luck can be found, bought, made, or even grown.

Well, if you want to grow your own luck, you have the choice of either tending to a plant or caring for a pet animal. It depends on your temperament which one you’ll find to be more fun or less demanding. If you prefer a good luck charm that doesn’t move about too much and sprouts leaves instead of fur, then you’ll be better off growing a Money Tree or a Good Fortune Tree. This unique tree’s scientific name is Pachira Aquatica. The legend goes that there was an old farmer from Taiwan who never seemed to get any luck. He had worked hard his whole life with nothing to show for it. But one morning, he found a strange new plant growing near his fields. It was a hardy, resilient tree that didn’t seem to need much care or water. The plant began to sprout multiple stems that then grew charming light-green leaves. He decided to collect the tree’s seeds, grow them and sell the young plants at market. They were a big success and he soon grew very prosperous. From then on the plant became known as the Good Luck Money Tree or Good Fortune Tree. They are now being sold around the world. The luckiest plants are said to be the ones with 7 leaves on each stem. They are very easy to take care of as they thrive even in low light and dry conditions. They only require watering around once a month or when the soil they are planted in has completely dried out.

If you want a more interactive good luck charm though, then you might consider taking care of a Good Luck Cat from Thailand. Many Thai superstitions are focused on the spirituality of animals. The Thai people have an ancient belief that certain types of cats bring good fortune to those who look after them. The Tamra Maew or Cat Book of Poems, which was written in the 1300s, lists and contains paintings of 17 kinds of “good luck cats”. It also advises the reader to:

Hurry and find a good cat to prosper and gain results, rank and slaves because of the good cat with the correct characteristics…

two eyes like diamonds business meets success with prosperity, like a priceless jewel…

…white whiskers, as if applied so fine-luck is not slow coming to the house

This ancient manuscript was recovered from Ayudhya, the capital of what was then Siam, and shows how long cats have had a special relationship with the Thai people. Their King Rama V adored animals and was known to hold a state funeral when one of his cats died. Siamese cats were rarely sold to foreigners, but because they are considered good luck they are a favorite gift to visiting dignitaries. And in Thailand, if a pair of good luck cats is given to a bride on her wedding day, it is said to ensure a happy marriage.

This maneki neko beckons customers to purchase...

This maneki neko beckons customers to purchase takarakuji tickets in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you don’t have a green thumb or the space for a pet, then growing your own luck could be a problem. No need to fret though as there are a few things you can buy to improve your lot. If you still want a good luck cat but don’t think you can manage to take care of a real live one, then you might be content to keep a Golden Lucky Money Cat or a Beckoning Cat. These cat figures are popular in Chinese and Japanese businesses. You can usually find them prominently displayed, one paw auspiciously raised up, as if hailing you to “live long and prosper”. The left paw is to beckon customers, the right paw attracts money and good fortune. They may also come in different colors for different kinds of luck. Black is to ward off evil, pink is for love, gold is for money (of course), and red for good health. These lucky cats are customarily “fed” with coins and paper bills. In China there is a charming legend told about the arrival of a cat who fought the rats and protected the silkworms that a family depended on for their wealth. Traditionally, cats also symbolize protection from evil. This is supposedly because they can see in the dark and frighten away bad spirits.

Budai - Laughing Buddha

Budai – Laughing Buddha (Photo credit: Natesh Ramasamy)

But if you’re after a more anthropomorphic symbol of good luck, then a Lucky Buddha could be what you’re looking for. Also known as Hotei in Japan, Pu-Tai in China, Laughing Buddha or Happy Buddha, these Buddha figures always feature a big smile and a large belly. His fat stomach is a symbol of happiness, generosity, and the good life.  Legend has it that if a person is to rub his belly, it brings forth wealth, luck, and prosperity. It is said that the Hotei is based on a Buddhist monk by the name of Pu-Tai. Because of his benevolent nature, he was regarded as an incarnation of the bodhisattva (the future Buddha Maitreya), but due to his fat stomach and jolly personality, he was caricatured as the “Laughing Buddha”. The name Hotei actually means cloth bag or glutton. Another item that is usually seen with the Hotei figure is a begging bowl.  This represents his Buddhist nature. Many Buddhist temples will have Hotei located at the entrance or in the courtyard. Most of these figures depict Hotei as a wandering monk who goes around and takes away the sorrow from those he passes.

Once we’ve chosen a charm it is best not to question its powers too much if we want to see any effects. Falling prey to skepticism and pessimism just won’t do you any good. At the very least, it’s always a good idea to hold on to something that makes us feel better about our chances in life. Taking care of a tree or a pet cat is always a worthwhile endeavor, and can also be very enjoyable. If you believe that keeping a lucky figure makes you feel more fortunate, or adds a more prosperous tone to your home or business, then by all means get one and display it in full view. And who knows, seeing Buddha laugh and rubbing his fat belly everyday might be just what you need to put a smile on your face and some stuffing in your bank account. As long as it makes you happy and brings you hope, who is to argue? In the end, we only have as much luck as we believe, but every little bit helps.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Manila Bulletin, 2003

%d bloggers like this: