Wednesday, January 18, 2012


The Philippines is a unique country in Asia, due to its culture, food, religion and of course, its architectural heritage. Being there, I felt closer to Latin America than to Southeast Asia where it is geographically located, since the Filipino cultural landscape is far from traditional Buddhist wooden constructions with pitched roofs and big eaves, as seen from Taiwan to Korea, from Thailand to Japan.

The tropical mestizo heritage of the Philippines, home to many artistic and architectural jewels of universal value, was the result of the originality of the Filipinos to innovate styles and building systems based on materials available in their midst, and on the other hand, of the ineffable imprint left by more than 3 centuries of the Spanish colonization  in this archipelago. The most curious aspect, however, is that colonial architectural influence did not come directly from the Iberian Peninsula (to which the ships took two years to arrive), but rather from the American colonies, particularly from Mexico and to a lesser degree, Peru.

The following entries will explore some features and notable examples of colonial architecture in the Philippines, seen through the eyes of a Latin American, hoping that might be of interest and reference for discussion about the cultures of Spanish influence. This first post includes an introduction to the main features of Philippine colonial architecture and two examples of unique churches in Asia.

Colonial house in Bohol


The cross and the sword governed the destiny of this country for 400 years. Missionaries from various congregations were given the task of building temples, monasteries and convents. However, there are some features that were particular to this process:

Cloister of the Convent Santo Niño, Cebu
Photo courtesy of Pierre Marius

1) Indirect link with Spain: The far distance in the Iberian country prompted the colonization of the Philippines was made ​​from North and South America.
2) Mestizo Architecture. The natives were skilled in the art of building with bamboo and wood, but they did not know how to use stone for construction purposes. To this end, Chinese and even Muslims buiders were summoned, imprinting Arab influences in some churches in Cebu and Manila, using native materials such as coral and devising constructive techniques to counter the devastation of typhoons and earthquakes.
3) Juxtaposition of styles. Given scarce resources, and to the successive calamities, collapsed buildings were not demolished, but rebuilt upon their foundations or walls.

Church in Ilocos



With Malay, Indonesian and Chinese influence, the native people of this archipelago had a first contact with the West when Ferdinand Magellan landed on these shores, during his expedition around the world. In my childhood I had heard the story of this brave Portuguese sailor, who could not complete his circumnavigation around the world because he was killed by savages on the island of Cebu.

This time, however, I heard the Filipino version (it's always interesting to hear both sides of a story), about the brave chief Lapu Lapu, who in 1521 fought the invaders who had claimed his land for the King of Spain, thus becoming the first Filipino hero.

Statue of Lapu Lapu in Manila

But before that skirmish, the Spanish had been kindly received by the natives, and indeed, they managed to celebrate the first Mass in the history of Asia, around a cross planted by Magellan himself (now the Filipinos commemorate the introduction of Christianity to the archipelago at the "Cross of Magellan," which marks the site of that first ceremony).

Magellan's Cross: Allegory of the cross planted by the navigator and the first Mass celebrated in this territory.

It was there that it occurred to him that he had  to evangelize the inhabitants of this land by any means, beginning with its rulers, Rajah Hubanon and his wife. He gave them an image of the Child Jesus, called Santo Niño. He then attempted to convert Lapu Lapu, Hubanon's rival, and his refusal the European decided to attack him. Bad idea. Magellan and his group were massacred and the religious statue was taken as a trophy.

43 years later, Lopez de Legazpi arrived from Mexico and began the conquest of the archipelago (named as "Felipinas Islands" in honor of King Philip II). He was surprised to found the image of Santo Niño, which is was a bit damaged, but it was revered by the natives as a local deity. That was the beginning of the city of Cebu, the colonization of the Philippines, the evangelism of Asia and the church and convent of Santo Niño.

Philippine girl carrying an image of Santo Niño, the country's religious icon.
Photo courtesy of Victor Bautista .

The original church was founded by Augustinian Father Andres de Urdaneta in 1565 and was simply made of earth, wood and straw. After a series of fires and earthquakes the present church was made of white stone, between 1734 and 1739.

The complex of Santo Niño consists of church and convent. The main entrance is located in the longest side of the building, which differs from most churches. This circumstance gives an imposing presence to its facade, which can be seen from a public space that precedes it.

As noted by Father Peter G. Galende, in his detailed compendium "Angels of Stone. Augustinian Churches in the Philippines".

The facade of the church of Santo Niño represents a blending of Muslim, Romanesque and neo-classical features, all set in what has otherwise been described a high degree of integration.
The facade, following Classical pattern, is divided into two levels. Shallow pilasters divide each story into three segments. The bell tower serves as a counterbalance to the convent located on the opposite far end. A triangular pediment crowns the solid, but not massive facade.

The focus of attention is on the center section. The trefoil arched main entrance is balanced by the side rectangular statued shallow niches. The vertical composition is echoed by the small design of the second level above the cornice, trefoil arch, the pediment and the side scroll-like ornament, a facade within a facade. A double edged pediment crowns the facade.

The rectangular shallow niches of the lower level are counterbalanced by semicircular arched windows on the second.
The bell tower has two blind and open windows alternating in shape, ending up in  triangular pinnacles with a circular disc crowned by a balustrade and a bulbous dome of Muslim influence.

Photo courtesy of ronrag .

The facade is preserved in its original stone texture and natural color . It conveys an air of simplicity and elegance, the lines are neatly drawn and projecting pilasters kept shallow to the maximum. The graceful trefoil arch, the dignified embellishments and the generally flat perspective create a sense of serenity and elegance. "

Interior of the Church

Besides its historical value, this place has an remarkable symbolic value and is the center of the most important pilgrimage in the country.

The celebration of the Santo Nino is the largest in the country.
Photo courtesy of Jessle Cuizon .


n Sebastian, Manila. Recollect Church assembled in steel.

In the aftermath of the colonial era, in 1891, in Manila was erected the Basilica of San Sebastian, built in Neo Gothic style and notable for being the only church built in steel and metal in Asia, although some people consider it unique in the world . For this reason, it is included in the tentative list of UNESCO.

The first church erected in this place was built in the seventeenth century, made of wood and burned in 1651.  The structure  later was made of a brick that was destroyed by the earthquake of 1859.

This basilica has not an atrium or a square in front of it, as in many other cases of colonial churches. However, it is placed at an important node and its height allows it to have a strong presence in the skyline.

The peculiarity of this church it that it was designed by Gustave Eiffel's company in France and the steel parts were manufactured in Binche Belgium. Even the windows were imported from Germany, made by the Henri Oidtmann Company. The elements were assembled in just two years, between 1888 and 1890. It was finally inaugurated in 1891.

The church of San Sebastián during construction. Journal of Pubic Works. 1897.

The symmetrical facade is composed of two towers flanking the main entrance, which is highlighted by a central rosette.

In the transept is placed a octagonal dome, which allows light to enter into the church. 

Photo courtesy of Sinchibukai .
Photo courtesy of steadfast .
The church is one of the few structures that survived intact to the battle of Manila.

Manila was devastated by the Japanese in 1945. Photo courtesy of John T. Pilot .

However, San Sebastián church remained intact. Photo courtesy of Debra Eve .

I think that, unlike other churches in the Philippines, San Sebastian has a European design, which was transported and erected to another continent. It is, however, a unique example in this place of a particular technology that symbolized the commitment to technology and economy without sacrificing the aesthetic values ​​of an era.



  1. Architects in the Philippines have these colonial inspiration in their works.

  2. Most of the old structures in cebu philippines are offcourse collonial structures because of Spanish influence imagine they have been there for 400 years

  3. I want to duplicate the feel and the design, However, I hope there are available house construction materials

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