Monthly Archives: May 2007

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Historic Architecture in the Phillipines

More interesting observations from Bob Hammerslag. Bob is a respected expert in historic preservation, having recently retired from heading the Essex County Historic Organization in Essex, New York, where his work gained prominence including an article in the New Yorker.

In this letter (excerpted) Bob turns his attention to the antiquities of the Phillipines.

The Spanish usually get a bad rap as colonizers, but I read a book by a well-respected Filipino writer lauding the friars for their dedication to agriculture, architecture and technology which transformed the Philippines from a collection of disconnected tribes in 1521 to a nation ready to revolt against Spain in 1898. He contends that the Philippines, unlike just about all other Asian regions, or even South and Central America, had no real culture or identity before the Spanish arrived. He says the pre-Spanish Philippines has little in common with places like Thailand, or Burma or China but was really more like Samoa or Hawaii.

I did get to the churches in Bohol; Baclayon Church and Loboc Church as well as another in Dauin on Negros Island. Unfortunately, my lack of basic knowledge of ecclesiastical art and architecture really kept me from knowing much about what I saw. I’ll have to post the photos and let you do the analysis. Another problem is that many some of the churches and museums do not allow cameras. I’m just using a small digital camera in those huge dark churches, so the results are not optimal. The docent at Loboc swore that the altar was the original Jesuit one. That church was built in 1602, destroyed by fire in 1638 and rebuilt in 1670. The Jesuits were expelled in 1768. These rural churches may have more relevance your St. Mary’s project than the grand St. Paul’s in Macao.

Seeing these churches is quite an emotional experience. I am always more affected by the decrepit, romantic ruin than the restored. Regardless of the changes that have occurred over time, these churches have an overwhelming feeling of genuine antiquity. Imagine coral stone blocks with tree sap as mortar! The parishes are remote and poor. They struggle to minimally maintain these landmarks. Even the ones designated as World Heritage Sites don’t get much attention. The Dauin Church was in a quite undisturbed remote location, on a town square, far off the main road. The only sounds were children playing and roosters crowing. The entire setting must not have changed much in hundreds of years. I’m sure there were changes over time, but the overall feeling was one of overwhelming, undisturbed, tropical antiquity. One could do worse than to get large format equipment and document these places.
It’s summer here now, generally in the low 90s during the day and low 80s at night. We’re doing without air conditioning (I hate it) except at night. Usually it’s breezy, we have a balcony and two pools, and no physical work to do, so it’s not so bad.

I’ll try to get the photos processed and posted to in the next few days. We’re staying in an apartment in Cebu City for the month of April, then we’ll be off to various sites on Luzon and then back to NY for the summer. One place we’ll visit is Baguio, a city in the mountains at 1,400 meters, designed by Americans as a summer retreat. It was laid out according to a plan by American architect Daniel Burnham. Don’t know if he’s related to our John Bird. We may also visit Vigan, a Spanish Colonial town — the Essex of the Philippines.