Discovering Philippines

Bahai-na-cubo, Bahai-na-bato: Houses of Nipa Palm, Wood and Stone

If one avoids the common tendency to divide the world into West and East as if it were a piece of fruit, then the Philippine house can be seen to belong simultaneously to several different worlds.

Fernando Zialcita
Between the 17th and 19th centuries Manila witnessed the birth of a new form of construction that responded both to earthquakes and to the tropical climate: heat and heavy rainfall. This architectural style combines elements of the Asiatic and Hispanic traditions. Stone, pottery and wood were the building materials used over centuries.

The first buildings erected by the Spaniards were similar to the native constructions and were built of cane and nipa, but after the many fires that destroyed these constructions it was decided that buildings and city walls would be constructed from masonry using volcanic stone: adobe.

Houses built of stone were fairly fire-resistant but were too rigid to withstand earthquake damage, while constructions based on wooden frameworks were more flexible in earth tremor situations. This gave rise to a synthesis which combined stone with wood.

The 17th century house had two storeys: a ground floor with very thick walls and an upper storey made of wood with overhanging balconies, which were closed off with windows whose panes were made from capiz, a flat translucent shell which is an essential ingredient of the Philippine style.

Between 1780 and 1880, the "geometric style" became widespread. The overhanging balcony -the "volada"-, now extended around the whole of the façade, accentuating the horizontality of the buildings. During the 19th century, the use of enormous pillars was reduced to a minimum; false ceilings and wooden walls with lattice-work on their upper part framed the living quarters.

During the last third of the 19th century the "volada" became an open gallery decorated with plant motifs; this is the "Floral" style. In 1863 and 1880, fresh earthquakes shook Manila, destroying many buildings; new rules were established to modernize the traditional methods and confidence in the stability of structures relied on the multiplicity of their internal ties.

The Hispanic and the Filipino, in the sphere of architecture just as in any other, is a logical continuation of native elements, and represents an advance over the indigenous while at the same time paying homage to it, accepting it, and allowing it to continue.
Pedro Ortiz Armengo

View of a tower and part of the village of Samboangan. Fernando Brambila. Collection of drawings and engravings made on the Malaspina Expedition. 1789-1794. MN The native Philippine house was characterized by a pitched roof with two or four angles, supported on a framework resting on four or more wooden pillars. It raised above the ground on a platform of earth. Tower

Balconies "Overhanging balconies", closed off with windowpanes made from capiz, a flat translucent shell which is an essential ingredient of the Philippine style.


A private home in Escolta Street in Manila. Casto Olano. 1871. AHN The blending of east with west produced beautiful architecture, which became popular during the 17th century and characteristic of the unique Philippine style; Friar Francisco Alcina was to term this "mestizo" architecture.

Private Home

Dwellings Groups of dwellings made from nipa, in Mamante in the Tondo district of Manila. Álbum fotográfico... End of the 19th century. BN In the Philippines, family homes adapted to locally available materials and the climatic conditions of the area; the result was a type of building which was common to the whole of south-eastern Asia.

Private home in Centeno street in the Santa Cruz district in the city of Manila. Francisco van Camp. SHM Stone-built constructions withstood fires but were helpless in the face of earth tremors. In Manila, a mixture of wood and masonry was used in construction work; roofs were large and spectacular, and overhanging verandahs closed off with "capiz" shell window-panes were characteristic of this style. Private home

Building techniques Building techniques designed to avoid the devastating effects of earthquakes. End of the 19th century. AHN The earthquakes that shook Manila in 1863 and 1880 caused a great deal of damage. Reconstruction of the city was undertaken by civil engineers who adopted the traditional combination formula, while adapting this to the adverse seismic conditions.

Building techniques designed to avoid the devastating effects of earthquakes. End of the 19th century. AHN After the ravage caused in 1880 it was recommended that the ground floor of buildings should be constructed using a timber framework with multiple ties and that the external walls should be brick-built. Building techniques

Houses Condition of the houses in Quiotán street in the Santa Cruz district of Manila, after the 1880 earthquake. Francisco van Camp. SHM After the 1880 earthquake, the Spanish administration passed legislation to regulate building works; these introduced new techniques and materials into the sphere of construction and modernized the way in which building works were undertaken.

Reconstruction of the Santa Potenciana palace. Manuel Ramírez Bazán. 1885. AHN Founded in 1589 by Philip II at the request of Bishop Salazar as a school for the education of young girls in Manila, this was a magnificent building with its large windows, balconies and decorative iron grilles.


Ground plan

Ground plan of Santa Potenciana. Manuel López Bayo. 1882. AHN This palace was destroyed by the 1880 earthquake, and was rebuilt, again as a residence for the governor; it was to fulfil this role until the end of the Spanish colonial presence.

Reconstruction of the Santa Potenciana palace. Manuel Ramírez Bazán. 1885. AHN In 1866, the building was made the official residence of the governor, although shortly after the governor moved out and it was taken over by the military authorities. Santa Potenciana palace


Reformation works carried out at the barracks of the civil guard at the headquarters in Batangas, on the island of Luzon (Philippines). Luis Pereyra. 1896. AHN From 1866 onwards, the Spanish architects and civil engineers took charge of planning and carrying out works of all types, whether civil or military.

House in the San Miguel district of Manila. Album fotográfico... End of the 19th century. BN Private homes were built with wide, overhanging roofs which protected them from the sun, high temperatures and torrential rain. House

French inn

View of the French inn at La Barranca, in the district of Binondo, Manila. Album fotográfico... End of the 19th century. BN During the colonial period, Binondo was the most densely-populated district of Manila; Chinese silks, Persian carpets, ivory, perfumes, spices and other oriental treasures were traded there.

Return to: Discovering Philippines Index

Discovering Philippines Copyright © 2004 Robert S. Gardner