philippine architecture from bahay kubo to bahay na bato [ house of stone ]

From Bahay Kubo to Bahay na Bato to ...
by Robert Gardner

Wherever I traveled in the Philippines, I always enjoyed the old
wooden houses that lined the streets especially in out-of-the-way
provincial towns. A few years ago I began to notice that many of these
houses were either abandoned or disappearing altogether--victims of
changing family fortunes, good and bad--and the ravages of nature and

In their places, new houses are being built of concrete, cinder
block and stucco. The dwindling use of wood in construction can be
blamed on the loss of the great forests that once covered the islands
with a seemingly endless supply of lumber. Along with the change in
building materials, the shift in architecture has moved toward western
influences--both European and American. I've seen subdivisions that
could have been named "California-kitsch".

Our original ancestral home, and still the home of Filipinos in
rural areas, is the bahay kubo, or "nipa hut" (prob. from Spanish cubo,
cube). The prehispanic architecture was perfectly adapted to the
climate and could be easily repaired or rebuilt after the frequent
typhoon, flood or earthquake using simple tools and native materials.


"Their houses are constructed of wood, and are built on planks and
bamboo, raised high from the ground on large logs, and one must enter
them by means of ladders. They have rooms like ours; and under the
house they keep their swine, goats and fowl."
(Antonio Pigafetta, 1521)


After colonization, the Spanish brought their architecture but
quickly learned that stone buildings didn't last very long in an
earthquake-prone country. As towns and plantations grew, more
substantial homes were being built by the rising upper-class. These
principalia and ilustrados combined the structural features of the
bahay kubo with stylistic elements from Europe and Asia. The result
was the bahay na bato, literally "house of stone", that served as the
model for townhouses from the 19th century until World War II and for
many is considered the quintessential Filipino house.


"The third and final stage in the development of the Spanish-Filipino
domestic architecture retained the wooden supporting structure but
restricted the use of brick and stone to the lower level; the upper
level consisted of an enclosure in vertical wooden siding which left
ample openings for sliding windows. Capiz shells were often used as
window panes. What emerges is a Spanish-Filipino house."
(Architecture in the Philippines, Winand Klassen, 1986)


The old houses are as unique as the families that lived under
their roofs and there are a wide range of styles between the bahay kubo
and the mansions of the hacenderos. There are also some regional
differences but they all have some features in common. Typically
raised or two-story, the main living area is on the upper level. To
take advantage of cooling breezes, large windows surround the upper
floor. The window sashes commonly have capiz shell panes and can be
opened wide or closed for privacy or in stormy weather. 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 balusters or grillwork and can be left
opened when the large windows are closed such as at night.
As the name implies, the lower walls of the classic bahay na bato
were traditionally finished in stone or masonry. More modest homes
have wood walls for both levels and in more recent times, cinder blocks
have been used to enclose the lower level. This space, the zaguan,
was used to store the family carriage and processional cart in the old
days and nowadays often function as office, shop or the family's
sari-sari store.

I find it interesting that the word bahay, "house", is similar to
the word buhay, "life". And that the word bahay-bata, "house-child",
is the word for uterus; where life begins. It wasn't long ago that a
baby was delivered with the help of a midwife in the home of her
parents. She would grow up there and her love interest would make a
"house-calling" (umaakyat ng bahay) to seek permission of her parents
to court her. Even in death, the wake is often held in the home of the
deceased with black and yellow curtains hung in the windows.


"The dinner was being given in a house on Anloague Street which may
still be recognised unless it has tumbled down in some earthquake.
Certainly it will not have been pulled down by its owner; in the
Philippines, that is usually left to God and Nature. In fact, one
often thinks that they are under contract to the Government for just
that purpose ."
("Noli me Tangere", Jose Rizal, 1887)


Like an endangered species, these wood and stone houses are
vanishing toward certain extinction. What once embodied the character
of the urban landscape and the heart of Filipino life will be blown
away by the winds of progress. Already many towns are looking like
cluttered strip malls and subdivisions provide homes without character.
The capiz, that naturally filtered light, has given way to glass and
the large open windows have been replaced with air-conditioning. Homes
that shared a street or square are now isolated in gated compounds.
Such is progress and it's no wonder that a modern-day Rip Van Winkle
wouldn't recognize his surroundings upon awakening twenty years from

After noticing the demise of these old homes, I thought it would
be an interesting photo subject and quickly used up a roll of film on
one trip. Afterwards, I did some research and found the book
"Philippine Ancestral Houses", Zialcita and Tinio, 1980, which covers
the subject in wonderful detail. This is a book to peruse with its
many photos and drawings if you're interested in the subject. Another
good book is "Filipino Style" with a chapter about traditional houses
also written by Zialcita.

You can find good examples of these homes in the quieter
provincial towns. A few towns have made an effort to preserve their
architectural heritage. One such place is Vigan in Ilocos Sur. The
National Museum in Manila has a display of photos and architectural
drawings of Vigan's ancestral homes (as of July 2000). The town of
Taal, Batangas, is also notable for its preserved buildings. Good
examples of the hacendero lifestyle can be found at the Balay Negrense
in Silay, Negros and Villa Escudero in San Pablo, Laguna. There are
still some fine old homes in Quiapo and Binondo; parts of Manila that
weren't destroyed in World War II.


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