Back to Article List


       While the Philippines was under Spanish rule (1521 – 1898), Spanish friars joined the Philippine missions to Christianize the population.

       The friar, a man of god and not an architect, used skilled Filipino artisans who were unaware of Western construction and artistic techniques to build a church following the friar’s faint recollection of European baroque churches that he had seen before his making the long journey to the Philippines. The typical architecture in the tropical, island environment was a dwelling, built of wood, bamboo, rattan and palm (nipa) thatch or grass, usually raised from the ground on stilts that was totally adapted to the environment. The houses were susceptible to fire, yearly typhoons or eathquakes. The unexpected result of the mixture of Filipino, Chinese, European and Mexican influences was the creation of a distinctively Filipino adaption of the baroque style.

       The uniqueness of Filipino church architecture was honored by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee by inscribing four churches in the UNESCO World Heritage List as the “Baroque Churches of the Philippines.”

Church of Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion (Sta. Maria, province of Ilocos Sur)

Built in 1765 under the direction of the Agustinian order, the ensemble resembles a citadel sited on the crest of a solitary hill rising above one side of the Santa Maria town plaza. The architectural ensemble presents its side and detached pagoda-like bell tower rather than its façade to the town. Thick contrafuetes (buttresses) are attached to the walls, reinforcing the structure against earthquake damage. The bell tower is constructed a distance away, protecting the main church structure from possible earthquake damage. Approached on foot by ascending a long, wide flight of piedra china, steps that rising from the edge of the town plaza, the small, cramped plaza at the top of the steps is bounded by the church façade that faces the convento, enclosed by an arcaded bridge that connects both structures.

Church of San Agustin (Intramuros, Manila)

       Built in 1587 under the direction of the Augustinian order, this is the oldest existing Philippine Church and one of the few examples of an ecclesiastical complex specifically conceived for an urban setting. Originally built as the Agustinian Mother House, the complex includes the church, monasteries, cloisters and botanical gardens encompassing an entire city block in the walled city of Intramuros, Manila. The austere architecture is framed by a small plaza facing the principal church entrance that is perpendicular to the street. Structurally well protected against earthquake damage, the thick buttresses do not extend outwards from the exterior walls in the manner of most Philippine Colonial Churches. Instead, they are incorporated into the interior, forming a series of magnificent side chapels that line both sides of the church. San Agustin houses one of the country’s leading collections of ecclesiastical art and rare books.

Church of San Agustin (Paoay, province of Ilocos Norte)

       Built in 1710 under the direction of the Agustinian order, the ensemble of the church and detached bell towers are truly majestic in scale when viewed from the edge of the plaza that faces the ensemble. Detached from the church façade the bell tower tapers as it rises from the ground in a fashion reminiscent of a pagoda. The stone façade is plain at the bottom. Light, elegant decorative carving is applied close to the top of the pediment. A row of feathery stone finials that seem to gently brush the sky with delicate Oriental strokes accentuate the triangular top of the pediment. The earthquake protection system in this structure is probably its most dramatic feature. Exaggeratedly thick buttresses protrude quite a distance from the ground to be countered by a smaller volute near roof level topped by a stone finial. Swirling upwards to the sky, the massive stone buttresses take on a magical lightness.

Church of Santo Tomas de Villanueva (Miag-ao, province of Iloilo)

        Built in 1797 under the direction of the Augustinian order, the church is one of the most successful examples of the exuberant Philippine Translation of western baroque design principles into a hybrid local style. The church’s architectural composition follows the box-like structure attached to the rear of a pediment façade.  Non-symmetrical bell towers, squat at the bottom but tapering upwards solidly anchor each side of the façade. The deeply incised relief carving gives the façade a remarkable three-dimensional quality.

       The nalf carving depicts Saint Christopher dressed as a Filipino farmer, carrying the young Christ on his shoulders across a river set within a luxuriant field of primitively carved, out of scale representations of Filipino flora and fauna. In keeping with the nalf character of the ensemble, the architectural details are likewise very exaggerated in scale.

About the Author:
Augusto F. Villalon is one of the country’s leading experts on heritage conservation. Aside from being the principal architect of A. Villalon Associates, he has served as technical advisor for UNESCO and UNIDO. He is a member of the Committee on Monuments and Sites of the NCCA and the Philippine World Heritage Committee secretariat. He is also a columnist for Philippine Daily Inquirer.