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The Bahay na Bato
by Rodrigo D. Perez III
Date: 8/3/2007

The 19th century townhouse, called bahay na bato, was a product of economic and social developments, as well as architectural evolution. With the opening of Manila to international trade in 1834 and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, trade and agricultural production rose to exhilarating heights and increased the fortunes of the native aristocracy, particularly in the provinces. Wealth became the passport to higher education not only in Manila but also in Europe. The elite or principalia included landowners and traders, as well as professionals—physicians and accountants—and the highly educated, cosmopolitan illustrado (literally, enlightened). The lifestyle and aspirations, and even pretensions of the upper class demanded a new type of dwelling—spacious, durable, comfortable, impressive, noble, and elegant—the bahay na bato.

Several house forms contributed to the emergence of the bahay na bato. One of its ancestors is the nipa hut or bahay kubo, which in itself might not have been a worthy dwelling for the illustrado, but whose principles of design were too practical to be ignored. The steep hip roof, elevated quarters, post-and-lintel construction, and maximized ventilation are features of the bahay kubo that appear in grand style in the bahay na bato. A second ancestor may have been the native chieftain’s house described by Antonio Morga in the 17th century, which was elevated, sturdily built of timber, well-furnished, and spacious, having many rooms. A third influence may have also been the houses of the Spanish residents of Intramuros, which combined native and the foreign styles of building in their two-storey houses with wooden posts and beams, stone walls around the ground floor, and timber construction above. Finally, another model for the bahay na bato may have been the convento, rectory or monastery, built adjacent to the mission church, an authoritative presence in the center of the town which must have antedated the bahay na bato. Extravagantly spacious and solidly built, it could have become the local standard for grandeur.

In general, the bahay na bato may be described as a house with wooden legs and a stone skirt, a style of construction which makes the house a sure survivor of earthquakes. The wooden frame gives it both flexibility and stability, while the one-storey high stone wall is less likely to collapse. Large wooden posts are sunk into the ground but stand high enough to carry the roof. The posts are independent of both stone wall below and wooden walls above. Because they are of exceptionally precious hardwood, they are worth displaying. The living quarters are elevated and are reached through an interior stairway located in the zaguan on the ground floor. The zaguan with its naked stonework is a grim entrance hall but with its abundant space is the perfect storeroom for just about everything. The stairs, are not only a means of access but also the setting for a stately arrival. A surrounding balustrade detached from the wall provides room all around for welcoming committee and prolonged farewells.

The stairs, on the other hand, lead up to the caida or upper entrance hall. Opening to the caida is the sala or living room. Bedrooms flank the sala and nearby is the dining room. At the rear of the house are the kitchen and next to it, the open-air azotea. Running along the front and sides of the house and flanking the major rooms is the volada, a gallery which protects the rooms from the heat of the sun. Along the volada is an elaborate system of windows. The broad, massive window sill is grooved and holds two to three sets of sliding shutters: a set of wooden louvers or jalousies, a set of capiz or oyster shell shutters, and occasionally, a set of glass-paned shutters. Between the window sill and the floor runs the ventanilla, with sliding wooden shutters and wooden balustrades or iron grills. Wide double doors are flung open to join each room to adjacent rooms. With all doors open, the house becomes one big hall. The interior of the bahay na bato is a striking example of a space surrounded by space. Running above the partitions are panels of wooden fretwork, which allow the air within the house to circulate.

The bahay na bato represents the apex in the development of indigenous Filipino architecture, because its expands the prototypal structure of the ethnic house from a one-room dwelling to a multi-roomed house of grand scale, while preserving the basic features, and because it adapts Western architectural influences to form a synthesis of native and immigrant art. The bahay na bato is a product of economic progress and cultural adaptation, and as such is a symbol of the affluent Westernized Filipino. It stands as a reminder of the social situation which has not significantly changed even with the introduction of democracy, public education, and free enterprise.

Photo Captions:

1: Stylized dragons creep up this tindalo staircase - a prelude to a lavish display of 19th-century wealth. Claparols-Lacson house in Talisay, Negros Occidental. (Philippine Ancestral Houses. p.101)

2: Even ogee arches from the Moslem Near East appeared in the salas of well-travelled families. Tecson house in San Miguel, Bulacan. (Philippine Ancestral Houses. p.134)

3: Vigan house (Ayala Museum Research Team)

Source: From Arkitektura, An Essay on Philippine Architecture, by Rodrigo D. Perez III (Bernardo Ma.OSB). CCP, 1989. (pages 18-28)

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