WHY THE HISTORIC TOWN OF VIGAN WAS INSCRIBED IN THE UNESCO WORLD
Towards the end of November 1999, the UNESCO World
Heritage Convention met in Marrakeeh, Morocco to decide which of
the sites and monuments proposed by countries that have adhered
to the World Heritage Convention should be included in the World
Heritage List. The selection process is quite difficult for the
World Heritage Committee, composed of specialists from 21 countries
elected from among the nations that have signed the Convention,
which determined how each site or monument, as opposed to another,
be judged to form part of the World Heritage and what constitutes
the exceptional and universal value of a cultural treasure.
In this respect, the World Heritage Convention defines what kinds
of monuments and sites may be considered as part of cultural heritage
and what kinds of physical and geological formations may be considered
as part of our natural heritage. The Convention provides detailed
criteria for the selection of sites and monuments, which the Committee
applies rigorously to prevent the World Heritage List from becoming
too long and to preserve its integrity as the checklist of the best
among the worlds treasures.
On 2 December 1999, our Historic Town of Vigan was inscribed in
the World Heritage List which now includes 630 cultural and natural
properties of exceptional universal value in 158 States Parties
or countries that have adhered to the Convention.
The Historic Town of Vigan was inscribed on the basis of the following:
Criterion (ii): exhibit an important interchange of human
values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world,
on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts or
town planning and landscape design.
Under this criterion, the World Heritage Centre officially cites:
Vigan represents a unique fusion of Asian building design
and construction with European colonial architecture and planning.
Criterion (iv): be an outstanding example of a type of building
or architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates
a significant change in human history.
Under this criterion, the citation reads: Vigan is an exceptionally
intact and well preserved example of a European trading town in
East and East Asia.
To understand better these citations, let us explore together
the town planning, the evolution and typical lay-out of the Vigan
Strategically located at the mouth of the Abra River along the
northwestern coast of Luzon which is nearest to mainland China,
Vigan was an important coastal trading port from the pre-colonial
era to the 19th century. The town plan is representative of the
style the Spanish colonizers had designed and established in the
18th century, conforming to the Ley de las Indias (the Law of the
Indies) that regulated the lay-out, street patterns and open spaces
of all new settlements during the Spanish era: a regular urban design
of grid street pattern radiating from a central plaza (park).
Dominating the central plaza (Plaza Salcedo) are the administrative
and religious buildings: the Casa Real (Provincial Administrative
Office), the Municipio (Municipal Hall), the Seminario (Archdiocesan
Seminary), the Colegio de Niñas (which became the Rosary
College, then St. Pauls College), the Arzobispado (Archbishops
Palace), the Cathedral (St. Pauls Cathedral) with its detached
campanario (belfry). Another plaza (Plaza Burgos) is situated to
the south of the cathedral. Ancestral houses are tightly strung
along narrow streets forming a grid-like pattern within the kasanglayan
or mestizo district (historic district) which used to extend from
the Mestizo River on the east to Rizal Street on the west.
The ancient urban plan survived the ravages of time, nature and
the last World War, but a number of historic buildings were destroyed
by fire. Before the turn of the last century, the Casa Real burned
down and was replaced by an American colonial structure which became
the Capitolio (Provincial Capitol Building). During the Japanese
occupation, fire destroyed several houses along Crisologo Street,
which were fortunately replaced by structures conforming to the
historic buildings within the Mestizo district. In 1952, ancestral
houses along Quezon Avenue were gutted down by fire. They were replaced
by modern structures, which started the erosion of the ancient urban
fabric of Vigan. The old seminario was burned down in 1968, followed
by arrow of ancestral houses on the southern periphery of Plaza
Burgos in 1971.
Vigan Master Plan
Evolution of the Vigan House
The Vigan house evolved from the pre-colonial bahay kubo of wood
and bamboo, with roofs of nipa palm or cogon grass. The bahay kubo
however was easily destroyed by typhoons and fire. In the 17th century,
the Spaniards and Mexicans started teaching the Chinese and native
artisans how to quarry and dress stone, mould bricks, prepare and
use lime mortar to construct fire-resistant brick and stone structures.
Again, these structures were easily toppled down by earthquakes.
To counteract the dangers of fire and earthquakes, local artisans
developed another type of architecture which incorporates the flexibility
of interlocking wooden haligis (houseposts) and beams of the bahay
kubo, and the durability and fire-resistance of stone and bricks.
Stone and brick were used only on the ground floor; the second floor
was of timber. The haligis carried the weight of the second floor,
while the stone and brick walls on the ground floor served as solid
curtains for the wooden framework.
A majority of the historic buildings in Vigan are two-storey structures,
built in masonry on the ground floor and timber on the second floor.
Some of the timber and bricks houses have voladas or extensions
of the second floors that projects to the outside. The volada is
a passageway that runs along this projection and was used by servants
to move discreetly around the house, without disturbing homeowners
and guests in the sala and bedrooms.
A third type of Vigan house is the two-storey buildings, built
in masonry on both floors, which is remarkable in this earth-quake
prone are. Most of the houses along Crisologo Street are of this
type, which manifests the highest technological achievement of local
artisans in building construction before the introduction of modern
building materials and technology from the west.
The Vigan Ancestral House
Like the shop-houses in Asian trading cities like Melaka, Penang
and Kuching (Malaysia), Macau, Singapore and Hoi An (Viet Nam),
the Vigan house was built on a larger scale than its Asian counterparts.
The lay out and partitioning of the Vigan house were designed
for specific purposes. One enters the puerta (main door), which
is wide enough to accommodate the width of the caruaje (horse-drawn
carriage) and high enough for the carroza (shoulder-borne and later
on, carriage-mounted religious images), into a zaguan or hall on
the ground floor. The inhabitants of the house can let visitors
in by pulling a string from the second floor to open a puertita
(smaller door) hinged to the main door. Horses for carriages were
tethered in the caballoreza (horse stable) at the rear of the ground
floor. Shops and bodegas (storage rooms) take up the rest of the
space on the ground floor.
The grand staircase has two sections: a few steps to a landing
where ordinary visitors were received; then a long flight of staircase
to the second floor. More important visitors were received in the
caida or antesala where informal entertaining was held. The sala,
the biggest and most important part of the house was used for family
gatherings and for important occasions. As in the pre-colonial bahay
kubo, families slept together in two to three large cuartos (bedrooms).
Either located at the end of the sala or separated by partition
is the comedor (dining room) which leads to the cocina (kitchen).
Adjacent to the cocina is the cobeta (toilet) which is a separate
structure that was built at a later stage when sanitary toilets
were introduced in the late 1800s. The azotea (open terrace) is
an extension at the back of the second floor where residents and
guests gathered to cool off and enjoy the stars after dinner.
The large ventanas (windows) which provide a maximum of ventilation
are of two layers of sliding panes: an inner pair of sliding windows
made of translucent capiz shells (of Chinese/Japanese origin) that
permit natural sunlight to enter into the house; and an outside
pair of sliding wooden storm shutters. Below the ventanas are smaller
windows of sliding wooden panels called ventanillas that are protected
by wooden balusters. Children can safely watch the street scene
below through the balustered ventanillas. Tiled roofs and eaves
extend well into the street to prevent rain from entering the inside
of the house. Calados (cutwork friezes) decorating the top portion
of the internal wooden partitions permit breeze to waft through.
Some houses have window eaves made of tin and decorated with decorative
cutouts on the fringes.
Significance of Vigans Inscription
The historic buildings of Vigan manifest the unique artistic and
technological achievements of 18th and 19th century native artisans
who developed an architectural style adapted to the earthquake-prone
tropics and reflected their native art, using indigenous materials
of wood, stone, terra cotta and capiz shells. The authenticity of
the built heritage of Vigan has been established by experts: much
of its original architectural, structural and decorative elements
are still intact.
Vigan is a unique monument for having retained its ancient urban
plan. In the Philippines, our town has the most extensive number
of surviving religious, civic and traditional buildings that date
back to the 18th century. Today, 187 historic structures have survived.
Most of them continue to be inhabited by descendants of the original
builders or used for the original purposes for which they were built
(religious and administrative buildings). Vigan is a living
heritage site where local inhabitants continue to be the custodians
of their patrimony, where traditional industries continue to fuel
local economy and where local traditions continue to be practiced.
Over the centuries, Vigan has maintained its visual and architectural
unity and homogeneity. The built heritage of Vigan expresses the
fusion and continuing adaptation of various cultural influences
(Ilocano, Filipino, Chinese, Spanish, Mexican and more recently
American) into a homogenous urban landscape and into an architectural
style that is uniquely Filipino.
Vigan is likewise historically important to the nation as the
scene of major historical events in the nations struggle for
independence from foreign domination and is the birthplace of heroes,
heroines and illustrious personages who shaped regional and national
Vigans inscription in the UNESCO World Heritage List of
Cultural Properties is therefore an acknowledgement of the genius
of our native artisans who built our historic buildings and monuments,
and a recognition of the commitment of our present generation to
preserve our architectural legacy for the future generations of
not only Bigueños, but of the entire world. With its inclusion
in the World Heritage List, the Town of Vigan has become a source
of pride, and a national symbol of the Filipinos.
(Written by Engr. Ricardo L. Favis, a Consultant for Culture at
UNESCO Principal Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific Bangkok,
Thailand and former Tourism Operations Officer of the City of Vigan).