How Mother Nature Restructured ‘Earthquake’ Baroque Churches in the Philippines

Disaster architecture is a thing, apparently.

While everyone is stuck at home during lockdown, you can still visit—via Google Maps—the Baroque churches of the Philippines and wonder at the country’s pride and joy. These centuries-old churches are a testament to faith, history, and resilience. There are currently four Spanish colonial-era Baroque churches in the Philippines that are recognized on the UNESCO World Heritage List: Church of the Immaculate Conception of San Agustin in Manila, Church of La Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion in Ilocos Sur, Church of San Agustin in Ilocos Norte, and Church of Santo Tomas de Villanueva in Iloilo.

A remnant of the Spanish colonial era, these churches have withstood revolutions, wars, and many, many earthquakes. The latter of which is one of the reasons a unique style of Baroque architecture found its footing in the Philippines, suitably called “earthquake Baroque.”

Church of Santo Tomas de Villanueva, Iloilo



For those architectural enthusiasts out there, Baroque is a dramatic style that was spearheaded by the Catholic Church in the 17th century. Baroque buildings, while beautiful and awe-inspiring, were made to suit European tastes—and geography. When the Spanish priests introduced the style to the Philippines, they didn’t take into consideration that the fragile, beautiful structure of Baroque buildings might not suit a country sitting on the Ring of Fire.

Incidentally, actual fires played a part in Philippine architecture as towns often experienced fire, which encouraged the shift toward stone. After the devastating 1645 Luzon earthquake killed hundreds and flattened 10 newly constructed Manila cathedrals, the Spanish colonial period attempted to rebuild Manila in the European Baroque style so churches were constructed in the same delicate way as those on the continent. But frequent earthquakes flattened these structures, and so the Church tried again, adopting a unique style defined by lower and wider bases, thick sidewalls, upper structures made with light materials, and low bell towers, with the bells often detached to avoid its inevitable fall in the event of an earthquake.

Church of San Agustin in Paoay, Ilocos Norte

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And so “earthquake Baroque” or “fortress Baroque” churches were born. The quake-resistant, “mestizo” structures built this way survived the Philippines’ frequent earthquakes, as well as marauders looking to loot these churches.

Two popular earthquake Baroque churches are the pyramid-like Church of San Agustin in Paoay, Ilocos Norte, and the Church of Immaculate Conception of San Agustin in Intramuros, Manila. Both have survived countless massive, destructive earthquakes and continue to stand today. The Church of San Agustin is said to incorporate architectural features from Latin America, like the sun motif, as Latin American churches were also rebuilt to survive the earthquakes of that region.

Church of the Immaculate Concepcion of San Agustin, Manila



Meanwhile, the Church of the Immaculate Concepcion of San Agustin has survived not only earthquakes, but also a bomb blast that set off during a clash between Japanese and American forces during World War II. Thankfully, the thick buttresses supporting the building—which were constructed with earthquakes in mind—inadvertently absorbed the impact. We call this feature, “bomb Baroque.”  


Next year, add these churches to your Visita Iglesia list and marvel at these castle-like Baroque churches in the Philippines. There aren’t a lot of buildings in the Philippines that have survived destructive earthquakes and lived to tell the tale. These churches are more than tourist spots—they’re a testament to our turbulent history and rich heritage.

Now that’s resiliency.

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Anri Ichimura
Section Editor, Esquire Philippines
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