How Vigan Was Built to Withstand the Worst Storms and Earthquakes

Centuries' worth of cultural design innovation.

With areas up north still reeling from the aftershock of the recent eathquake, most of Vigan remains intact. Local Ilocano icons like the Quema House, Favis house, Bantay Bell Tower, and Vigan Cathedral may have been damaged, but their structural integrity proves once again why Vigan has withstood centuries worth of calamity, conflict, and disaster. 

This didn't happen by accident. We only need to look at its history to find out why.

The town itself is a product of the intersection of culture, adaptability, and design ingenuity. This UNESCO World Heritage site is emblematic of the cultural fusion of our colonial past. Even before the arrival of the Spanish, Vigan had already been an important trading post, as it was situated around the Abra River.

Once the European conquerors came, Vigan became homogenized. Established sometime starting in the 16th century, the town itself was once part of a network of Asian trading cities, which would provide a venue for cultural exchanges between Ilocano, Filipino, Chinese, and Spanish knowledge systems and traditions.

The Ley de las Indias practically birthed the foudnation of urban design in the Americas.


Vigan possesses the character of Spanish colonial urban planning, from the layout and street patterns to the landscapes and styles. Much of its makeup conforms to the Ley de las Indias, a four-volume collection of laws issued by the Spanish Empire for its possessions in the Indies.

Striking both visually and structurally (in an architectural and artistic sense), these buildings, in many ways, are inherently Filipino. The characteristics vary from era to era, building to building, and one design solution to another. Residential, commercial, and religious structures find themselves within just a few meters of cobblestones from one another, but they each exhibit features that are distinctly their own.


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The Vigan Cathedral and Bantay Bell Tower Were Damaged by the 7.0 Magnitude Earthquake

Design Characteristics: Homes

A lot of homes along Calle Crisologo in Vigan, Ilocos Sur were once owned by Chinese mestizo traders who built their wealth from the Manila Acapulco galleon trade. The shops below are indicative of the area's identity as a trading center.

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This heritage town arguably has the most extensive concentration of civic, traditional, and religious residential architecture. We can say that Vigan homes have gone through five stages of evolution.

The bahay na bato homes we see today are a more sophisticated version of the kalapaw, an indigenous Ilocano bahay kubo, if you will. Pre-Hispanic Vigan houses were once made from lightweight materials native to the land, like bamboo, nipa, and cogon. The introduction of wood to its floors and roofs followed. These, unsurprisingly, would not hold up in the face of calamity during the wet season. Fires had been an occasional threat, too.

When the Spanish conquered the land, they brought their own design sensibilities to the community. Locals learned how to quarry and prepare stones and bricks, turning them into fire-resistant building materials with the help of lime mortar. In the 19th century, corrugated metal sheets replaced roofs, as well, after a few fire incidents. While these structures fared better against typhoons and fires, they still wouldn't stand a chance against possible earthquakes.

What happened next was that Biguenos began mixing indigenous construction principles with that of their Spanish counterparts. The homes' wooden posts and beam systems were maintained while mortared bricks and stones were utilized for the ground floor of the properties. Most of the second floors made use of timber. This would eventually lead to the creation of homes made with brick masonry on both floors. This, in turn, would stabilize the homes, creating structures that could stand their ground against earthquakes and storms.


Design Characteristics: Churches

Mestizo cathedrals are usually much lower and wider than our classic cathedrals.


Right between Plaza Salcedo and Plaza Burgos is where we can find Vigan Cathedral or the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle. It's a quintessential example of how Vigan's Spanish and Asian influences come together.

The church has a definitive Baroque architectural style that is common in cathedrals in the Philippines and Guatemala. This is what we call “earthquake Baroque” or “fortress Baroque.” These mestizo cathedrals, which have Neo-Gothic, Romanesque, and Chinese elements, were designed to be quake-resistant. 

Meanwhile, Bantay Church, with its famed Bell Tower, is the oldest structure in the entire region, having been built in 1590. Known for its image of Our Lady of Charity, the church is a modern reimagining of Spanish Colonial architecture. Its watchtower, on the other hand, was actually used to look out for enemy forces, pirates, and looters during times of conflict. The structures have more of a Neo-Gothic and Pseudo-Romanesque style to them.


Paoay Church is another cathedral that has seamlessly adapted to local conditions. It combines Gothic and even oriental imagery, evidenced by its façade. We can observe some Borobudur-like features around the structure. But perhaps the church's most distinguishing features are those 24 gigantic buttresses at the sides and back of the building. At about 1.67 meters (5"5 feet) thick, these things were added to resist even the most lethal of quakes.

Most of Vigan's structures have been beautifully preserved, transcending centuries of ruin, neglect, and devastation. This also isn't the first big earthquake that has shaken them nor will it be the last. If there is one thing we can conclude from all this, it is that, in all likelihood, Vigan's houses and churches are going to outlive us all.


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About The Author
Bryle B. Suralta
Assistant Section Editor
Bryle B. Suralta is the assistant section editor of Esquire Philippines.
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