Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Floral illustration based on the carved transom found in the Javellana-Lopez house in Jaro, Iloilo. This house of brick and tropical hardwood puts together ornaments and decorative details of various styles.

Here are some paragraphs for a source book on Philippine Decorative Detail

Borloloy—Philippine Decorative Detail

“Less is more.”

“Less is a bore.”

Wherever you stand in the never-ending debate between minimalism and maximalism, you can’t remain minimalist too long in the Philippines, unless your taste is as ascetic as a Zen master’s.

There is a conspiracy that lures you from leaving space alone, letting things be. There is just so much to see, to touch and to smell. Blame it on living in the tropics were more than 70 percent of the world’s species of plants and animal live. Blame it on nature’s profligacy: the philippine seas have more than 500 species of coral compared to Hawaii’s two score plus ten. Blame it on the eternal summer and bountiful rain that does not just pour but inundates, the greenhouse that makes trees pass through many seasons of leaving and unleaving—all within a year.

Blame it on the peoples and cultures that have crisscrossed this archipelago or have staked a claim on it. Blame it on the Chinese love of garish colors, the Arab’s penchant for the geometric, the Spanish adulation and promotion of baroque and its many permutations as the empire spread across two oceans and four continents, and the flapper generation’s hunger for art noveau and deco.

Blame it on artisans who can copy just about anything, even out rococoing rococo. Blame it on the artists who dream in color, breathe in color and who will not leave things alone.

Blame it in short on the kulturgeist of a people who love life and its complexities, its surprises, its novelties and foibles to the full.

Palamuti ornament this what this source book is all about, philippine ornament
Palamuti—Ornamenting House Parts

Palamuti n. Kpm. Tg. Ornament, decoration, syn. gayák, adorno, dekorasyón, dekor, pagandá; cf. sabit, palawit, bitin, tawid.—Bk. samno; Hlg. puní, gayón (cf. Tg. gayón); Ilk, bararyuyay; Ind. Mal. perhiasan (cf. Tg. híyas); Mar. pombal Mgd. limba; Png., parakép; Sb. dayándayan; SL rayándayan; Tau. Panangun.

—magpalamuti, v. To put up ornaments
—palamutihan, v. To attach decor to (x)
—pampalamuti, n. Decorative material

Fence and wall

Some are merely symbolic, others are formidable barriers. Some delineate where my castle begins and yours ends, others effectively keep out any threat to my castle.

In agricultural communities where a house sits in the middle of vast open fields, the fence marks where the mother-housekeeper’s area of responsibility begins and ends; and where the father-provider begins. This enclosed space is living space. The open field is economic space. What is enclosed is personal or familial. What is not, is a theater for community interaction, even, for transient relations—the kasama or sacada come to work for a while in the fields.

The flimsy boundary marker is all homemade: a fence of bamboo cane, a living fence of kakawate branches or flowering bougainvilla, a low line of rocks. Called bakod in Tagalog, this delineator is distinguished from the formidable solidly built pader (a corruption of the Spanish pared) meaning wall.

The pader is more common in towns and cities, where security anxiety is endemic, becoming more intense the less one knows the neighbors, the less one has sunk roots in an place. Transition pader is a mix of the open structure of the lowly bakod and the embattled look of the cement wall. Wrought iron grilles or surplus GI matting are interspersed between cement piers. The iron grille both hides the house within and frames it. The grille work rises to heights of art with its intricate whorls, loops, circles, stars, flowers and the inset cast iron accents.

The cement pader, often found in exclusive subdivisions, which have their own police force, is an aesthetic abomination. Tall, topped with barbed wire, whitewashed or decaying gray, it is not at all inviting but rather is a big bold sign warning “Keep Out. Trespassers will be shot.” “Fences make good neighbors,” wrote the American poet Robert Frost. While this might be true, the tall security fence has merely eliminated the neighbor, who is best kept away.

Tale of two thresholds: an Art Deco entrance of the Jaro Police Department and the plateresque decorations over the main door of Tigbauan church, Iloilo.

Threshold and door

Thresholds and portals are mystical places. When a family moves into a new home, life staples are brought in first—rice to assure that life’s necessities will be abundant, salt to add zest to life, sugar to sweeten the daily grind. Brides are carried by their husbands through the threshold.

Thresholds are sacred places, and spirits especially of the restless dead are not welcome to cross them. Ashes from the kitchen are spread in front of the threshold to bar these invisible denizens when they roam the night on All Hollow’s Eve or on the third and ninth day after a death—so some believe.

While Filipinos do not, like the Jews, place a mezzuhah (a container for Bible passages) at the threshold of a house, something closely akin might be found, a sacred image or ceramic plaque bearing an icon. Or a printed card with the monogram of Jesus’ name—IHS.

The threshold can be a simple opening, functional more than symbolic. But they can also be ornamented with cast cement moldings, transoms of colored glass, and wood-carving.

The threshold itself is but frame for the door.

“By their doors thou shalt know them.” Doors maybe straightforward and sincere or flowery and over-wrought with intricate Rococo and Baroque carvings. Embellished with a elaborate knockers, fortified by metal struts. Or they can be an honest barrier of bamboo and wood planks meant not so much to keep anything away, except the smallest animal and the slightest wind, but to give dwellers the feeling of being secure in a cocoon of familiarity.


A house’s roof and wall have the same function: to protect dwellers from the elements. The sweltering heat of summer, the cold and nippy Amihan (The Northeasterly), and the rains that come pouring with the Habagat (The Southwesterly).

Whether folk or architect designed, the challenge faced by the roof design is how to keep things high and dry. The most effective if traditional solution is to build a high-pitched roof, with wide overhangs. The high pitch allows water to slide down quickly and drain to the ground. The overhang protects the windows, diverts the driving rain especially during the season of the typhoon-bearing southwest monsoon.

Various materials have been used for roofs, as long as they are waterproof or can be waterproofed. Nipa, coconut, anahaw, and grass thatch favored by the folk. A renewable resource, can be planted, even had for free, thatch is naturally coated with a wax surface that repels water. The thatch roof is the signature of folk architecture. Outside they might look all the same—a heap of vegetable matter but inside, the carefully laying of anahaw leaves, or the plaiting of cogon grass indicates the hand of the meticulous artisan.

For the more permanent bahay na bato, tiles or tisa (from the Spanish teja) were favored until the 19th century when zinc roofing was introduced. “Sim,” the popular label for metal roofs is a corruption of “cinc,” Spanish for zinc. Zinc was replaced by galvanized iron (hierro de plancha), a prosaic material from whose tyranny we have not escaped, even if galvanized sheets are come in more pleasing forms like long span, sheets that mimic tiles, fish scale shingles, or slate roofing, etc.

Galvanized sheets pose a problem; they are heat traps. To solve this problem ceiling and soffits are built. The overhanging soffits are tempting canvases for the artisan. In older houses these were decorated with cutouts, adding charm to an otherwise undistinguished roof. Much of these cutout and filigree work are disappearing as ceilings and soffits are simple flat surfaces hiding high tech insulating material.

House wall

What ever is available—that is, materials found in the market and what is affordable—dictates the choice of material for the house walls. They can be of natural stone, like, adobe, river stones, coral or lava; or of baked bricks. They can be cement, poured (quite expensive) or with core of reinforced hollow blocks. They can be of wood, or of newer materials like fiberboard, cement boards, and other inventions. Walls are the canvas of the builder, rubbed smooth, pitted, textured, stippled, painted, varnished. The options are endless. The results are equally varied.


“Oro, plata, mata.”

There is a belief that when building a house it is necessary to count the number of steps such that when counting steps the final rung falls on either “oro” or “plata,” that is, if the house is to bode well for its future inhabitants.

Stairs are a necessity in the humid tropical climate of the archipelago because traditionally living space was built about a meter or so above the bare earth. This house on stilts allowed air to circulate freely below the house floor and relieve the dampness that brought ill health. To climb to the living area, stairs were needed or at least a ladder (hagdan or hagdanan).

With the introduction of the European construction techniques in the 16th century, the folk houses evolved into an urban equivalent, the bahay na bato. Larger than the nipa and bamboo bahay kubo, taller, more solidly built, yet in plan both were similar. A rectangular dwelling with a hip roof, living area raised above the ground. (Ground floor was for storage: for carriages, grain, santos and carosas). To reach the living are elaborate stairways evolved, intricately carved hardwood balusters, newel posts, parquets of light and dark hardwood, hinted at the opulent lifestyle of the inhabitants of the bahay na bato. The stairway was a processional path that prolonged the ceremony of welcome from the door at street level to the living room above.

In the old bahay na bato, stairs were located within a building but changing tastes in the early 20th century moved the stairs outside. A transition between street and balcony, the stairway continued with its function of welcoming.

Window and fenestration

Until airconditioning cut off our umbilical cord to nature and electrical lights made us impervious to the rhythms of light and darkness, the Filipino home was one with its surroundings. To allow light to enter, and more importantly to allow air to freely circulate throughout the house, windows and fenestrations were important.

The window like the threshold was the connection between the world outside and the world within. Through window we gazed at the passing scene, our world framed by its aperture. This was before the age of television when the black box before us was not electronic, and our window to the world was not a phosphoresent screen but the apertures of our houses. The story was not about some military conflict in some far of land but the more prosaic domestic conflict of our neighbors.

There are windows and windows. A unique Philippine feature is the ventanilla, windows at floor level less intended for looking out but for allowing air to flow through the house. Of course, little children could not resist the ventanilla as their own private lookout unto the world. When all the house windows were opened, the walls seemed to disappear and the house resembled a birdcage with all its interstices rather than a secure box.

Other windows were purely decorative, they filtered light through colored glass or muted them through cutwork of wood. They were not always rectangular, they could be round, oval, or whatever shape was in vogue.

Transoms are a relative of the window. Though they have disappeared in domestic interiors they are still a practical solution to the problem of ventillation. Some transoms are chaste wooden grids others are fantasy created by the jigsaw.


The balcony invokes images of leisurely tropic evenings: rhum and ice in one hand, the distant drone of a town, crickets and fireflies, the aroma of dinner being prepared. Among the ethnic communities, balconies were unknown. Whenever one wanted to be both outdoor and indoor, one simply gathered below the house.

Older bahay na bato had an azotea, which served as a balcony. This was located at the back of the house. The azotea was built above or near the aljibe or water tank. It was right beside the kitchen and dining room and served as their extension. On the azotea, laundry hang to dry, fish and meats were sun-dried, and a variety of herbs and small plants were tended; all ended up in the kitchen or as decoration for the dining and living room. The azotea led to the letrina or toilet, which was separate structure connected to the azotea by a bridge. Although the azotea was not intended to be a balcony it served the function of one as it was breezy and cool.

The balcony’s front location was an American affectation, popularized in the clapboard houses built all over the Philippines. It was the American version of tropical architecture, probably influenced by house designs from America’s deep south. The tsalet, a one story house raised above the ground by a meter, almost always had a balcony, which served as the landing for the stairs.

In the 1960s, modern Philippine houses were low and ground hugging, influenced by California suburban architecture. A feature in many of these low houses was the lanai. Named after a pineapple-producing island in the State of Hawaii, the lanai was a covered extension of the living room or dining room. Located at the back of the house, it opened to a landscaped garden and was used for relaxation and for informal dining.


The ceiling is often ignored. Reduced to a practical function, to insulate the house from the tropical heat, most ceilings are flat fiberboard or plywood constructions nailed to thin struts and purlins.

But the ceiling can be an expressive space. In public buildings they often are. In churches they take on symbolic meaning as a vision of heaven. On the ceilings cavort angels amidst clouds, sacred symbols, biblical scenes. Some domestic dwellings have adapted the extravagant look of church ceilings. The theme is no longer religious or biblical but secular, even political.

Rarely are ceilings carved today. The coffered ceilings of the 19th century, called artesonado, has given way to paint, where trompe l‘oiel effects replace the hard wood carvings of the ceiling. Other ceilings are rhythmic interplay of forms and shapes, concavity and convexity, voids and crowded spaces.

At the turn of the century, metal stamped ceilings became a fad. Popular in Victorian England, English trading companies imported the product and affluent Philippine families embraced the look for their living and dining rooms. After that burst of interest in ceilings, ceilings became prosaic in the 1950s and 1960s with the dominance of the international style, save only when a talented architect suggested to the well-heeled homeowner to do something about the widest empty space in a house.


If ceilings are ignored, floors aren’t. They are swept, mopped, scrubbed, waxed, polished until they shine like mirrors. The high gloss was a sign that the house was clean and well-kept.

Because of the attention heaped on the floor various finishes are available. The simplest is cement, dyed red or green, permanently with pigments mixed in the cement or impermanently with colored wax. There are the terra cotta tiles—square, rectangular, octagonal—called in the industry Vigan tiles because Vigan in Ilocos Sur produces this kind of tile in abundance. Harlequin floors in black and white marble were introduced in public buildings. A more economical version in cement was manufactured for domestic architecture. The Machuca company continues to make such tiles, using an age-old formula that combines marble dust with cement and pigments. Glazed tiles are also common. No longer manufactured are azulejos, so named because they were predominantly blue. Azulejos were used as floor and wall accents. A variety of glazed tiles have appeared serving the same function as azulejos.

Marble and other natural stone are common floor finishes. Cut as thin veneers, these are laid on floors with ambitions to elegance. In the pre-war period, marble chips were mixed with cement to make a terrazzo floor. The floors invited the creativity and fancy of the designer who fashioned designs for the floor. Culls from marble quarries and stone cutting factories, crazy cut marble became a fad in the 60s and 70s. Granite and colored marbles are recent imports adding to the repertoire of choices.

But nothing beats a wooden floor for warmth and coziness. Bare cement is pedestrian. Tile is functional. Natural stone too slick and elegant.

Of course, wide tongue-and-groove planks are hard to come by. Because of deforestation they might as well be worth their weight in gold. The wide alternating planks of yellow white molave and blood red narra or the even deeper shade of tindalo or the jet-black of kamagong are prestige items that few can afford. Alternatives are less expensive woods like tanguile and yakal or veneers, imported woods, or parquet made from smaller pieces glued together to form patterns. But whatever shape or form the wooden floor takes, wood is comforting, evoking memories of childhood and of our connection with mother nature.


Outdoor living is synonymous with tropical living. Lacking winter and harsh cold months, it is easy to see why one architectural historian describes the Philippine house as space enclosing space. The tropical house is less a barrier and more of a rhythm of spaces, from the great outdoors, to the cultivated garden, to the roofed balcony or lanai, to the living areas, to the more private bedroom and study.

Gardens are part of the living space. Whether the garden be the humble though functional celebrated in the folk song “bahay kubo” or the more studied ones created by landscape architects, gardens are part of living.


The quest for privacy and specialization is a contemporary concern. The folk house, whether the ubiquitous bahay kubo or the houses of ethnic groups—the bay sinug of the binuruyan are all multi-purposes spaces. Part time bed room, storage, sleeping room, on occassion a kitchen. The West introduced the concept of specialized spaces rooms for living, resting, cooking.

Living room is the showcase of houses. Rarely used, especially if the house has a den or lanai, the living room is for show. The dining room is a functional space is most houses but in bigger and more ostentatious spaces, the dining room like the living room is also for show. Used for formal meals and festivities, the daily dining room might be a more modest table near the kitchen or a bar.

The bedroom is where a family really relaxes. It is not just for sleeping. Many upper class bedrooms have TV sets, music players, cabinets for memorabilia, even small kitchenettes.

Kusina is the ubiquitous Filipino word for kitchen. The name betrays its origin—Spanish. The ethnic bahay or balay did not have a kitchen. Cooking can be done outdoors, or under the raised floor of the house, or in some instances a corner in a room. Kitchen as a separate space is a innovation from colonial times.


Borlas sp. Var. Burlás n. Tassel, tuft. Syn. Pamitin, yamungyung; lamuymóy.—Ind. Mal. rumbai; Mar daridai; png. samposampong.
—bórlasán, to attach tassels to (x)
—maburlás. Adj. Betassled.

Folk houses hardly had any furniture. Perhaps, a low dining table called dulang, a bench, a chest. Beds were non-existent because the banig served for resting and sleeping. Maybe an aparador for clothes, maybe.

With the building of stronger houses, however, came the need for furniture, not only for pragmatic purposes—work surfaces, storage—but also for display. For show, for prestige, much like the fringes and tassels that dripped from the edges of the manto de manila, or the tassels of an officer’s uniform or a friar’s vestments.

Furniture is an exercise in style. With folk furniture function wins over style but with the furniture of the bahay na bato, oriental and occidental styles found a niche.

Borlas—what gives interiors its distinctive style.


Abubot: n. Bk. Tg. Knickknacks, notion goods; small items one usually carries around. If many and bulky: baktót. Cf. kulukuti, kagikagi. Kpm. bakukut; Hlg. yangkut yangkut; Ilk gargaret; png. bakutot; Sb. pitsipitsi; SL. yamut-yamut.
—abubutan. Hand basket, made of split-rattan & cover. Cf. Ilk., abubút.
—laging abu-abubot. Knickknacks being carried around continuously.
•Kpm. Abubut: pocket purse (tg. Lukbutan; pil. Pitaka)
•Hlg. Ilk. Sb. Abubot: kind of basket (cf. Tg. Buslo)

Accents stamp a dwelling with personality. What often distinguishes my living space from yours are what I put in and what you put in. Some spaces are spare and minimal; others crowded with an ever-increasing collection. In pre-colonial Philippines, our forebears carried in their person whatever belongings they deemed their own. Like an ivory-hilted kris, large silver breast plates. Smaller items were carried in tightly woven basket called abubut or abubutan.

The choice of knickknack and accents is endless; after all the Philippines is not own culture but many; an amalgam of variety and diversity. From weaves so local their provenance can be identified, to cast bronze pieces; from mats to baskets; hats to coconut shredders. There is more than enough to spark the mania for collecting.


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