Why Old Houses are Important

I have been asked many times why old ancestral houses that dates back centuries are important. Many ask why is there a need to preserve – are they not vestiges of a time when we were enslaved?

First of all, a closer examination of these houses: its style, its aesthetic  characteristics, its structural composition and its history reveals much of the mindset of its builders. Its wrong to call it Spanish, Kastila or Bahay Kastila – its far from being one. The people that built and lived in these houses were Filipinos. The idea of building was a wonderful mix of oriental and hispano structural traditions – the “bahay na bato” exist nowhere but here – it can’t get any Filipino.

These ancestral houses are products of our ancestors response to the natural Filipino world, the one that is often visited by so many natural calamity: typhoons, drought, diseases, earthquakes, fire and, every now and then, pirate and foreign navy incursions and local revolts.

What’s even more important, aside from the architectural history that many no longer think important, is the reason why it was built. Teodoro M. Kalaw expressed it best in his “La Vanguardia” article dated 11 December 1926: “The great houses… are the material expression of our communal type of society… Our grand sires erected those mansions to house generation after generation of descendants. They served to give life and fulfillment to the supreme ideal of stability, unity, perpetuity, of the Filipino family.”

“The old provincial houses” say Kalaw “do not have the virtue of eternity, they have had to cede to the pressure of time”. The patriot, if he’s still living, would probably be surprised to see so many of these houses survived countless calamitous events. Testament that our ancestors did attempt to make them last forever! but unfortunately, even with its enormous stone walls, they’re no match to  a demolition crew equipped with bulldozers.

Kalaw reminds us of the builders of these beautiful mansions: “The tradition of home is changing. And the ancient patriarch, if he still exists, now had to lament his solitude, among his antique furniture, alone faithful and still loving”. When these “ancient patriarch”, our great grandfathers, died, their descendants abandoned, not only the houses he built for them, but the way of life that defined his nation. With them died the original Filipino legacy.

The article then posted this question: “What is the reason for all this change? Progress, modernism, industrialism, the new social and economic doctrines, the very force of circumstances” Well, we have become overly eager to change the old ways, we want to be like them Americans, to be “uso” and “moderno”. We forgot what made us Filipinos. The popular Filipino trait, for example, of being hospitable and good host is because back in the days, Filipino houses were built to accommodate visitors like they’re part of family. It doesn’t matter who you are back in the day. Our open houses made us, often, overly generous to our friends and neighbors.

These houses, what’s left in our present time, will continue to remind us of our ancestors way of life and their culture. The tradition of communities looking after each other – the “Balikatan”, “pakikisama”, “kapitbahay”, the “ninong and ninang”, “family comes first”, the idea of the barrio where everyone is important. On the other hand, the writer correctly called the “modern cottages or chalet”, the detached bungalow style, the condos and apartment housing we see today – as the “precise external manifestation of a contrary social type: the individualistic type”.

Contrary to common beliefs that most of these houses were destroyed during WWII, actually, we began losing them earlier. The reason was that the Filipinos during the years of the American occupation were being culturally uprooted. Behavior began to shift in the direction of “Americanismo”. The filipino hispano, which was for the most part of our known history that became our cultural and social identity began to lose ground. Filipinos began to disassociate themselves with their ancestors customs, language, religion, ideas, opinion, traditions – we began to abandon the way of life they fought hard to keep. These is the reason why no matter how hard we study the written works of our founding fathers, we’ll never come close to understanding their emotions, their thoughts, and their intentions. It is said that a poem can never be translated but rewritten – and so is written Filipino history, now being rewritten.

Let me take the final words, a warning of what’s up ahead for all of us, from the same article written more then 80 years ago: “Industrial cities of cosmopolitan character…no longer hope for the sweet past… with the material disintegration of the family, due to the struggle of life, those sweet principles of our oriental communism are, alas, disappearing: the respect for the old, the unity and love of married couples, the concord among brothers, the protection of parents, the constancy of friendships…”

Disappearing? or did it already disappeared?


4 responses to “Why Old Houses are Important

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