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UNESCO launches first heritage emergency fund project in the Philippines

By JH CORPUS Published Nov 25, 2023 5:00 am

Nestled in the Ilocos region, the Historic City of Vigan stands as a living testament to Spanish colonial history, characterized by a distinctive architectural fusion of Filipino, Chinese and European influences.

Established in the 16th century by the Spanish conquistador Juan de Salcedo, Vigan has weathered the centuries while conserving its historic urban layout and a multitude of original structures. The city's cobblestone streets, colonial-era vernacular houses built with thick walls and red-tiled roofs, and prominent architectural landmarks like the St. Paul's Metropolitan Cathedral and the Archbishop's Palace contribute to its exceptional value and unique charm. These significant, outstanding attributes gained the Historic City of Vigan an inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1999.

The Syquia Mansion

Life was suddenly upended in Vigan. On July 27, 2022, a magnitude-7 earthquake struck Northern Luzon. The World Heritage Site of Vigan was heavily affected with more than 30 structures damaged. Another strong earthquake with a magnitude of 6.4 struck the city again on October 25, 2022. Many government agencies and civil service organizations came to the assistance of Vigan. However, despite efforts by local and national government agencies, the assistance was insufficient to address all damage in the historic zone, there was limited funding and expertise to shoulder expenses for full analyses and restoration.

Furthermore, most of these vernacular historical houses are privately owned, and because of this status, although being outright contributors to the historic urban landscape, they cannot receive funding directly from any governmental cultural agencies. This is a perennial challenge for the protection and conservation of vernacular heritage across the country.

The interior before the earthquake.

The magnitude of the disaster became apparent in the wake of the earthquake that struck in July 2022. UNESCO supported the work of ICOMOS Philippines from August to November 2022 to assess and prioritize the needs for the stabilization and recovery of the vernacular houses in Vigan. Good technical standards and capacity for the adequate protection of historical houses was lacking, making the World Heritage property especially vulnerable and unprepared for future disasters, and rendering current investments in house restorations ultimately unsustainable.

The research and evaluation of the different teams will assure us that we will be able to restore the Syquia Mansion back to its glory days. Gregorio Syquia and all our other ancestors are beaming from up there!

Vertical and some horizontal fractures are showing on one side of the wall with racks and fissures on the other side.

On October 23, 2023, a landmark initiative unfolded in the Historic City of Vigan, Philippines, as UNESCO, in collaboration with ICOMOS Philippines and with the vital support of the UNESCO Heritage Emergency Fund (HEF), launched a yearlong activity dedicated to the safeguarding of the Historic City of Vigan. The local governmental unit, under the helm of Mayor Jose “Bonito” C. Singson, Jr., welcomed the UNESCO-ICOMOS Philippines project teams and local stakeholders. This also marks the first time for the Philippines to implement an activity financed by the HEF, the multi-donor funding system created by UNESCO in 2015 to provide rapid assistance to its Member States in preparing for and responding to emergency situations affecting culture.

Conrad Alampay, president of Digiscript, leads the training information sessions with some of Vigan’s local stakeholders.

The scope of the project concentrates on two pilot sites that represent common building types in Vigan: the Syquia Mansion and the Cabildo Old House. Upon the inauguration of the activity, ICOMOS Philippines immediately started onsite analytic activities to address the impact of the earthquake and increase the resilience of the historical buildings. 

Hopes are high for the efforts in Vigan. Maria Milagros “Mitos” P. Belofsky of the Syquia Mansion expressed enthusiasm for the HEF activity: "The research and evaluation of the different teams will assure us that we will be able to restore the Syquia Mansion back to its glory days. Gregorio Syquia and all our other ancestors are beaming from up there!"

A Digiscript surveyor uses Leica RTC360 scanning for documentation at Syquia Mansion

Architect Fatima Nicetas Rabang-Alonzo of the Vigan Conservation Council and Dean of the College of Architecture of the University of Northern Philippines underscored the critical importance of conserving the integrity and authenticity of the UNESCO World Heritage property, especially as homeowners embark on repairing and restoring their damaged properties.

Multi-disciplinary expert teams and specialists will concentrate on structural, architectural, and materials assessments to recommend technical standards for post-disaster damage assessment and for designing shoring and repair. This contributes to the overall restoration of all beneficiary houses in the Historic City of Vigan.

Collecting samples and performing X-ray fluorescence tests on masonry materials, paint, metals and glass at Syquia Mansion

One of the main objectives of the project is also to improve the skills of local practitioners, craftsmen, and homeowners in using effective repair methods that align with the original building systems and materials. In this regard, sharing the assessment findings will be crucial. Lectures, workshops, and town hall meetings will enable homeowners, local masons, carpenters, and the broader Vigan community to gain knowledge and receive information to increase their ownership in the conservation of their homes. The Vigan's Heritage Homeowners Preservation Manual will also be updated and disseminated to ensure the promotion of best practices.

The initiative not only aims to address immediate rehabilitation needs but also to increase disaster resilience of the World Heritage property by improving local skills through education and dissemination of best practices. The collaboration between international organizations, experts, and local communities, emphasizes a global commitment to preserving heritage for future generations. Every effort has been invaluable in achieving the project's goals, and the support provided has proven to be both instrumental and indispensable for fostering a culturally enriched and resilient future for the Historic City of Vigan.