Cosmopolitism in Manila: Intermediaries

Interest in the people who made the connection between cultural traditions possible has been one of the results of a transnational perspective on history, which is a fairly recent approach. Initially, merchants, diplomats, and government officials were studied, who interested architectural historians as patrons of buildings. This perspective is much more relevant for studies of building when it is used from the viewpoint of the history of science.[1] Architects, builders, patrons, and material suppliers are closely influenced by these cultural intermediaries. Indeed, it is difficult to understand any of them taking part in a building process in Manila without being to a greater or lesser extent a cultural broker.

The complexity of frontiers, cultural margins, and prohibitions made it necessary to develop cultural transvestites. A clear example of such a concept is Ventura Lete, a young merchant born in Goa who spoke ladino Spanish. He arrived in Manila from Tranquebar. As he approached Manila, he changed his clothes from the Portuguese style to that of the Dutch, because the Dutch were allowed to trade goods. His employer was Captain Miguel Ebuelt, who lived in Juan Ezquerra’s house in Manila. From this information, the profound relationship between the crew and Manila can be seen. Furthermore, at least two translators of Dutch and German have been encountered in Manila’s records, named Martin and Melchor Pérez, respectively. These cases simply show that this sort of cultural multivalency was common in the city. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that any of these examples had any specific influence on the history of building.

More interesting than these singular cases are families. Although it is difficult to discern these sorts of cases, some of them have been identified. A likely example is that of the De Brito family. According to the documents, Miguel Rojo de Brito was Portuguese and dealt with Francisco de las Misas in Manila in 1595. Another likely member of the family is Pedro de Brito, a renowned member of Manilean society. He was married to Ana de Herrera, the surname remaining until the marriage of María Gómez de Brito with Jerónimo de Somonte, a scion of one of Manila’s leading families. Perhaps the members of these families had a different approach to the building of their houses, or at least required the use of the latest innovations developed in Goa in the prior decades.

The clearest examples of intermediaries in architecture are those workers directly involved in the building. In the case of Manila, it is important to highlight that very few names of Spanish architects were known, as also occurred both in Macao or Batavia.[2] Traditionally, the main buildings were overseen by Chinese builders, with the finances and decoration managed by a European. In fact, it seems clear that the architectonic problems were dealt with by Asian artisans. This was the common way of working in religious and administrative structures. Therefore, it is obvious that the native families would embrace similar solutions. Unfortunately, the names of these artisans were preserved only from the eighteenth century onwards, making their recognition impossible in other works outside of Manila. In spite of this, their work as intermediaries and even their evolution can be followed in the city’s history - from the studless wooden church built in the Parian in the early seventeenth century to the cooperation with Uguccioni in the eighteenth century.

Architectural Traditions Confronted and Brought Together

The simple juxtaposition of building traditions did not always lead to hybridization. Nor is even the necessity of adaptation to local conditions always a sufficient reason to choose a building solution, when it is viewed as part of the otherness. Thus, any approach to housing has to be made from the exposed multilayered perspective, attempting to take into consideration as many features as possible. In this specific instance, it can be recognized that Portuguese and Spanish domestic building traditions were very similar. Being generally true for this period, these models were deeply and diversely modified in the American experience. For example, while overhanging balconies were common in the Spanish Caribbean, the rows of single windows were more common in Goa. Other similar examples can be also pointed out in the method of window construction or in the urban organization of cities. When the circle of the global empire was closed in Macao and in Manila, these two traditions met again. In fact, the first architectonical development of Manila is contemporary with that of Macao. Although the city was founded in 1555, the houses were burned down later in the decade. Beginning only in the 1560s was the urban structure developed. At this first stage, the Portuguese built thatched houses, later developing into houses with joists, lath, and both glazed and concave tiles. From this information, it can be said that the providers of materials were both Portuguese and Chinese. Something similar occurred in Manila, although an attempt was made to emulate a different model.

From a very early period, the Spanish saw that native houses were better prepared for the climate and earthquakes than their own. The problem of material supply was also important. Thus, a cultural dialogue began and the Spanish-American/Caribbean houses included Filipino aspects. Structures made entirely of wood with upper floors were incorporated. Even the way of organizing the house, especially regarding the kitchen, seems to be closer to the bahay kubo than to the New Spanish precedents, as will be shown.

The cultural dialogue between Spanish (from Europe and America) and Filipino was not enough. The need for tiles, bricks, and stone incorporated Chinese work in the buildings. Furthermore, these artisans were used to building with all these materials, as the Spaniards required, taking on more and more responsibilities. Thus, the Chinese role in the development of architecture in Manila has to be considered crucial, as it was in Macao or in other European settlements in Asia.

All these elements are not enough to explain Manila’s architectural development. Southeast Asia developed a fruitful cultural dialogue from the very beginning, with profitable results. These improvements, such as the capiz, rapidly spread out along the coasts, creating a common feature between ports, both European and Asian. For all these reasons, the houses of Manila can be considered a great example for analysis of the process of cultural dialogue, including hybridization, as well as the adaptation of previous hybrids, through the rejection of mixed solutions or consolidation of previous traditions.

  • [1] Kapil Raj, “Go-Betweens, Travelers, and Cultural Translators”. Bernard Lightman (ed.j, A Companion to the History of Science. West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, 2016, pp. 39-57. 2 Some cases of cultural brokers regarding the artistic production in Asia have been included in a general and recent approach. Unfortunately, architecture is not dealt with significantly in the paper, in spite of the recent studies on the topic. Gauvin Alexander Bailey, “Arte y arquitectura y el mundo católico: entre Asia y América Latina”. AA.VV. Tornaviaje..., pp. 91-97. 3 AGI, Escribanía, 404“, f. 2v. 4 AGI, Escribanía, 404”, f. 7r. 5 AGI, Filipinas, 29, n. 60, f. 417v. 6 Inmaculada Alva, Manila..., Cuadro Genealógico 18.
  • [2] For the architectonical scenario in Manila during the sixteenth and seventeenth century the most comprehensive book is M" Lourdes Diaz-Trechuelo Spinola, Arquitectura española en Filipinas. 1565-1800. Seville: EEHA, 1959. 2 Ibid., p. 25. See also Pedro Luengo, Manila, plaza fuerte... 3 Luis Filipe Barreto, Macau: Poder e Saber. Séculos XVI e XVII. Lisbon: Editorial Presenca, 2006, p. 134.
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