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‘Rush to rebuild’ puts Philippine churches at risk

Experts question restoration techniques following earthquake

This month marks the second anniversary of a deadly earthquake that rocked the Philippine island of Bohol. The 7.2-magnitude quake, which struck on 15 October 2013, killed more than 200 people and seriously damaged around two dozen Spanish colonial-

period Roman Catholic churches, four of which carry the National Cultural Treasures designation. Two years on, as projects to restore the churches continue, heritage activists are expressing concerns about restoration methods and the swift pace of the work.

The imposing structures, made of stone and wood during four centuries of Spanish colonial rule (which ended in 1898), have a distinct architectural style that combines the skills of Mexican and Spanish priests with those of Filipino and Chinese craftsmen. They are more than historical monuments; they are centres of religious and social life in the predominantly Roman Catholic country.

“The churches can be saved. But it has to be done by well-trained heritage professionals,” says Ivan Henares, the president of the Heritage Conservation Society of the Philippines. He and others are questioning some of the techniques, equipment and materials being used for the reconstruction projects.

Damage ranges from cracked walls and collapsed façades and ceilings to entire buildings being reduced to rubble. Private-sector groups and government agencies are providing the funds and workforce. With 10% of the Philippines’ population of 100 million living abroad, groups have been mobilised from various regions. The result of this well-meaning campaign is a broad spectrum of conservation methods and standards.

A project to restore the 18th-century watchtower of La Señora de la Asuncion church in Dauis municipality stands out as one of the most innovative. Under the auspices of the Escuela Taller de Filipinas Foundation, a joint venture between the Philippine and Spanish governments, disadvantaged youths participated in the restoration. With the support of the Philippines-based Ayala Foundation, 29 men and women received training in masonry and conservation techniques to prepare them for working on the structure’s 15m-high hexagonal tower.

The earthquake had loosened stone blocks from the building, which was once used by Spanish guards to watch for Muslim pirates. Typhoons and general weathering had also taken their toll on the tower, which needed its wooden frame repaired. Laser-scanning technologies were used to survey the structure before carefully considered repairs were carried out. The project was meticulously documented.

In April, during a ceremony to celebrate the completion of work on the tower, the Philippine senator Loren Legarda said: “It was heartbreaking to see

centuries-old churches in Bohol crumble in the earthquake. But after I saw the work of the graduates of Escuela Taller, I felt a renewed sense of hope.”

Although Ivan Henares applauds the work supervised by the National Museum of the Philippines, he is appalled by the efforts of other government bodies, which are “still oblivious to the fact that their knowledge of conservation is outdated”, he says. In September, photographs that he characterised as a “demolition derby” circulated on social media. They included pictures of labourers using pneumatic drills on the façade of the church of Santisima Trinidad in Loay municipality, built in 1882.

“Restoration requires patience,” Henares says. “You can’t take short cuts. In the rush to rebuild the churches—which I feel is [being done to win] bragging rights that they did it in a short span of time—they are doing more damage than good.”