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  • Prism of Difference:Bamboo, Bayanihan and the Secret Society of "ñtcllg Kztzzstzzszllg Kztñpxllzll"

The nipa and bamboo house—bahay kubo—is often pointed to as an emblem of Filipino national culture, rustic ingenuity and a traditional, mobile architectural type, captured prominently in the mid-century conservative realist paintings of Fernando Amorsolo. Its humble origin story as a trope of pastoral nationalism, however, obscures its relationship to anticolonial resistance and insurrection toward the close of the 19th century. Using Amorsolo's 1959 painting Bayanihan as a starting point, this text looks at the way in which the nipa and bamboo house was framed by another Filipino national hero, José Rizal, and the effect of his writings on the Katipunan secret society in the years leading up to the Philippine Revolution of 1896.

The signature broad, rough-hewn brush strokes of Fernando Amorsolo depict a nipa and bamboo house being held aloft in its totality by some 30 villagers, against the electric shades of a tropical evening sky (Figure 1). To the right of the frame, a man gestures to the crowd, coaxing them forward. Backlit against the sky, the wide brim of his domed salukot identifies him as a farmer. Bayanihan (1959), the process of a village moving a house in unison, is both the title and subject matter of Amorsolo's painting, and is a typical [End Page 119]

Figure 1. Bayanihan Fernando Amorsolo, Oil on Canvas, 59.8 × 85.2cm, 1959. From the Collection of the University of Santo Tomas Museum, Manila Philippines.
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Figure 1.

Bayanihan Fernando Amorsolo, Oil on Canvas, 59.8 × 85.2cm, 1959. From the Collection of the University of Santo Tomas Museum, Manila Philippines.

example of the "conservative realist" strain of painting that dominated the Philippine art scene in the period directly following independence from the United States in 1946.1 From the outside, it would seem that the image is a celebration of pastoral, nationalist pride, with the nipa dwelling—an architecture of community and mobility—as its iconographic centrepiece. Yet the building in question was more mobile and flexible than either nationalism or the painterly traditions that ruminated on it. Indeed, the dwelling has found itself in a swirling sea of contention for over a century, with its iconic triangular silhouette serving as a container for an anti-colonial identity and a resistance movement. Using Amorsolo's Bayanihan as a starting point, this text traces a rough genealogy of the nipa hut through events, writings and observations of the late 19th century that shaped its interpretation, with the Philippine revolution of 1896 as apex. Nipa and bamboo houses were among the meeting places of the Katipunan, a secret society whose leadership came from a mixture of laymen and urban elites, the Ilustrados, who described the dwelling in reverential tones that stirred the sentiments of the anti-colonial insurgency.

Bayanihan was painted the year Amorsolo won the UNESCO National Commission Gold Medal and it was purchased by then-President Diosdado [End Page 120] Macapagal. The international reception of Amorsolo, whose prolific output during his lifetime is estimated at least 10,000 pieces was welded to his status as a poster boy of American-Philippine friendship. However, he might also be identified as a pacifist-survivalist: Amorsolo painted portraits of American generals in the 1930s, then portraits of occupying Japanese soldiers during the Second World War to make a living; his allegiances, like his subjects, were changeable. Amorsolo became famous for his landscape paintings. Despite his detractors (his paintings are not difficult to understand, wrote a critic in 1948, because "there is nothing to understand"), the Filipino landscapes of Amorsolo are hardly empty or apolitical.2 For architectural historians, landscape paintings are interesting because they reveal a context within which buildings and symbols can be placed. Like their subject matter, the politics of landscapes lie in their innocent ubiquity. The various strands of conservative-, social- and socialist-realism painterly traditions that flourished in the nonaligned world during the 1950s often communicated a romantic pastoral politics in which rural architecture, revealing degrees of craftman-ship and rustic tradition, played a key role. Philippine conservative realism was no different. Casting an eye across thousands of Amorsolo greens, yellows, pastel skies, straw hats and paddy fields, one notices the repeated appearance of the eponymous nipa and bamboo bahay kubo hovering in the background or offered as a shimmering centrepiece.

It would be too straightforward to pin a discussion of Amorsolo's bahay kubo on the increasing mechanization of agriculture, the mood of post-colonial nationalism, or the soothing of politicians who, in the 1950s, were relying on US assistance to quash a rural insurgency in the Central Plain of Luzon.3 Convincing as this framework may be, it does not adequately explain how embedded the building already was in the landscape, there for Amorsolo and many others' taking.4 To understand why this architecture is important to pastoral idealism in an imagined national landscape, we must cycle back more than 60 years to 1887, when it existed outside of the American colonial timeframe and was apposite to the Spanish as part of an anticolonial uprising.

Toward the close of the 19th century, Filipinos had become increasingly agitated with their Spanish colonial administrators. News of the various revolutions that rocked Europe in 1848 reached the Philippines through the ilustrados, middle- and upper-class mestizo elite Filipinos, who spent time in Spain studying or conducting business. The splintering of monarchies in Western Europe, with the sole exception of Spain, meant that the gleam of the Enlightenment-era Spanish Empire appeared increasingly dulled beside its reforming European neighbours.5 France had passed universal suffrage, [End Page 121] Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm had unified Germany, and Italy had declared itself a republic in 1849. For the rest of the world, all of this showed that actions of the citizenry could render results, and the main offshoot was the collapse of traditional monarchies, the key exceptions being the Spanish and the Habsburgs. It could be done, and the reverberations of the Haitian Revolution half a century earlier could still be felt in the islands and archipelagos dominated by extractive colonial regimes. One such ilustrado who travelled in Europe during the decades following these ruptures was José Rizal. A doctor from a middle-class Laguna family, Rizal studied and worked in Madrid, Brussels and Berlin, writing for leftist publications like La Solidaridad whose editorial board consisted of a network of Filipinos studying in European universities.6 On his return to the Philippines in 1892, Rizal, a polymath who is reputed to have spoken over 22 languages, founded La Liga Filipina, an organization for social reform conceived through his connections among the islands of the archipelago and in Europe. Within months of its founding, La Liga was shut down and Rizal was arrested, to be exiled at Dapitan, a remote province far to the south, on the coast of Mindanao. Among the founders was 19-year-old Andres Bonifacio from Tondo, who went underground, continuing his work for La Liga secretly under the auspices of the "children of the nation" Katipunan revolutionary movement.

The widely accepted version of events during the 1896 "Cry of Balintawak" that heralded the beginning of the Philippine Revolution follows that Bonifacio called to a crowd of assembled katipuneros to theatrically tear up their cédulas personales—their Spanish tax certificates. Thus began the first anticolonial revolution in Asia.7 As a secret society, the exact location of the events that started the revolution in August 1896 remains obscure, but it is held to have happened in Balintawak, then a farming province on the outskirts of Manila.8 It took place among nipa and bamboo farm dwellings, according to an eyewitness account, "at the house of Apolonio, reportedly one of the richest men in Balintawak at the time who threw open his barn and butchered his cows, pigs, and chickens for the Katipunan" is significant to the event.9 The historian Soledad Borromeo notes that this fact is important, since the event is ingrained in the minds of Filipinos as the beginning of a revolution that is on a par with el grito de Dolores in Mexico or the Storming of the Bastille.10

A Rome of Our Times

To gain access to the mindset of anti-colonialism that helped foment and instigate these events, and to consider how traditional dwellings of nipa and [End Page 122] bamboo were embroiled in the action, we can turn to Noli me Tangere (Touch me Not), perhaps the most famous work of Philippine literature by José Rizal, first published in Berlin in 1887. The Noli is a satire that paints a dismal picture of the Spanish colonial administrators as gluttonous narcissists and follows the tribulations of the protagonist Ibarra, who (like Rizal) returns to the Philippines after studying in Europe for the previous seven years. Returning with new eyes, Ibarra sees his country anew, and the injustices perpetrated by corrupt officials in government and church alike. The novel has been compared to Max Havelaar, the 1860 novel that attacked the activi-ties of the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) in Java.11 Rizal's provides a number of incidences in which we can unpack the role of the built environment for natives and colonial administrators, since the Noli conjures visions and iterations of nipa houses throughout. These serve not only to reify the importance of the dwelling as traditional, but to make it visible as a part of its history.

The neighbourhood of Malate, in Manila is described as a "thatched phoenix rising from its own ashes" where the residents' "thatched-roof houses, somewhat pyramid- or prism-shaped, built, like birds' nests, by the heads of families and hidden among the banana trees".12 By way of introduction, the dwelling is described as a part of its ecological environment, the plural "heads" of families indicating how they were traditionally built in equal parts by a couple (women weaving nipa palm into panels, men constructing the bamboo framework).13 It is "hidden away" among the foliage from which it comes, and to which it will return once the life span of the panels expires in a biannual cycle of repair and upkeep. A few pages later, in a description of the small Philippine town of San Diego, Rizal treats the urban context in an energetic exercise in dichotomies:

It was a Rome of our own times with the difference that in place of marble monuments and colosseums it had its monuments of sawali [woven bamboo panels] and its cockpit of nipa.14 The curate was the Pope in the Vatican; the alferez of the Civil Guard, the King of Italy on the Quirinal: all, it must be understood, on a scale of nipa and bamboo. Here, as there, continual quarreling went on, since each wished to be the master and considered the other an intruder.15

Outlandish comparisons are drawn up in a purposeful double act. It is both a takedown of corrupt Philippine officials in their comparison with the corruption of the papacy, translated to the urban environment of nipa and sawali. Rizal, ever the translator, renders lightweight materials alongside [End Page 123] marble and masonry while political corruption remains intact across each scenario. Architectural historians have described Rome as an environment scripted by the papacy into a form of sacred urbanis, where the Vatican was not just a physical city but followed pilgrims along the seven axes of the city wherever they went.16 Rizal conjures the same image "of our own times", in which the translation of scales in spirituality and corruption are passed on to the fraudulent dealings among Spanish guards. Two scripts (urbanism and corruption) that deal with the problems of the administration are held amid humble settings, and he prompts the (Spanish-speaking) reader to notice the key material differences between Rome and the tropics.

As for the corrupt Spanish officials and social climbers, or the "parasites, spongers, and freeloaders that God, in his infinite goodness, has so lovingly multiplied in Manila", the figure of Doña Victorina de los Reyes de Espadaña (Doña Victorina) provides an example of how the colonial Spanish mind encountered native architecture.17 Victorina, visiting a certain Captain Tiago, shows off all her verbosity,

criticizing the customs of the provincials, their nipa houses, their bamboo bridges; without forgetting to mention to the curate her intimacy with this and that high official and other persons of "quality" who were very fond of her.18

While Victorina may criticize the places she finds herself in, emphasizing the construction materials of nipa and bamboo, her lack of integrity means that her surroundings are never good enough, that "I wasn't born to live here," as she remarks earlier in the chapter. While Rizal renders Victorina through colonial caricature and her disdain for her living conditions, he indicates a subtle reification of its importance.

The Secret Society of "ñtcllg Kztzzstzzszllg Kztñpxllzll"

Penned in a small booklet of 44 pages fashioned from 11 sheets of paper folded together, the founding document of the Katipunan—the secret society of which Rizal, without his knowledge, was made honorary president—appeared in 1892, five years after the Noli's first printing. The document declared that the Noli invited Filipinos "to observe the reality by our brave and beloved brother Mr. Rizal"19 (Figure 2). "We should not believe the honeyed words about being guided and tutored," laments the opening of the document, which listed 22 abuses and forms of treachery committed by their colonial oppressors, "E…" (España, the country they do not call by [End Page 124]

Figure 2. "Casaysayan; Pinagcasunduan; Manga daquilang cautosan", January 1892. España. Ministerio de Defensa, Archivo General Militar de Madrid: Caja 5677, leg.1.37.
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Figure 2.

"Casaysayan; Pinagcasunduan; Manga daquilang cautosan", January 1892. España. Ministerio de Defensa, Archivo General Militar de Madrid: Caja 5677, leg.1.37.

name). Written in cipher, the document stated: "Be it declared that from this day forward this archipelago is separated from Spain, and that no leadership is to be recognized other than this Supreme Katipunan."20 With that, the Katipunan had declared themselves the first republic in Asia, one that would remake the archipelago, "these islands, which in time will be given a proper name" (other than that of a 16th-century Spanish prince understood to be part of the grammar of colonization from which they wish to break free).

Though he never intended for his two novels, the Noli and El Filibusterismo, to incite a revolution, the Spanish administrators had identified Rizal by proxy as one of the key instigators. After his exile in Dapitan, he was convicted of sedition, conspiracy and rebellion. Though he had little direct [End Page 125] contact with Katipuneros at this stage, his implication was entirely through his writings. Only four months after the revolution began with the "Cry of Balintawak", Rizal was executed by firing squad in Manila on 30 December 1896, solidifying his reputation as a martyr. It would be tempting to confuse this spirited organizing with nationalism, and the assumption would not be entirely incorrect (Rizal is remembered as a "national" hero today). But a more persuasive argument against calling it nationalism can be sensed in the Katipunan's predecessor, La Liga Filipina—a league—a network of minds, rather than a nation. If this is true, then it was identity that was at stake, and identity was crucial for autonomy. The frame of nationhood, so often seen retrospectively as necessary for colonial emancipation, was less important than self-determination. The league emphasized being a subject unto oneself, and colonial indifference to such perceptions still frames much of the struggle for independence that was already being sought throughout the 19th century.

Nationhood, others have argued, was a 20th-century framework for understanding sovereignty, territoriality, language and borders.21 However, it is a powerful enough device that it inflects the way former colonial histories are viewed, making the specificity of resistance movements in the 19th century subject to frameworks of nationhood that would arrive much later. Nineteenth-century internationalism was, as exemplified by La Liga Filipina and the Katipunan, more complex than the kind of nation-based internationalism that would come in the 20th century because it relied on tropes—symbols, signs and in this case buildings—that sat outside of imposed colonial narratives. While Rizal created a caricature of Doña Victorina, providing an example of how Spanish colonists perceived native dwellings, he subverted her disdain into an opportunity to show the built environment as something she could not ever really know. Nipa and bamboo, in Rizal's telling, was an opportunity for self-identity on the urban scale. With this in mind, the nipa and bamboo dwelling offered a fitting shape for the Katipunan's self-identification as communal, flexible and self-sufficient.

Light Materials

A single photograph helps link the twin anti-colonial narratives of Katipunan organizing and Rizal's writing, and it helps to fill the gap of 60 years that lie between the Philippine Revolution and Amorsolo's Bayanihan. It was taken by an administrator of the Bureau of Science, dated 1911, of a "nipa district" in Tondo (Figure 3). Tondo was one of the organizational bases of the Katipunan in the 1890s, a district on the outskirts of Manila.22 Tondo [End Page 126]

Figure 3. "Nipa district in Tondo, Manila, P.I.", 1911. Bureau of Science, Thurlow & Fournier Collection, Ortigas Library, Manila.
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Figure 3.

"Nipa district in Tondo, Manila, P.I.", 1911. Bureau of Science, Thurlow & Fournier Collection, Ortigas Library, Manila.

was where Katipunan members were recruited and pamphlets were secretly circulated among a growing network of Katipuneros there and in the outlying provinces of Manila. In the image, we see that the border between road and houses is lined with a perimeter of fencing, concealing the living arrangements beyond from view. In its urban agglomeration, the nipa and bamboo dwelling is thus different from the individual, single house that Amorsolo provides. Here we see what Rizal was talking about as a "nipa phoenix": an accumulation of one building material that makes for an entire urban district that the photographer describes by its use of a single plant material. Providing a convenient camouflage in their ubiquity, nipa and bamboo were the backdrop of this organizing; indeed, their mundanity was the essence of secrecy.

The date, however, reveals a further aspect of American colonial Manila during a time of transformation. A year earlier, the Bureau of Health had begun a campaign to sanitize the city, creating a "sanitary barrio" that involved open sewage systems and the sorting of divisions of the city according to construction materials. Architectural historian Diana Martinez has shown how the Bureau of Health condemned the use of tropical building materials for their alleged spreading of disease, dividing Manila into light materials and heavy materials districts. Such light materials districts, she describes, were to be eventually replaced by heavy material districts of stone, masonry and eventually concrete, ostensibly impervious to cholera and other diseases.23 It was material difference itself that constituted the deciding factor in hygiene and thus what was allowable, and the restrictions placed on light materials districts meant that they could not be maintained, allowed intentionally to fall into disrepair. What is striking about this division of materiality into heavy and light is the attention that American colonial administrators paid to what they deemed inferior, even hazardous. Indeed, the fact that nipa and [End Page 127] bamboo construction persisted well beyond Amorsolo's time is proof of its obdurate, perennial character, like the plants of nipa palm themselves (they are classified as a weed).

Colonial perspectives on the nipa dwelling, whether Spanish or American, consistently vilified a construction method equated with racial stereotypes. Thus, its use value for anti-colonial literature, revolutionary insurrectionists and nostalgic pastoral-nationalism renders a service in the form of "prism-shaped" thatched houses. For mid-century painters like Amorsolo, the trope of nationalism to which the nipa and bamboo house was attached came not through a nation prescribed from above (in its Spanish or American guises), but relied on an anti-colonial framework formed through, for example, Rizal's writing and the meetings of the Katipunan who were inspired by them. The prism of difference is a house typology whose construction methods, form and interpretation is continually refracted in every time period and every encounter. [End Page 128]

Will Davis

Will Davis is interested in architectural histories of colonialism, hydropolitics and folk narratives of environmentalism. His recently completed dissertation project, "Palm Politics: Warfare, Folklore, and Architecture" investigated dam-building and extractive agribusiness in the Philippines and wider Southeast Asia through the intersections of folklore and warfare in the 20th century. He teaches history, theory and criticism at the Department of Architecture, National University of Singapore.


3. The Hukbalahap insurgency, which lasted from 1945 to 1955, grew out of the organized resistance of Filipino farmers to the unfair tenant farming system in Central Luzon. Fuelled by anti-communist suspicion, the United States Armed Forces in the Far East provided assistance for crushing the rebellion. Nick Cullather, "America's Boy? Ramon Magsaysay and the Illusion of Influence", Pacific Historical Review 62, 3 (1993): 305–38.

4. Other conservative realists of the "Mabini Art" circle who relied on the bahay kubo include: Elias Laxa, Romeo Enriquez, Cesar Buenaventura, Crispin Lopez, Serafin Serna, Miguel Galvez, Isidro Ancheta, Antonio Dumlao, Wenceslao Garcia, Gabriel Custodio, Ben Alano, Simon Saulog and Diosdado Lorenzo. R.C. Ladrido, "A Second Look: The Conservative and the Realist Tradition in Philippine Art", Vargas Museum, 2019, [accessed 28 May 2020].

6. La Solidaridad has long been recognized as the heart of the "propaganda movement", a project of the Comité de Propaganda of Manila to promote political reforms in the Philippines by appealing to a Spanish government in the peninsula that was more liberal and secular than that in the Philippines. John N. Schumacher, S.J., The making of a nation: Essays on nineteenth-century Filipino nationalism (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1991). Megan C. Thomas, "Isabelo de Los Reyes and the Philippine Contemporaries of La Solidaridad", Philippine Studies 54, 3 (2006): 398.

8. The discreet fact of the location in which the occasion took place is the subject of controversy. Today it is engulfed by Metro Manila.

9. The onlooker was Vicente Samson, a 12-year-old boy, whose account is retold in: Borromeo, The Cry of Balintawak, p. 33.

10. Ibid., p. 3.

11. Though the novels have been compared, their similarities lie mainly in terms of their anti-colonial narrative and geographical setting. Multatuli was the pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker, a white Dutchman who spent time in the Dutch East Indies, while Rizal was Filipino, and while Multatuli criticized the workings of a capitalist extractive system, which was the case of the VOC, Rizal concentrated on the overlapping of church and state in creating an unjust society. Max Havelaar was published by Jakob van Lennep, who changed many of the names and disguised various aspects of the book, circulating it only to close friends. The book came out in 1875 and caused a sensation, sending "shudder" through the Dutch nation. Rizal read it in 1888, and in a letter to his friend and publisher Blumentritt, wrote, "Multatuli's book, which I shall send you as soon as I receive it, is extraordinarily interesting. Without doubt it is much superior to mine. But, as the author himself is Dutch, his attacks are not as violent as mine are." [The Rizal-Blumentritt Correspondence, Vol. 2: 1890–1896, trans. Encarnacion Alzona (Manila: Jose Rizal National Centennial Commission), p. 219.] Peter Schreurs, "Multatuli, A Soul-Brother of Rizal", Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 14, 3 (1986): 189–95; Multatuli, Max Havelaar, of De Koffij-Veilingen Der Nederlandsche Handelsmaatschappij, 3. druk (Amsterdam: K.H. Schadd, 1871).

14. A traditional "cockpit" is here a space for cockfighting.

15. Rizal's original text reads "era como la Roma contemporánea con la diferencia de que en vez de monumentos de mármol y coliseos, tenía monumentos de saualî y gallera de nipa […] se entiende, todo en proporción con el saualî y la gallera de nipa" (p. 73). I have used the 2014 Augenbraum translation in this case since it remains most faithful to the original Spanish. Rizal, Noli (Augenbraum 2014), p. 66.

17. From the introduction, "los parásutism moscas ó colados". Rizal, Noli, p. 5.

18. "Se habló del viaje; doña Victorina lució su verbosidad criticando las costumbres de los provincianos, sus casas de nipa, los puentes de caña, sin olvidarse de decir al cura sus amistades con el segundo cabo, con el alcalde tal, con el oidor cual, con el intendente, etc." (p. 226 Spanish; p. 285 Eng. trans).

20. The original text reads: "Ysñllzszyszy vzg bxfzt sz zrzc llz ñtc llz zllg vzllgz Kzpxjczllg ñtc zy fxvllfllwzjzy sz Qspzllñz zt wzlzllg kñllñkñjzjz zt kñkñjzlljñllg Pzvxvxllc kxllg dñ ñtcllg Kztzzstzzszllg Kztñpxllzll." Deciphered, this becomes: Ysinasaysay mag buhat sa arao na ito na ang manga Kapuloang ito ay humihiwalay sa Espania at walang kinikilala at kikilanling Pamumuno kung di itong Kataastaasang Katipunan. "Casaysayan; Pinagcasundoan; Manga daquilang cautosan", January 1892.

21. While Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities delivered a powerful demand for reinterpreting nationalism, in this context it is his later work, Under Three Flags, that is useful for interpreting proto-nationalism and its alternatives: Benedict R. O'G Anderson, Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination (London; New York: Verso, 2005).

23. Martinez notes that "despite claims that it was a more enlightened and democratic ruler than its colonial predecessors, the American colonial regime's policies of segregation were no less real than those of the Spanish […] articulated in the banal technocratic language of building code." Diana Jean Sandoval Martinez, "Concrete Colonialism: Architecture, Urbanism, Infrastructure, and the American Colonial Project in the Philippines". PhD dissertation, 2017, p. 193.


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