Vigan and Manila, and the (silent) tale they tell

Published March 31, 2021, 7:00 PM

by Joel L. Cuello

Visiting these two cities in the same week opens a window into the gradual opening of the Filipino mind from Old-World to New-World ideals and worldview

Photos by Jules Vivas

TOWN OF FERDINAND Calle Crisologo in Vigan

My last international travel before COVID-19 wreaked havoc and summarily put the entire globe on virtual pause was in early December of 2019 and, if appropriately, was to my native Philippines.

Specifically, my main destination then by way of Manila was Laoag City up north where colleagues at De La Salle University (DLSU) in Manila organized an annual international Robotics & Automation conference, for which I was invited as one of the plenary speakers.

The conference, thoroughly world-class, was an unqualified success and my DLSU colleagues went an extra mile in arranging for us speakers to partake of the country’s vaunted hospitality, which included a day’s tour of Laoag’s famed neighboring cities and municipalities that included the storied city of Vigan, Ilocos Sur.

GO AROUND TOWN Horse carriage is one of the mode of transports in Vigan

After the conference, I flew back to Manila for a few days, affording me the opportunity to revisit a few of the city’s historical buildings and structures, which left me ultimately struck by the patently dramatic contrasts between them and those I had just seen in Vigan.

Visiting Vigan and Manila in the same week and observing and discerning their defining architectural styles were akin to revisiting two epochal junctures in Philippine history.

The jarring and even clashing juxtaposition directly led me through a quick passage from the country’s Old-World Spanish influences toward the sense and sensibility of the New-World American order.

WHERE CHINESE AND HISPANIC MEET The city hall of the heritage village

Quite clearly, the respective architectural designs in the two cities eloquently embody the prevailing mindset and worldview of each of the Philippines’ former occupying powers.

Vigan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, remains wondrously intact with its quintessential Spanish colonial architecture that also seamlessly incorporated native Philippine and Asian design elements and construction. Aloof and cloistered, Vigan’s characteristic architecture fluently telegraphs the values and habits of a bygone feudal society.

Contrastively, Manila’s iconic buildings, which include the Manila City Hall, the National Museum of Fine Arts (formerly the Old Legislative Building), the National Museum of Anthropology and National Museum of Natural History (formerly the Agriculture and Finance Buildings), and the Manila Post Office, among others, were built in the mold of clean neoclassical design, projecting balance, clarity, symmetry and order much like most of the archetypal buildings in the US capital, Washington, D.C., which have come to embody democratic and egalitarian ideals and aspirations.

COLONIAL PRISON Ilocos sur provincial jail in Vigan City

A structure of special note in Manila is the William A. Jones Memorial Bridge, or Jones Bridge, which had its original Beaux-Arts architecture—similar to that of the Pont Alexandre III in Paris—just restored by the City Government of Manila earlier in 2019.

I flew back to Manila for a few days, affording me the opportunity to revisit a few of the city’s historical buildings and structures, which left myself ultimately struck by the patently dramatic contrasts between them and those I had just seen in Vigan.

Jones Bridge is named after William Atkinson Jones, a US legislator who served as principal author of Jones Law that conferred to the Philippines legislative autonomy from the US. 

OLD-WORLD CHARM Aerial view of the Manila City Hall (Photos from

It was a quick visit, yet visiting Vigan and Manila in the same week afforded me with a profound insight into the gradual transitioning and opening of the Filipino mind from the Old-World to New-World ideals and worldview, which—also illuminated in equal measure by strong Asian traditions and values—have led to the evolved development of today’s Filipino psyche that is open, modern, and vitally globally enriched.

The foregoing realization helped make plain to me, as a scientist and engineer, how science only began to develop and thrive in earnest in the Philippines coincidentally with such historical Old-World to New-World transitioning.

BRIDGING THE NEW AND THE OLD Jones bridge illuminated at night on Pasig river, in Manila (Photo by Czar Dancel)

Thus, my week-long journey from Vigan to Manila unveiled for me, if unexpectedly, the pivotal metamorphosis of the Filipino mind in history, whose renaissance had taken close to 400 years to be kindled and, through a development period lasting roughly another hundred years, ultimately brought forth a people who are a full-fledged peer and productive participant in our present globalized planet.

Dr. Joel L. Cuello is professor of Biosystems Engineering at the University of Arizona and board member of the Philippine American Academy of Science and Engineering (PAASE). With special thanks to Dr. Elmer Dadios, Dr. Alvin Culaba, and their DLSU team for the author’s invitation to the 2019 International Conference on Humanoid, Nanotechnology, Information Technology, Communication and Control, Environment, and Management (HNICEM) in Laoag City.