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Colonial Urban Plan and Fortifications of the Walled City of Manila

Date of Submission: 07/02/2024
Criteria: (ii)(iv)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of the Philippines to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Intramuros, City of Manila, Luzon Island
Coordinates: N14 35 29 E120 58 25
Ref.: 6715

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Shaped like an irregular pentagon, the Historic Center of Manila, known since the late 19th Century as Intramuros, is a 0.67 square kilometer area tied to and woven with the country’s historical narrative from the pre-colonial period to the present. For more than three centuries it was the capital of the Spanish colonial empire in the Far East. It captures, as a landscape, various layers of significance as a witness to the transformative social, historical, economic, religious, and political events of the City of Manila and of the Philippines itself as a result of the intersection between the cultures of Asia, Europe, and America – the primary locus of trade, connection, and competition between these continents in the Western Pacific. Its utmost value is found in being an enduring witness to the confluence of trade and history between continents and peoples.

The settlement of Manila (Maynilad or Maynila) is located in Luzon Island, Philippines. In the precolonial period, it was an Islamic Tagalog society, and the settlement was considered to be, because of its strategic location at the mouth of a navigable river opening into a wide bay – with that river connecting to an inland lake with many other settled communities – the convergent point of trade for communities within Southern Luzon, across the Philippine Islands, and to East and Southeast Asia. 

As a port of trade in this period, it was fortified by a palisade of palm logs with emplacements for cannons. Manila was targeted and conquered by Spain in 1571 precisely because of its strategic location, not only for defense, but more especially for trade. The wooden fort was then rebuilt in stone, using quarried adobe, and which exists today as known as Fort Santiago. Stone walls were further built to protect the settlement beside the Fort, and these are the walls that define Intramuros, which is perhaps the largest extant fully fortified European colonial city in Southeast Asia.  The fortifications bore witness to pirate attacks and the succeeding periods of invasion and occupation by the Spanish, British, American, and Japanese forces until the end of the Second World War. 

With Spain’s conquest, Intramuros evolved into a center of trade between Asia, the Americas, and Europe.  More artisans and traders arrived from China, and through the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade, silver from the Spanish colonies in America paid for the goods purchased in the Philippines and sent to Acapulco, then onward to Spain itself.  Even despite its location at the western end of Spain’s empire and at the eastern end of Asia, people from across the world found their way to the Philippines on the back of those trading routes. Today, Intramuros still is connected to the operations of Manila’s port and provides many of the services needed for global maritime trade.

The existing built heritage – whether constructed, reconstructed, or restored – bears witness to this intersection of cultures and peoples.  Located at what was then the westernmost edge of the Spanish Empire, Intramuros embodied the principles of urban planning that were developed and tested by Spain as it established colonies in its westward expansion and were eventually codified in the Laws of the Indies.  The city grid – as well as what is now seen as the traditional layout of a central plaza with the institutions of church and state arranged around it – from this period remains intact. This template in turn was to be replicated throughout the Philippines, in most, if not all settlements that would be organized under Spanish colonial rule. Individual structures, however, would reflect a fusion of various architectural elements reflecting local environmental conditions, materials and geology, and the influences of various cultures.

Intramuros is also home to Spanish colonial period monuments and structures from this period – including a number of government buildings and the walls themselves – that have been rebuilt.  Intramuros however documents, in its built environment, more than the Spanish colonial period. The transfer of key government offices out of the area and into the neighboring Luneta, as well as the conversion of the defensive moat into a golf course, occurred during the American period. Several buildings from this period also express a transition to modernist styles of architecture. Intramuros was occupied by Japanese forces during World War II, bore witness to the massacre of civilians by them, and the city was largely destroyed by American bombing in the effort to retake Manila. In the post-war period, a variety of building forms were developed reflecting various trends – the challenges of restoration or reconstruction, the embrace of modernism, and the influx of informal settlements into areas left abandoned – until a legal mandate to restore Intramuros as a monument to the Spanish colonial period was set in 1979. These structures, buildings, and monuments are a tribute to the political history and events that steered the fate not only of Manila but of the country in its entirety, driven by events across the empire and across the world.

Furthermore, Intramuros as it also served as the country's center for the predominant Catholic Church, in what is Asia’s only predominantly Catholic country.  Intramuros today is the location of one of the Philippines’ World Heritage churches, the Church of Saint Augustine (also known as the Archdiocesan Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation and Cincture) and the Manila Cathedral (or Minor Basilica and Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception) the latter of which, in its process of rebuilding and reconstruction from war and destruction (the Cathedral is now in its eighth incarnation), also parallels the evolution of Intramuros, together with the changing landscape of Manila and the evolving approaches and the blending of cultures and technologies in Philippine architecture.

As the seat of Catholicism in the country, Intramuros transformed religious institutions, and more significantly, the culture and identity of the Filipino people.  One of the ways by which it transformed Philippine culture and identity was through its role in education in the country. In 1590, it opened the Universidad de San Ignacio, one of the earliest European educational institutions built in Southeast Asia. It also saw the establishment of the University of Santo Tomas in 1611, and the still-standing Colegio de San Juan de Letran in 1620.  While many of these religious educational institutions have relocated out of Intramuros, they were nevertheless replaced by secular educational institutions, maintaining a crucial component of the identity of the district.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The Historic Centre of Manila became the nexus of global trade in the Western Pacific, the crucial point of convergence between East and Southeast Asia with the Americas, and onward to Europe.  It was the focus of contestation between colonial powers, shaping the culture and identity of the Philippines, ultimately being reflected and reflected in its built environment – from its fortifications to its places of worship, the fusion of concepts developed in Europe and the Americas yet ultimately contextualized into the environment and culture of the Philippines and its people.

Criterion (ii): The Historic Centre of Manila documents, in its built environment, an exemplary example of development in town planning and architecture, demonstrating an amalgamation and important interchange of several ideas over the Age of Colonization and the Early Modern Era. The gridiron urban plan of Intramuros is a 16th century revolutionary intermarriage of Western and New World urban techniques produced in an Asian setting. The fortification system, on the other hand, represents a remarkable product of early modern Western fortification science and technology, skillfully translated and blended with local construction materials, craftsmanship, and labor. With these considerations, the urban planning and fortifications of the Historic Centre of Manila is unparalleled anywhere in the world.    

Criterion (iv): The 16th-century gridiron urban plan of Intramuros, a masterstroke of colonial urban planning in the Early Modern Era, is exceptionally intact. The Walled City  is the most extensive and sprawling colonial fortification system in Southeast Asia.

The urban plan was laid out in 1571 under the auspices of the first Governor-General of the Philippines, Miguel Lopez de Legazpi. As such, it predates even the 1574 Laws of the Indies which required the gridiron for subsequent colonial settlements in the Spanish Empire. The gridiron system of Intramuros, which covers an area of 67 hectares, is exceptionally extensive. This town plan would become the template for all subsequently established towns in the Spanish Empire in the Far East. A notable feature of Intramuros’ grid plan is its emphasis on open spaces, with a central plaza at the heart of the town, complemented by several smaller plazas at the periphery.

Despite important structural losses, such as the removal of the glacis in 1902, the remaining parts of the fortification system, including the bastions, redoubts, and curtains, constitute a vast complex that demands recognition. Covering 67 hectares and measuring at least 4.5km long, the complex is unparalleled in the region in terms of completeness, intactness, volume, and scale.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

At roughly 67 hectares, the Historic Centre of Manila covers the entirety of the Walled City of Intramuros, as defined under Presidential Decree No. 1616, as amended. It includes the entire fortification system, which in turn includes both the extant parts, such as the bastions, redoubts, and ravelins, among others, and the parts which are no longer extant, such as the entire golf course which was originally the location of the glacis and other outer works of the fortification system. It also includes the gridiron street layout and the plaza and open spaces which are inherent to the 16th century urban plan.

Issues include unauthorized new constructions and additions, some affecting parts of the city wall, and lack of mobility within the district. A detailed inventory of all its attributes is maintained under the Registry of Intramuros Cultural and Historical (RICH) Properties. The buffer zone includes the entirety of the golf course surrounding the walled enclave.

Intramuros is being managed by the Intramuros Administration, which was established in 1979 through Presidential Decree No. 1616 (as amended by Presidential Decree No. 1748) to “be responsible for the orderly restoration and development of Intramuros as a monument to the Hispanic period of Philippine history”. In 2021 a Conservation Management Plan was adopted to align its mandate for reconstruction with current and evolving practices for heritage conservation, taking due note of the Burra Charter and other key conservation documents, as well as UNESCO’s Recommendation on the Historic Landscape.

The spatial organization of the Historic Centre of Manila continues to reflect the 16th-century gridiron plan. The architectural components of the fortification system like the gates, bastions, curtain walls, revellins, and other military installations reflect the urban ensemble of the walled city of Intramuros as conceived and continuously evolved from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The materials and substance are largely original, primarily volcanic tuff and brick. Areas destroyed during the Second World War have been systematically and scientifically restored by the Government of the Philippines from the 1960s to the 1980s using original materials. In some cases, reconstructions have used cement concrete but nevertheless recreated the original architectural vocabulary.

Comparison with other similar properties

For years, the world has seen the incomparable legacies of walled cities. These walled structures are the physical embodiment of a nation’s period of history and of time. Similar in concept and outstanding value, Intramuros is comparable to the listed Historic Center (Old Town) of Tallinn, the Port, Fortress, and Group of Monuments, Cartagena, the Fort and Shalamar Gardens in Lahore, the Historic Fortified Town of Campeche, the Old Town of Caceres, and the Old Town of Avila with its Extramuros Churches. Intramuros, however, is distinct in Southeast or East Asia as being perhaps the largest walled European colonial city.

In terms of its urban planning, the Historic Centre of Manila is comparable with Jaipur City, Rajasthan. Intramuros, however, provides another layer to the history of walled cities by embodying the particular intersection of east and west as a center of global trade in this era, not only between the Philippines and the Spanish Empire but also for trade across East and Southeast Asia.

The Philippines’ own Historic City of Vigan, a World Heritage site, however, is the strongest point of comparison as the perspective and background of the city is exactly the same perspective that Intramuros has – an unparalleled unique ensemble of Europe and Asia. Vigan, however, nevertheless draws its significance from the template that was developed and established in Intramuros from the architecture and the urban design in the built environment, but also the intangible historical and cultural heritage embodied in those structures.  Finally, Intramuros, crucially distinguishing it from Vigan, draws its identity from its walls and fortifications.