Plaza of Liberty and booming Iloilo
CITY SENSE - Paulo Alcazaren (The Philippine Star) - July 2, 2016 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - We resume our series on Philippine plazas this week with a trip to Iloilo. The city has seen a boom in recent years and is considered one of the most progressive in the country in terms of economic growth and urban development.

Iloilo City has been in the limelight because of its many infrastructural and architectural additions including a new convention center, the Iloilo Esplanade, and large mixed-use developments in the old airport area. There are a slew of well-designed suburban residential projects as well, all linked by good roads and even bikeways.

Despite all these improvements, the city retains it historic charm.  This is because Iloilo has kept many of its heritage buildings intact or adaptively reused. Related to this is the fact that the major districts of the city are held together and given focus by the traditional space of the plaza.

In the future, in this series, we will visit all of the city’s plazas and even those of neighboring towns that make up the Metro-Iloilo area. First, we look at the city’s main plaza, Plaza Libertad.

The present city evolved from a small settlement, which grew from the 1700s after being moved a number of times for purposes of security from attack. Once established, Iloilo and the province grew wealthy from, ship building, agriculture and eventually industries based first on textiles then increasingly on sugar. With this wealth the city also became a capital of culture, the arts and urban design.

The city’s main civic and religious buildings were composed in the district around the original Spanish fort, the entrance to Iloilo River and the port. The 1.5-hectare plaza was the central space around which the original grid of the city was delineated.

The main or dominant complex then on one side of the plaza was the church and convent. The original small structure was built by the Jesuits, who tended to their flock until they were thrown out of the country in the late 18th century. The Dominicans took over for a few years, eventually turning it over to the parish before the church eventually was occupied by the Augustinian order.

The current church, the Iglesia de San Jose de Placer, was built by Mauricio Blanco, prior of Iloilo. He designed and built the church from 1873 to 1885. Two belfries were added in 1893. After that , a barometer and a clock. The Faura barometer helped give advance warning for typhoons.

Until the late 19th century it was a fairly simple open green space defined by the roads around it, the church and the Presidencia. The plaza was the focal point of social, economic and civic life in the city, which grew by leaps and bounds especially in the last quarter of the 19th century.

By the 1890s, the plaza was in disrepair. Early in 1896 the provincial governor, Don Ricardo Monet, set out to renovate the plaza in the manner of European plazas of the time. Later that year the Plaza Alfonso XII was inaugurated to much fanfare.





The newly renovated plaza was framed by trees, filled with gardens, and interconnected walkways. Gas lights were provided for evening paseos. The Banda Municipal played here regularly and the plaza became a reflection of the city’s progress.

History then took over as the plaza became a historic site. Here the Spanish finally turned the islands over to the revolutionary government represented by General Martin Delgado in December of 1898.

The American colonial period brought even more progress and wealth to Iloilo and a boom of building ensued. This saw the filling up of the downtown area west of Plaza Libertad with commercial building. Initially these were in the neo-classic style and after that a great number of Art Deco buildings filled the city.

Plaza Libertad itself saw improvements with the provision of electric lighting, a statue of Jose Rizal facing the Masonic Temple of course, and four statues that apparently were the work of the Italian Francesco Monti.

Sugar fueled the recovery of the city after the war, but the momentum did not last. The new millennium has brought new hope and momentum fueled by a wider economic base, and new investment in the city. Plaza Libertad is recovering as the center of Iloilo City because of renewed interest in the old downtown and improved infrastructure of the port, esplanade and a new bridge nearby.

A new city hall designed by famous Ilonggo architect William Coscolluela is now the dominant structure over the church and the Masonic Temple, which was built in 1928. In terms of heritage architecture, on the plaza’s south side is the former Hotel de Iloilo, now a bank. Ancestral houses like that of the Lacsons’ are nearby, while Calle Real is having a renaissance, which is bringing a new buzz to the city.

I rate Plaza Libertad a 9 out of 10. It’s a high rating because it has kept its site uncompromised and most of the architectural heritage that defines it is extant. What is needed is for the whole district to get an urban design makeover. Mayor Jed Mabilog has been gung ho in terms of making things happen this way for the city. All indications are that the renaissance of the city will expand and boost its ranking as one of the most livable cities in the country, if not in Southeast Asia.

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