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Archive for March 5, 2012

Quiapo & Paris: The Basilica of San Sebastian, The Eiffel Tower & The Wonders of Steel

After having the the Church of San Sebastian destroyed by fire and earthquakes in 1859, 1863, and 1880, Estebán Martínez, the parish priest of the ruined church, decided to ask Spanish architect Genaro Palacios to build a fire and earthquake-resistant structure.

This meant the basilica could therefore not be made of wood or brick (the material they used in the 3 earlier iterations).  So Palacios recommended a daring and visionary material.  He suggested that the church should be made entirely of steel. Moreover, the steel structures would be prefabricated in Belgium. According to the historian Ambeth Ocampo, the knockdown steel parts were ordered from the Societe Anonyme des Enterprises de Travaux Publiques in Brussels and all in all, 52 tons of prefabricated steel sections were transported in eight separate shipments from Belgium to the Philippines with the first shipment arriving in 1888.

Around the same time (two years earlier), another steel structure that would become world famous had been built in Paris as the grand entranceway to the World Fair. This massive tower that millions would later ascend and descend (to this day) was designed by Gustave Eiffel. Historian Ambeth Ocampo while doing research in Paris, posited that possibly the San Sebastian Church in Quiapo was also designed by Eiffel because of his fascination with steel structures. Other historians concur with this supposition because no other architects at that time (late 1800’s) were undertaking such enormous projects using steel as the primary material.

Today, like its counterpart in Paris, the Basilica of San Sebastian still stands proud in the Plaza del Carmen at the eastern end of Claro M. Recto Street in Quiapo, Manila. Although after over 120 years, the salty sea breeze wafting in from the Manila Bay is corroding some of the exposed steel (but better than being burned down or destroyed by earthquake every few years as had happened before).

In 1973, the government proclaimed the church as a National Historical Landmark, and since 2006 is on the tentative list for inclusion as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites for its Architectural Design.

Categories: History