The architect, planner, and engineer in Dr. Jose Rizal


Beside a spacious beach of fine and delicate sand
and at the foot of a mountain greener than a leaf,
I planted my humble hut beneath a pleasant orchard,
seeking in the still serenity of the woods
repose to my intellect and silence to my grief.
Its roof is fragile nipa; its floor is brittle bamboo;
its beams and posts are rough as rough-hewn wood can be;
of no worth, it is certain, is my rustic cabin;
but on the lap of the eternal mount it slumbers
and night and day is lulled by the crooning of the sea.

My Retreat (Mi Retiro) by Jose Rizal, translated from Spanish by Nick Joaquin

Today, Dr. Jose Rizal, would have turned 153 years old. His versatile genius made him one of the few Renaissance men in the world, known mainly as a nationalist, painter, sculptor, novelist, poet, opthalmologist, linguist, journalist, and philosopher. But in the last four years of his life exiled in Dapitan, Zamboanga del Norte, Rizal also became a town planner, an architect, and a civil engineer!

In Dapitan, Rizal established a school for young boys and converted tea houses into clinics for his patients coming from far-flung areas of Mindanao and China. After winning the Manila lottery in 1892, he used P4,000 of his share to buy agricultural lands in nearby Talisay. In these lands, he helped design and build three distinct bamboo and nipa houses—square, hexagonal, and octagonal in shape, which served as family residence, chicken coop, and his pupils’ dormitory, respectively.

In a letter to Ferdinand Blumentritt, Rizal described his typical day in his new home:

“I am going to tell you how we live here. I have a square house, another hexagonal, and another octagonal—all made of bamboo, wood and nipa. In the square one my mother, my sister Trinidad, a nephew, and I live. In the octagonal my boys live—some boys whom I teach arithmetic, Spanish, and English—and now and then a patient who has been operated on. In the hexagonal are my chickens. From my house I hear the murmur of a crystal clear brook which comes from the high rocks; I see the seashore, the sea where I have small boats, two canoes or barotos, as they say here. I have many fruit trees, mangoes, lanzones, guayabanos, batuno, langka, etc. I have rabbits, dogs, cats, etc.

“I rise early—at five—visit my plants, feed the chickens, awaken my people and put them in movement. At half-past seven we breakfast with tea, pastries, cheese, sweetmeats, etc. Later I treat my poor patients who come to my land; I dress, I go to the town in my baroto, treat the people there, and return at 12 when my luncheon awaits me. Then I teach the boys until 4 P.M. and devote the afternoon to agriculture. I spend the night reading and studying.”

The huts have been restored and is one of the town’s main tourist attraction.

The additional fees he also earned from his patients coming from abroad were used for the town’s community development projects.

Together with his friend and teacher, Father Francisco de Paula Sanchez, and with the assistance of Governador Ricardo Carnicero, Rizal became a town planner by remaking the town plaza, with the aim of rivaling the plazas he had seen in his journeys in Europe. In front of the Saint James church across the town plaza, Rizal created a huge relief map of Mindanao out of stones, earth, and grass based on the map done by Father Pedro Murrillo Velarde, a Jesuit priest. Rizal used the map, now declared a national historic landmark by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, as a motivating device to teach geography to his students. He planted acacia trees around the plaza and helped the citizens install Dapitan’s first lighting sytem using lamposts made from coconut oil at every corner, supplied by one of his English patient’s in-law. If you go to Dapitan today, the acacia trees still stand.

He then directed the building of a water system for Dapitan, applying the knowledge he learned as an expert surveyor (perito agrimensor) in Ateneo to give clean water to the townspeople, without any aid from the government. The water supply came from a little mountain stream across the river from Dapitan and followed the contour of the country for the whole distance.

He also helped construct a dam through the help of his pupils. The waterworks were built using stones, cast-off tiles, bamboo pipes, and mortar from burnt coral. He also invented a brick-making machine, and a preparation of bakhaw paste, useful for roof construction because of its water resistant, fireproof and lightweight properties.

An American engineer, Mr. H.F. Cameron, praised Rizal’s engineering feat as a well-designed and constructed waterworks system. “When one considers that Doctor Rizal had no explosives with which to blast the hard rocks and no resources save his own ingenuity, one cannot help but honor a man, who against adverse conditions, had the courage and tenacity to construct the aqueduct which had for its bottom the flutted tiles from the house roofs, and was covered with concrete made from lime burned from the sea coral. The length of this aqueduct is several kilometers, and it winds in and out among the rocks and is carried across gullies in bamboo pipes upheld by rocks or brick piers to the distribution reservoir.” (Zaide, 2008)

Aside from constructing the town’s first water system, he also spent many months draining the marshes to get rid of malaria infestation in the town.

Sustainable practices, supportive culture, focus on wellness, resource-sharing, and collaborative structures are some of the emerging trends for architects, designers, engineers, and planners in the next coming years, all of which were present in Rizal’s development projects for Dapitan. In our practice of our professions, just like Rizal, we seek to improve the quality of life and elevate the stature of the Filipinos. Thus, for our eco-tourism projects like Metro Ilocos and San Vicente, sustainable resort projects like the Malcapuya Island resort in Palawan, the waterfront development and rehabilitation of the Pasig River that Jose Rizal often referenced to in his works, Palafox Associates makes sure that every brick, every line drawn by its architects, planners, engineers, and designers puts the people first, planet earth second, and profit last.

Today, Dapitan City enjoys the prestige of having sheltered Rizal during his last years, and Rizal returned the favor by instilling civic consciousness through education and citizen participation in the town’s development projects. He was instrumental in creating a vibrant community that is sustainable and self-sufficient. Indeed, Rizal was a man who was ahead of his time.


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  1. EnP Gabby Lopez, PhD on

    DAP and Philippine Institute of Environmental Planners, in collaboration with National Historical Commission of the Philippines and the NCCA bestowed on Dr. Jose P. Rizal the posthumous title of BAYANING ENVIRONMENTAL PLANNER on June 17, 2012 on his Sesquicentennial.

  2. Ruben V. Calip on

    Thank you, Architect Palafox, for reminding us of the virtue of hardworkingness, caring for fellow Filipinos, inventiveness, orderliness, technical abililty, love of nature, an so on of our hero Gat Jose Rizal. It is such a sad sad sad development in our country that the government officials and lawmakers closest to the masses-adored Pres. Aquino are the opposite of Jose Rizal.