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Building a City Beautiful

imageLast week, we looked at the events leading to the first of many masterplans for Manila produced in the 20th century. The famous American architect and planner Daniel Hudson Burnham prepared a big plan for Manila to match the aspirations of an emerging player in world affairs.


The Burnham plan had five major design directives: 1) The development of the waterfront and the location of parks and parkways so as to give adequate opportunities for recreation to every quarter in the city; 2) The establishment of a street system, which would ensure direct and easy communication from every part of the city to every other sector or district; 3) The location of building sites for various activities; 4) The development of waterways for transportation; and 5) The provision of summer resorts.


The plan included all elements of a classic City Beautiful plan. It had a central civic core; radials emanating from this core were laid over a gridiron pattern and large parks interconnected by parkways.


In the central civic core, which he located beside the old city, the government buildings were arranged in a formal pattern around a rectangular mall. This mall is reminiscent of the National Mall in Washington DC and has, in fact, roughly the same width (400’) and the same orientation (east west). Burnham even shows the outline of a capitol, much like the American Capitol. The layout differed from the Spanish "Law of the Indies" configuration in that the focus was the government and not the Church. Completing the civic ensemble were the Hall of Justice complex, located south of the mall, and semi-public buildings such as libraries, museums and permanent exposition buildings all along a drive towards the north.

Waterside City

As in Washington DC, the orientation of the mall was towards water. When Burnham surveyed the old Luneta site, however, he found that the new port works had blocked the view of Manila Bay. To correct this and to create a large pleasure park, he proposed that the area in front of the old Luneta be extended a thousand feet. A hotel and various clubs were proposed around this.


Radiating from this center was a series of radial boulevards superimposed on an efficient gridiron street system. This polyvium was one of the distinctive elements of the grand manner of baroque planning that was the basis for the City Beautiful. These radials divided the city into five sections and produced a street system that directed traffic efficiently up to a point where diagonals were introduced as a continuous connection between sections. This was again modeled after Washington DC and was also proposed in the Burnham-Bennett plan for San Francisco. Burnham also set the pattern for the North Harbor and recommended the cleaning and utilization of the esteros.


Of note are the park and the parkway system. This was a patented Olmstedian devise, which Burnham absorbed from working with landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and also from living in Chicago which had an extensive park and parkway system (also designed by Olmsted). Parks were developed on the concept of providing breathing places for people and also because, as stated in Burnham’s report, "they eliminated certain classes of crimes and the general effect is a marked improvement in the moral tone of the neighborhood." The parks indicated were of two types — active playfields, of which there were nine distributed around the city and four large sylvan stretches along the perimeter of the city connected by parkways.


Burnham gave the matter of the waterfront prime importance, saying in his report: "Manila possesses the greatest resources for recreation and refreshments in its river and its ocean bay. Whatever portions of either have been given up to private use should be reclaimed where possible, and such portions as are still under public control should be developed and forever maintained for the use and enjoyment of the people." Burnham proposed a parkway along Manila bay extending from the Luneta southward all the way to Cavite. This was to be a 250’ wide boulevard – "with roadways, tramways, bridle paths, rich plantations, and broad sidewalks, and should be made available to all classes of people." Burnham further recommended shaded drives along the Pasig all the way to Fort Mckinley, and beyond as part of the park and parkway system.


Burnham ended his report, waxing lyrical: "Possessing the bay of Naples, the winding river of Paris, and the canals of Venice, Manila has before it an opportunity unique in the history of modern times, the opportunity to create a unified city equal to the greatest of the Western World with the unparalleled and priceless addition of a tropical setting."

A Neoclassic City

To implement the Manila and Baguio plans, Daniel Burnham chose a young Yale graduate who had also studied in the Ecole des Beaux Artes in Paris, William E. Parsons. Parsons was recommended by Burnham’s senior architect Edward Bennett, who had worked on the San Francisco plan. Parsons sailed over in November of 1905, assuming the newly created post of consulting architect. His office was responsible for providing all the designs, drawings, specifications, estimates and documents for all public buildings. The consulting architect was also to "exercise general supervision over the architectural features of government construction and of the landscape gardening of public spaces of recognized prominence."


In January of 1914, the Philippine legislature transferred the Office of the Consulting Architect to the Bureau of Public Works. Shortly afterwards, the Bureau of Pubic Works was reorganized and a department of architecture was created and placed under the supervision of consulting architect. It is within this institutional framework that most of the American influence registered itself.

Parsons And Manila

On arrival in Manila, Parsons immediately started work on the two masterplans for Manila and Baguio. He worked on these for the entire length of his tour of duty in the Philippines — eight years, from 1905-1914. Parsons would also design the city plans for Cebu and Zamboanga based on the ‘City Beautiful’ pattern. The policy of the Philippine Commission was to establish the presence of American civil government. The resistance to the American rule was still strong despite the cessation of most hostilities in 1902 (armed resistance continued as late as 1910). A priority of the government was to establish provincial governments and physically house these in civic buildings around a central open space. American hegemony was thus expressed, much like the previous Spanish strategy of a church-centered spatial organization.


Parsons designed for the entire range of public buildings, from schools to hospitals and large provincial capitols. Parsons designed the Philippine General Hospital, which became the template for many tropical hospitals in Asia and tropical America. He designed the Philippine Normal School on Taft Avenue and a number of buildings of the University of the Philippines. These were in the more formal neo-classic style with deep colonnades and courtyards. For the primary and secondary levels, Parsons was known for the system of public school buildings that he initiated. Parsons designed 15 prototypes that were replicated in all the barrios, towns and cities throughout the colony.


Parsons was allowed to seek private work as long as it did not interfere with his regular duties. A good number of these have become landmarks in Manila. Parsons designed several clubs – the Army & Navy Club (completed 1908), The Manila Club (1908), the YMCA on Arroceros St. (1909), and the Elk’s Club (1911). Most famous of these landmarks he designed is the Manila Hotel (renovated in 1975 by Leandro Locsin).


Parsons set out to implement the Manila and Baguio plan with some adjustments to site constraints and politics. Detailed drawings prepared by Parsons and his staff show only minor changes to Burnham’s original layout of civic structures grouped around a central mall. A model was even built in 1914 just before he ended his service. It was sent over to the United States for the Pan-Pacific Exposition in 1915. Parson’s last project was the Paco Train Station, which echoed the grand design of the Penn Station in New York.


Parsons’ contributions were hefty. He was responsible for introducing the wide use of reinforced concrete as a building system. He introduced the modern practice of architectural design and documentation that was continued by the Bureau. He set the City Beautiful pattern for the rest of the colonies towns and cities. Finally, Parsons can be said to have developed a contemporary architecture of adapted vernacular expression and sensitivity to the tropical climate. Parsons used deep arches and shaded colonnades, capiz windows, deep overhangs and hip roofs. That his architecture has withstood the test of time testifies to his fine reputation as a designer.


Parsons left Manila in 1914 and was replaced the next year by Ralf Harrington Doane. Doane held office for two-and-a-half years. He carried on with the projects left by Parsons and continued to monitor the progress of the Manila and Baguio masterplans. Doane did prioritize the architectural projects though – over the planning work, and it is these that were the most exemplary of his work. Doane, like Parsons and Anderson was trained in the Beaux Arts school. He was a neo-classicist and sought to improve the quality of public buildings, as well as increase the level of ornamentation and articulation for the most important ones.


The most notable of Doane’s buildings were the Pangasinan Provincial Capitol in Lingayen (1918) and the Leyte Provincial Capitol in Tacloban (1918). Doane originally designed the National Library, which was later converted to the Legislative Building by Juan Arellano. Finally, Doane is credited for the design of the Executive Building in Malacañang (completed 1919) under the term of Governor General Francis Burton Harrison. It was Harrison who pushed for the Filipinization of the civil service and the office of the consulting architect was not spared. Doane left in 1918 and the office was turned over to Filipino architects, most of whom were pensionados trained in the United States.


I will feature these Filipino architects in a future article. In the meantime, do visit the Burnham Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum for more on the Burnham plan and a glimpse of what Manila once was or was once planned to become.

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For more information on the Burnham exhibit, call the Metropolitan Museum at 523-0613. Feedback is welcome. Please e-mail the writer at citysensephilstar@hotmail.com

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