Rotundas: Circles of urban life
CITY SENSE - CITY SENSE By Paulo Alcazaren () - July 14, 2001 - 12:00am
Traveling through the metropolis in the Fifties and the Sixties was an experience less harsh than it is today. Back then we still had shade trees (as in the huge acacias on Taft Avenue and even Highway 54, a.k.a. EDSA. Remember the Dap-daps beside the Philamlife Homes?). Back then too, there were landscaped islands separating the main thoroughfares and parallel service streets, as well as actual sidewalks. But one of the things I remember most were the rotundas, those roundabouts that served to accent one’s sojourns to downtown for the movies, Divisoria and Escolta for the shopping or the Luneta for the weekend paseo.

Rotundas, rotaries, circles and roundabouts, whatever you may call them, were classic elements to be found in all civilized cities in the world. (In those days, we could be counted as one of those cities.) Our rotundas were built as part of a greater master plan prepared by Daniel Burnham, the great American city planner and architect. His plan of 1905 was followed, more or less, until the Second World War and the rotundas were part of his grand transport network. The network was to link sections of the city via wide, tree-lined avenues, fountain or monument-embellished rotundas and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks or landscaped parkways.

Let’s go for a spin down memory lane and try to list down those that have disappeared and more importantly those that are still with us but are endangered or forgotten.
Rotundas De Manila
The first rotundas that spring to mind were not part of Burnham’s plan but were from the Spanish colonial era. These are the Carriedo Fountain Rotunda and Remedios Circle. There were no rotundas inside Intramuros as the open spaces within the Walled City were in the form of plazas that fitted into the gridiron network of streets.

The Carriedo fountain was a wonderful sight to behold – a time when Manila was younger and the fountain was still working. Burnham noted that fountains and water were essential to mitigate the tropical heat and he recommended that many be built for the city.

The fountain was the focal point of the Rotunda de Sampaloc, the original name of the circle. At the turn of the century it marked the boundary of Manila’s suburbs, beyond which was the vast Tuason estate, Diliman with its alibangbang forests, picturesque Marikina and the lush hills of Antipolo.

The fountain was erected in honor of Francisco Carriedo, who donated P100,000 to set up a waterworks system for Manila on July 27, 1743. It took a century to get that done (which makes our current engineering projects seem quite fast in comparison... or equivalent to 18th-century efficiency, depending on how one looks at it).

The fountain was removed in 1976 as the needs of traffic edged out civic amenity in the city’s priorities.

The fountain sits today on a driveway rotunda at the MWSS Complex in Diliman, enjoyed only by the few privileged to work there (or by officials in their expensive four-wheel drives or black SUV’s). The Rotunda de Sampaloc is gone, replaced by an intersection that marks nothing but an unquenchable thirst for relief from ubiquitous blight.

Remedios Circle is the other rotunda from this era, or so we believed. What always bothered me was that it did not fit into the road network like other rotundas. Rotundas, like the Champs Elysées in Paris and the Dupont Circle in Washington DC were nodal points where traffic was circulated to a number of main streets. The Remedios rotunda seemed misplaced. It was, in fact, not a traffic circle but the remnants of a cemetery. Like Paco Park, it was a cemetery in the round.

In the improvement of Manila, the Americans had consolidated all the minor cemeteries into the large North and South Cemeteries. This was part of overall plans meant to control disease and improve sanitary conditions in the city. Paco’s structure was left fairly intact but Remedios was cleared and then turned into a green open space. One of the city officials in charge of all these works was John C. Mehan.
American Circles
The American planners, as well as the Filipino planners, landscape architects and architects of the Bureau of Public Works laid out numerous rotundas in the city prior to the war. Among these were the Taft Avenue Circle, the Bonifacio Monument Circle, the Agrifina Circle and the mother of all circles, the Quezon Circle.

The Bonifacio Monument, or Monumento as it is commonly referred to, is a large circle (our old rotundas were scaled and patterned after Parisian ones) with probably the most dramatic monument ever built in this city. In the early Thirties, Guillermo Tolentino (with the help of Anastacio Caedo and architect Serafin de Lara) won the competition to design and build this landmark to commemorate the first cry of independence. I hope to do a lengthier piece on this monument and its rotunda soon as it is threatened today with the eventual linking up of the original LRT and the new lines.

On the southern quarter of Manila were a number of rotundas that marked the intersections of major streets with Taft Avenue. Little remains of these rotundas save for patterns in concrete or building (note how some structures are oriented in a circle around today’s intersections). The LRT had something to do with the disappearance of these rotundas but mostly it was pressure from growing traffic.

The Agrifina Circle is thought by most to be from this era but it was not. The original intent of this inner portion of the Rizal Park was for it to be a grand civic plaza linking the Agriculture, Finance and three other similarly wedge-shaped buildings to what was to be our National Capital Building. The old Congress building was originally intended to be our National Library but funds ran out so it was used as a temporary legislative building. After the war, when it was decided to move the center of government to Quezon City, the area was converted into a rotunda. Vehicles were actually allowed around it until the late Sixties when Rizal Park was consolidated. The rotunda was turned into a skating rink with a central fountain. Today, an unfinished monument sits in its place contributing to dwindling visitorship to the park.
Post-War Rotundas
One of the first rotundas built after the war was the Anda Circle. The Anda monument was built in memory of General Simon de Anda, famous for leading Spanish forces against the British in the 1760s. The monument used to be at the waterfront beside Fort Santiago. It was damaged in the Second World War and moved to its present site in a circle linking Intramuros with the South Port Area. The circle is unkempt most of the time reflecting the area’s lost prestige. Great edifices designed by Jose Zaragosa and Felipe Mendoza in the Sixties stand as mute deteriorating guards to a port area in need of rehabilitation. (The South Harbor could be redeveloped once the leases to most of the warehouses expire, which is soon. The whole area could see a renaissance like San Francisco’s waterfront or the likes of South Street Seaport in New York.)

More rotundas were built as Manila sought to recover from the war. The capital was to be moved to Quezon City. The main link between old Manila and the new center was Quezon Avenue. A rotunda, the Welcome Circle, marked the boundary between the two cities. (Since changed to Mabuhay.)

The new capital of Quezon City was to be defined by a huge quadrangle formed by avenues named North, South, East and West. This "quadrangle" was cut by two main boulevards, Quezon and EDSA. The apex of the quad was a huge elliptical plot, which was to house the National Capitol Building. All the intersections were marked by rotundas, none of which remains save for the Elliptical "circle."

One of the most memorable of those rotundas was the one at the intersection of EDSA and Quezon Avenue. It was called the Friendship Circle and it had a huge sculpture of two hands shaking, representing the Philippines and the United States. (How many remember that one?) It was also at this circle, in the early Sixties, that a new center for Filipino-American Friendship was to be built. A young architect by the name of Leandro Locsin had designed a remarkable structure that floated above a curved base. That building was never built but it was reincarnated as the Cultural Center of the Philippines later in the decade.

The mother of all rotundas is the Quezon Memorial Circle. The circle is actually an ellipse. It is sometimes referred to as the Elliptical Circle, a confused term for a place that was not supposed to be a memorial or just a humongous rotunda. The Quezon Circle was supposed to be the site of our relocated National Capitol Building. The foundations were started in 1941 but war intervened. After the war the capitol was moved once again, to Novaliches this time. The elliptical site was turned into a memorial for President Quezon who died in exile.

There are historic rotundas in other cities in the Philippines. Fuente Osmeña in Cebu is the subject of rowdy debate and plans for its conservation are in the works. That circle at the top of Session Road is a memorable spot, though it is now decorated with a huge fake pine tree.
A Future For Rotundas
Rotundas and traffic circles are making a comeback in the United States and elsewhere. Studies show that in certain situations the circles reduce traffic accidents and serve more as efficient traffic regulating measures than humps. France has built a thousand new traffic circles in the last 10 years, the Netherlands 400 and Norway 500.

Most countries have also recognized that these rotundas are also heritage sites as well as irreplaceable landmarks for their cities and towns. In Asia, Singapore is keeping those few that it has left while Malaysia is building new ones. Rotundas and circuses (as they are called in British-influenced countries) are the stuff that gives character to city centers and specialty districts. Piccadilly Circus in London and Newton Circus in Singapore come to mind.

In the Philippines, however, the circus is in the halls of government with poor citizens entertained at their own expense. Rotundas are targets for kidnapping (without return) in the urban terrorism of government insensitivity, neglect and abandonment that we are helpless witnesses to in our metropolis.

Of course there is hope. But we must have a Landmarks Law...and the will to implement it. We have to save rotundas like the Anda Circle and the Bonifacio Monument, which are threatened by new infrastructure plans. We need to make sense of all these interventions against a rational and comprehensive metropolitan-scaled master plan. One that gives value to conserved heritage of buildings and parks, adequate housing for all, and humane streets for pedestrians and the riding public.

I would love to see the Carriedo Fountain in all its beauty once again, embellishing a rotunda, an elegant center, and a circle of urban life.
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The Lopez Memorial Museum is hosting a talk as part of its Luncheon Lecture Series. I will be speaking on "American Colonial Landmarks in the Philippines." The venue is the Lopez Museum Executive Lounge. For information and/or reservations, call Fanny San Pedro at 631-24-17 or 449-23-55.
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Feedback is welcome. Please contact the writer at

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