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Notes on the Geography of The Philippines: Manila: City Beautiful

In 1904, Secretary of War Taft told W. Cameron Forbes, a member of the Philippine Commission, to secure the services of a city planner.  Forbes went to the top and got Daniel Burnham to come and draw a plan for the place.  Burnham spent maybe six weeks looking around; of equal importance, he then recommended a protégé, who stayed on for a decade to implement the Burnham Plan.  

The plan is typical of Burnham's work--neoclassical buildings connected by treed boulevards and great swaths of lawn.  More significantly, perhaps, Burnham worked hard to preserve the Spanish colonial city he found.  Rather than replace it, he concentrated his efforts on the south and east margins of Intramuros.  He wrote that the colonial buildings were "especially interesting and in view of their beauty and practical suitability to local conditions could profitably be taken as examples of future structures." It's a very early case of a Western planner respecting the city he's been hired to improve.

 Burnham is quoted in Thomas S. Hines, "American Modernism in the Philippines: The Forgotten Architecture of William E. Parsons," J. of the Soc. of Arch. Historians, December 1973.)

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The Philippines: Manila: City Beautiful picture 1

Cut-and-paste from Washington, D.C.  This is one of several government buildings that Burnham located in a park he created from paddy fields immediately south of Intramuros.  Odd that it should be the Department of Tourism?   Well, you're being fooled: it was originally the Department of Agriculture.

The Philippines: Manila: City Beautiful picture 2

The classic form but with Filipinos in the pediment.

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The Burnham style: neoclassical monumentalism heightened by grand isolation.

The Philippines: Manila: City Beautiful picture 4

The park itself--Burnham called it the Public Playground but now it's Rizal Park, from the patriot executed by the Spanish in 1896--measures about 500 by 1000 meters, not counting an extension on filled land protruding into Manila Bay.  It also includes the former moat around Intramuros; which was filled at Burnham's suggestion.

The Philippines: Manila: City Beautiful picture 5

Nearly all the government buildings undertaken by the Americans were destroyed in the war: the ones seen today are remakes.

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Here, however, is a survivor, remodelled but not reconstructed.  It's the Manila Hotel, the city's first luxury hotel.  It stands on filled land where Rizal Park meets Manila Bay.  It's made of reinforced concrete, a new material in those days, and one pioneered by Burnham's protégé, William E. Parsons.

On arrival in the islands, Parsons persuaded Commissioner Forbes "to discontinue the use of Oregon pine, which is tempting food for the anay (white ant), and to encourage the development of Philippine hard woods, which nature has prepared to withstand the ravages of the tropical climate better than any imported woods."  The next step was reinforced concrete. (Quoted by A.N. Rebori in "The Work of William E Parsons in the Philippine Islands," Architectural Record, April 1917.)

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The hotel has slipped into a long decline, but this side gate hints at its former elegance.  Characteristically, Burnham wrote that he did "not believe that a small or ordinary improvement will be of much success," but that a grand hotel would "draw thousands of people that otherwise are passing Manila."  He was right, too: when Pan American began flying across the Pacific, its clippers landed just offshore and tied up at a hotel-side dock.

The Philippines: Manila: City Beautiful picture 8

Hidden by landscaping, the hotel has a cornerstone laid by the American cabinet officer who, for lack of a Colonial Office, was responsible for the Philippines. Architect Parsons had little respect for Washington's program for the Philippines and quit in disgust in 1914 at what he called Woodrow Wilson's "scuttle policy," by which Parsons meant Wilson's intention to grant independence to the Philippines sooner, rather than later.

The Philippines: Manila: City Beautiful picture 9

Despite Parsons' misgivings, Filipino architects mastered the neoclassical idiom.  This is the courtyard of the City Hall, designed about 1930 by Don Tomas Mapua, founder of the Mapua Institute of Technology. 

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The inscriptions speak of "labor," "wealth," and "capital."  Outside, it's a different world.

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Don Tomas also designed this American-style post office, opened in 1925 and rebuilt after 1945.

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The view inside.

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Look familiar?

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Burnham would have liked this: the park south of Intramuros has monuments as well as government buildings.  The inscription on this one, from 1988 to mark "the quadricentennial of the Christianization of the Philippines," reads: "In profound esteem and appreciation of the selfless and intrepid labors of the sons of Spain to propagate the Christian religion and tradition throughout the beloved Country."  The Spanish have become part of the nation's celebrated heritage, while the Americans have not. 

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Nearby, ironically, is the guarded monument honoring Jose Rizal (1861-1896), who the Spansh executed.  The view down the park gives a sense of the L'Enfantian scale Burnham wanted.

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