Manila Plan: Role of Civic Centers

The American architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham, the creator of the Manila Plan, was one of the active proponents of the City Beautiful Movement in the 1890-1900s. The City Beautiful Movement promoted not only the beautification of the city but also the creation of moral and civic virtue among urban populations. When Burnham participated in designing Washington D.C. and San Francisco, dynamic civic centers were created as central organizer of the city. In Manila, Burnham further implemented a more open and convenient transportation routes in the existing gridded streets with circulation system radiating from the government center. Burnham believed such arrangement of civic centres suggested to be:

entirely fitting for both practical and sentimental reasons; practical because the center of the governmental activity should be readily accessible from all sides; sentimental because every section of the Capital City should look with deference toward the symbol of the Nation’s power…” (Hines, 2009)

Circulation System Radiating from the Civic Centers in Washington McMillan Plan (1901), San Francisco Plan (1903), Manila Plan (1905)
Circulation system radiating from the civic centers in (left to right) Washington McMillan Plan © 1901, San Francisco Plan © 1903 and Manila Plan © 1905, Princeton Architectural Press

During the latter planning in Manila, Wallace Field–which extends from Luneta to the present Taft Avenue–was proposed to be fully occupied by governmental centers. Starting from the national post office by the river, Taft Avenue would consist of various bureaus and department offices such as the National Museum and the National Exposition Building.

Civic Centers along Taft Avenue
Map: Civic Centers along Taft Avenue

Another Filipino counterpart Burnham designed was Baguio, which is situated in the north in the rugged mountains of Luzon. Burnham believed “efficiency with a deference to the scenic and romantic setting”  should be combined, he utilized the different elevations of the high mountains and low hills to find the best location for the principle elements of the town, which are the business, municipal buildings, and National/Governmental buildings (Hines, 2009). As the ground level was the most convenient of the transaction of business, the gentle slopes in the Northwest was to be for the business district. The municipal buildings remained close to the business quarter yet given a position where “unmistakable dignity” could be attained. Most importantly, the governmental buildings, while still achieving accessibility from the business quarter, was to be located at higher points with cleared surroundings to express “their pre-eminence over all other buildings of the city“. Recreational and residential buildings would then adjoin and radiate from the three main areas of the town.

Baguio Plan (1909), Burnham's miniature version of Manila Plan (Chicago Art Institute)
City of Baguio: General Plan of Improvements © 1905, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Columbia University

Creating civic centers as central nodes of the city not only provides accessibility for public services and serves a symbolic function, but also adheres to the philosophy that such organization would promote a harmonious social order that would increase the quality of life. In the generally imperial manner of his of all City Beautiful Planning, Burnham’s Manila plan can hence be seen as a method of civilization since well organized civic spaces would potentially improve behavior of the urban population.



Burnham, D.H., and Bennett, E.H. (1993) Plan of Chicago. Edited by Charles Moore. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Hines, T.S. (2009) Burnham of Chicago: Architect and Planner. 2nd Ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Vernon, Christopher, Daniel Hudson Burnham and the American city imperial. SAGE Thesis Eleven Vol,123 (2014) p80-105.

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