Manila Plan: Hybridized Colonial Buildings

When finally set foot on Manila soil in the 1900s, the Americans were shocked by the tropical climate with humid summer and wet rainy season. A conventional wisdom in early 20th century America held that tropical climates are ‘sinister, disease ridden and home to primitive, indolent natives … for some tropics were anathematic to civilization’ (Vernon, 2014). Burnham himself was also aware of this view, yet he did not consider such characteristic as an obstacle to be overcome. Burnham, assisted by the chief designer Pierce Anderson, rather actively called for new buildings with well shaded and cross-ventilated features as part of his planning. After the completion of the plan, Burnham passed the order to William Parsons, who was hired as the chief consulting architect of the Philippine Bureau of Public Works. Burnham asked Parsons to create a new architectural imagery for the Manila cityscape and stressed: “learn from the better Spanish and Philippine examples“(Hines, 2009).

From the initial assessment, Burnham held great interest in Manila’s Spanish colonial architectural heritage as it achieved beauty and practical suitability to local conditions. As Burnham sought to  achieve the similar effect, Parsons regarded the existing Spanish colonial architecture as inspiration for future designs for the new civic buildings. While maintaining the Spanish details, Parsons also focused on the neo-classical beaux-arts architectural schemes that followed the Greco-Roman models (Figure 1). Parson’s response to the tropical climate was evident in his method of vernacularization. The practical responses to the heat was achieved in combining conch-shell/louvered window systems patterned after Spanish-colonial houses found in the Philippines. For instance, the Gabaldon School house was the prototype for all schoolhouses built during the American colonial period by Parsons (Figure 2). It is significantly open on all sides but covered with the capiz shell-louvered window system. Such keen tropical responses defined Parsons’ signature style throughout his career in the Philippines.

In the 1920s and 1930s, architect trainees from the US and Europe returned to Philippines and served under the Bureau of Public Works. Vernacularization can also be found in notable structures during this period, several of which were inspired by the art deco style. The art deco style was popular in Europe in the earlier part of the 20th century, highlighting both the ‘classical composition’ and ‘stylized and abstracted ornamental forms’. Shown in Figure 3, Metropolitan Theater of Manila designed by Juan Arellano in 1938 for instance, is a hybrid of beaux-arts classicism and tropical art deco. The center of the front facade features rural tropical scenes of Filipino women garbed in traditional lowlanders costume (Figure 4). Arellano also focused on Philippine flora and fauna as he rendered the classical building in tropical motifs such as bananas, mangoes, birds-of-paradise flowers and bamboos (Figure 5). Hence, Filipino designers at the time were consciously appropriating imagery and icon that they believed were representative of Philippine culture.

Through the inspiration of the Filipino climate and Spanish designs served as a guidance to the architectural designs, it was also a way for Burnham to search for an ‘American’ design that would compliment without mimicking the nearly Spanish era buildings. The search for national character is also reflected in the process of vernacularization by Parsons and later architects. By referring to familiar local materials and ideas, vernacularization can better allow a foreign concept to be understood by the local audience. While achieving aesthetic and practical qualities, vernacularization can be considered as a strategy of expressing the national character in the Philippines, as it promoted a national architectural style to communicate their nation’s political sovereignty. Hence hybridized architecture in colonial period, serves as both an agent and a product of nationalism, which actively forms consciousness as national subjects.

William Parsons, University Hall, the Universityof the Philippines in Manila, built in 1913
Figure 1: University Hall, the University of the Philippines © 1917, A.N. Rebori
Figure 2: Typical reinforced concrete schoolhouse © 1997, Rodingo Perez III


Figure 3: Metropolitan Theater of Manila © 1940, University of the Philippines
capital theater, detail of facade featuring Filipinos garbed in traditional costume, 1935, Juan Nakpil
Figure 4: Metropolitan Theater of Manila, front facade ©1938, Gerard Lico
Figure 5: Metropolitan Theater of Manila, Detail of Banana motif ©1940, University of the Philippines




Cabalfin, E. (2005) ‘Modernizing the Native: The Vernacular and the Nation in Philippine Modern Architectures’, Docomomo, pp3-5.

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

Torres, C. E. (2010) The Americanization of Manila, 1898-1921. The Philippines: The University of the Philippines Press.

Vernon, C. (2014) ‘Daniel Hudson Burnham and the American city imperial’, Thesis Eleven,123(1), pp. 80-105.

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