Manila Plan: Power of Groupings

Prior to Burnham’s engagement in Manila, the Spanish colonial regime established the civic buildings cloistered in the fortified town called Intramuros, only to be accessible by the Spaniards. The urban center was developed around a church with a main plaza, which further extended the gridiron streets for convenient accessibility. As Catholicism was used as a means of control over the colonial subjects, the religious institutions were also established outside the walls (extramuros) for the segregated ethnic groups (Figure 1 and 2).

At the start of twentieth century under American colonial rule, Burnham essentially tried to turn such Spanish model of Manila planning inside out. The governmental presence from its walled intramuros was removed, to both literally and physically detach the American presence from that of their Spanish predecessors. The civic buildings in the urban fabric were then deliberately reorganized to be placed at highly public and accessible spaces. Unlike the clear social disintegration between natives and the colonizer in the Spanish regime with the use of walls, Burnham’s planning symbolized the American values of democracy as the civic buildings became visible as well as open for the public use.

These public buildings were grouped together closely around the capital at the center. Burnham expressed that ‘the single formal mass’ would dictate the arrangement and to gain a sense of dignity. Referring back to the Old Rome, Louvre and Versailles of modern times, Burnham believed the groupings can also achieve beauty as well as a convenience (Shatkin, 2006). The new Luneta is a prime example of Burnham’s concept, shown in Figure 3. Consisting of post office, city hall, museum and government buildings clustered together, it serves as a major governmental center and with notable historical monuments. Because the center of Burnham’s plan is not a church but a park, the space created in between the civic buildings function as a ‘social hub’. Luneta indeed serves as an ideal multifunctional space for economic activities as well as a political space with its capacity to draw audiences from various socio-economic background.

On the other hand, Burnham’s grand public spaces created by groupings is ultimately the symbolism of the American power and colonial presence. The architecture style for the civic buildings which Burnham focused is neo-classical in shape, following the Greco-Roman models. Hence the civic buildings themselves represent the ideas of modernity, progress and democracy–a constant reminder of the alleged benevolence of the American colonial rule. Groupings then play an amplifying effect in generating the overall majestic impression of such Westernized public institutions in a colonial setting. Burnham’s urban mosaic of Manila is clearly symbolic and aesthetic in his organization and arrangement of important programs. Yet these moves, resembling its Spanish counterparts,  are driven by the imperialistic expressions and goals.

1573 Hispanic Urban Plans
Figure 1: Hispanic urban plans of ©1573, Robert R. Reed
1851 Intramuros
Figure 2: Map of Intramuros ©1851, University of Texas











Figure 3: Aerial view of the New Luneta, ©1930, Christopher Vernon


Lico, G. (2003) Edifice Complex: Power, Myth, and Marcos State Architecture. Ateneo de Manila University Press, Philippines.

Palazon, J. (1964) Majayjay: How a town came into being. Historical Conservation Society.

Reed, R. R. (1978) Colonial Manila: The context of Hispanic urbanism and process of morphogenesis. University of California Press.

Shatkin, G. (2005) ‘Colonial Capital, Modernist Capital, Global Capital: The Changing Political Symbolism of Urban Space in Metro Manila, the Philippines’, Pacific Affairs, 78(4), pp. 577-600.

1 Comment on “Manila Plan: Power of Groupings

  1. Is democracy a political agenda the American wants to carry out in colonies? Is there a further implication of such “democratic”, “modern”, “hygienic” or “dignified” city the Americans wanted to impose in South East Asian countries? You may want to investigate in separate posts the items you mentioned, namely the political ideology, the social-economical advantage of Manila, and also the architectural style of buildings and the figurative gridiron plan.

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