Manila Plan under American Imperialism

Burnham wrote, “The War department set about adapting the city of Manila to the changed conditions brought about by the influx of Americans, who are used to better conditions of living than had prevailed in those of islands.” (Hines, 1973)

The plan of Manila shows the imposition of American imperialism implicitly, in accordance with the government’s attitude of “benevolent assimilation” towards the Philippines. The fact that the Manila Plan itself is a continuation of City Beautiful Movement constructs the foundation of such argument. Similar to other city planning under the influence of City Beautiful Movement, Burnham’s plan strongly emphasizes public facilities and aesthetic values regardless of serious social issues. This is a relatively serious issue to Manila compared with other American cities since Manila is less developed. The need of working class was overlooked and resulted in inadequate transportation and low-rent housing. In addition, there was a strong social economic disparity in Manila which gave rise to the corruption among local police and prostitution. (Shatkin, 2005)

Aside from the overall remark on Manila plan, the proposals within the Manila Plan also leave the trace of the colonial attitude.

First, instead of inheriting Intramuros as the civic center, Burnham chose to establish the new Luneta. This visually and physically distanced American presence from Spanish predecessors. (Veron, 2014) However, Burnham did insist on preserving the Intramuros as a historical heritage for the Philippines in spite of the objection from the officials. As for the new Luneta, it resembles the Washington Plan as a public park with several civic centers. These civic centers include a neo-classical domed Capitol and National or Government Group. The Capitol is reminiscent of its Washington counterpart and The Group featured a Hall of Justice, library, museum, exposition buildings and a post office. On the western side of the Group, Burnham projected as axial parkland corridor, taking from the Capitol’s centerline, to visually and physically link it with the seafront area – creating a Philippine variant of Washington’s Mall. (Veron, 2014)

Left: Detail of the new Luneta in Burnham's Plan / Middle: Current Plan of the New Luneta (Rizal Park) in Manila / Right: Current Plan of Washington DC / Since the new Luneta (current Rizal Park) in Manila Plan and the Plan of Washington are both realized, the resemblance is visible in current maps. ©google map, 2015
Left: Detail of the new Luneta in Burnham’s Plan © 1993, Burnham, Daniel H., and Bennett, Edward H. / Middle: Current Plan of the New Luneta (Rizal Park) in Manila ©2015, Google Map / Right: Current Plan of Washington DC ©2015, Google Map / Since the new Luneta (current Rizal Park) in Manila Plan and the Plan of Washington are both realized, the resemblance is visible in current maps.

Second, on top of the gridded street system, Burnham imposed the radiating boulevards to connect the civic centers – the political and economic importance of the American government. The wide boulevards not only stated the visual prevalence of colonizer’s power but also reinforced American colonial ambition as a means to achieve more political control. (Hines, 1972)

Third, Burnham proposed the development of waterways, namely Pasig River, as transportation of goods with both aesthetic and functional aspirations. However, when he stated the potential of “becoming Venice”, it also reveals American’s commercial interest in the Philippines. He addressed the commercial issues in relation to American imperialist enterprise: “Large manufacturing houses can serve their own interests without the inconvenience to the public by building river slips or branches of the estero (canal) system on their won ground…” (Brody, 2001)

To sum up, Burnham’s respect to local Philippine culture is limited to historical and aesthetic aspects, the essence of the Manila plan still shows his dominant attitude as a colonizer. The strategies and spatial implications of Manila Plan unveil the intention of American imperialism.



Hines, T. S. (1972) ‘The Imperial Façade: Daniel H. Burnham and American Architectural Planning in the Philippines’, Pacific Historical Review, 41(1), pp.33-53

Hines, T. S. (1973) ‘Modernism in the Philippines: The Forgotten Architecture of William E. Parsons’, Journal of Society of Architectural Historians, 32(4), pp. 316-326

Brody, D. E. (2001) ‘Building Empire: Architecture and American Imperialism in the Philippines’, Journal of Asian American Studies, 4(2), pp. 123-145.

Goodno, J. B. (2004) ‘Burnham’s Manila’, Planning, 70(11), pp. 6.

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.

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

Details of the Reference:

[Bibliography] American Colonial Urbanism References: A Historical Lens

[Bibliography] American Colonial Urbanism References: A Contemporary Lens

[Bibliography] Manila Plan: The Imperial Ambition

[Bibliography] Manila Plan: The Imperial Ambition (2)

1 Comment on “Manila Plan under American Imperialism

  1. I agree that there is a trace of imperialism of both American and Spanish from the map that the streets and the layout is following the principle of Western culture, but did the Philippine government do anything to reintroduce back their own culture after colonial period to help boosting up the sense of belonging?

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