The Explainer: National Capital

I. Imperial Manila


IN America, the founding fathers couldn’t decide on a national capital, and the decision threatened to break apart the brand-new republic.

In exasperation, even desperation, the competing sides decided they would have their president, George Washington, make the decision.

Washington decided on a place near his plantation home. The new capital would be created from land donated by the states, and named, much to Washington’s delight, after himself. It would be ruled by Congress and indeed, it still rules the roost. Two years ago on a visit, someone asked me to sign a petition to the US Congress for self-government for DC. But I’m a Filipino, I told the American –and he replied, as a foreigner you have as much rights as a Washingtonian –which means, none, so sign.

And so, Washington, D.C. was born. Since then, a change in government has often meant a change in capital: even the Russians tried replacing Moscow with St. Petersburg; the Meiji restoration moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo; and the end of colonial rule has often inspired dreams of a new capital to reflect new nationhood. The Australians replaced Sydney with Canberra; the Brazilians replaced Rio de Janeiro with Brasilia. In Malaysia, Putrajaya is Mahathir’s version of Quezon City, meant to replace Kuala Lumpur.

In the early years of the Spanish period Cebu was the main colonial base until Legaspi established Manila in June of 1571. Manila was made the capital of the colony a few years later in 1595. In 1639 there was a move to transfer the capital to Cavite because of Manila’s vulnerability to Muslim and Chinese attack and Cavite’s less swampy land and abundance of building materials. But this did not push through.

For the next three centuries or so Manila, or rather Intramuros, remained the political, administrative and social center of the country. This center was spatially defined by the Plaza Mayor (now the Plaza de Roma) and the important buildings around it, like the Cathedral de Manila, the Ayutamiento and other government edifices laid out according to King Philip II’s “Law of the Indies.” This urban code set the pattern to be used in all of Spain’s colonies. This ‘Plaza Complex’ is still evident in countless towns and cities in the Philippines.

When the Americans came they decided that Intramuros was not big enough, nor appropriate for their new colony. They called in the famous architect and planner, Daniel Burnham, to design the new capital. This he did in grand fashion using Washington D.C. as a model. The national civic center was placed outside the old walls in the open field called Bagumbayan. Burnham planned a large capitol building surrounded by supporting government offices in a formal setting that was close to a mirror image of Washington’s. The ‘mall’ is now our Luneta, or Rizal Park. Only the Agriculture and Finance Buildings were built of the original civic group. The National Library was also built in the 1920’s but turned into the Legislative Building in lieu of the Capitol that could not get built because of budgetary cuts.

Burnham gave the matter of the waterfront prime importance saying in his report:

“Manila possesses the greatest resources for recreations and refreshments in its river and its ocean bay. Whatever portions of either have been given up to private use should be reclaimed where possible, and such portions as are still under public control should be developed and forever maintained for the use and enjoyment of the people.”

Burnham proposed a parkway along Manila bay extending from the Luneta southward all the way to Cavite.  This was to be a 250’ wide boulevard – “with roadways, tramways, bridle paths, rich plantations, and broad sidewalks and should be made available to all classes of people.” Burnham further recommended – shaded drives along the Pasig all the way to Ft. McKinley, which we now know as Fort Bonifacio, and beyond as part of the park and parkway system.

Burnham ended his report, waxing lyrical “possessing the bay of Naples, the winding river of Paris, and the canals of Venice, Manila has before it an opportunity unique in the history of modern times, the opportunity to create a unified city equal to the greatest of the Western World with the unparalleled and priceless addition of a tropical setting.” He knew how to write a sales pitch.

The implementation of the Burnham plan fell to a succession of American engineers and architects who had to deal with an alternately tight-fisted then generous, legislature. It is to the work of these men, and brilliant Filipino architects like Antonio Toledo and Juan Arellano, that we owe some of the most beautiful public buildings ever erected, anywhere: the pre-war Legislative Building (who’s shoddily reconstructed successor, the National Museum Building, still pleases the eye), the Manila Post Office (marred as it is today with the hideous “Philpost” logo painted on its upper story), and the Agrifina Circle structures.

By 1928 a major revision of the plan was undertaken. A committee led by Manuel Mañosa, Sr. and Juan Arellano produced a Zoning Plan for Manila based on the original Burnham Plan. This was printed and distributed free to the public for feedback. (This predates today’s “stakeholder consultations” by a good sixty years.) The final drawings and documents were recommended for approval in 1933 and eventually became the basis for Manila’s first zoning ordinances.

Burnham’s Manila plan was prepared for a city with a maximum population of 800,000 people. The population of the city of Manila was only 285,000 in 1918, but it grew at 5.6 percent per year to more than 600,000 in 1939. At that rate, Manila would have been filled to capacity.

But then in the 1930’s just as the the Commonwealth government had finally built the Burnham Plan’s seaside drive –named Dewey Boulevard and now known to us as Roxas Boulevard- and finally finished the Post Office Building, the Finance and Agriculture Buildings, it decided to scrap the Burnham Plan and replace it with a new metropolis elsewhere. One of the main reasons given was that the proposed National Capitol to be built in the vicinity of the present-day Quirino Grandstand was too susceptible to naval bombardment. But the main reason was one as old as Washington –a nation was due to restore its independence and it wanted to proclaim independence from imperial Manila.

The failure that’s Quezon City, when we return.


II. Quezon’s City


From the very start the plans to create what was first referred to as Balintawak City, but which was later baptized Quezon City by Narciso Ramos (President Ramos’s father) and Ramon Mitra, Sr., who knew Quezon would be as delighted by the name as Washington was in his time, was bedeviled by controversy, not the least of which was due to skepticism over the fiscal wisdom of the plan. Nevertheless, the project pushed through.

In the summer of 1939 President Quezon contacted William Parsons and asked him to choose a new site for and then to design a new Philippine Capitol. Parsons arrived in June of 1939 and eventually chose Diliman as the new capitol site. He also managed to produce a master plan for the new University of the Philippines.  Unfortunately he died in December of that year. Harry Frost, Parsons’ former partner took over and joined Juan Arellano and A. D. Williams in the Planning Commission. A fourth member of the team, landscape architect Louis P. Croft joined them as advisor on planning and park design.

The plan for Quezon City was an expansion of the original City Beautiful pattern set by Daniel Burnham for Manila. The major elements of a grand civic center, parks and parkways and the strong axial/geometric patterns for building groups and opens spaces are evident.

The elliptical circle was the focal point of a grand quadrangle defined by the geographically named avenues and reached by a grand boulevard (also named after Quezon of course) connecting it to the very center of old Manila via the –naturally- Quezon Bridge. The circle was to house the new legislative complex, a magnificent group of buildings with the halls of Senate and the House. On either side of North and East Avenues were to be the executive and judiciary complexes of the national government. All of these complexes were set in landscaped sites and surrounded by public parks and open spaces. The new National Capital City complex was thus defined with the three branches of government connected and framed by the Diliman Qaudrangle.

The foundations for the new legislative building in the circle were being laid when World War II broke out. The new Capital had to wait. In 1945 peace came but the death of Quezon, full independence and new planning concerns caused major changes in the original plan of 1941.

In 1946 newly elected President Manuel Roxas created a Capital Site Committee to look at other possible sites. The old capitol site was not deemed defensible enough from military attack nor the area large enough to accommodate a projected population of several million souls. Sixteen other sites were evaluated (including Tagaytay, Baguio and Iloilo) but the raised elevation of Novaliches was finally chosen. The original Diliman area was thus enlarged to include the Novaliches watershed to the North all the way to Wack Wack in the south.

In the meanwhile the elliptical circle was turned to a memorial to Quezon. The 400 hectares of the Diliman quadrangle was allocated by the commission as the city’s central park. This central park was to contain the national botanic garden, the national zoo, athletic grounds, a grand stadium and even a golf course. The park was to be the main component of a comprehensive city-wide park and parkway system. This system would have included another 80-hectare park in the north, various parks and greenbelts along creeks and rivers, numerous playgrounds and athletic fields. Finally, there was to be a major greenbelt all along the Marikina and San Mateo valley – to contain urban sprawl, preserve the agricultural land and protect the city’s watershed areas. All fantastic plans …but what happened?

In one word (to quote architect and planner Dr. Geronimo Manahan) it was Greed. Land speculation led to the inability of government to consolidate enough land for housing and parks. In the 1950s the original quadrangle area was cut in half. The West and South triangles were sold off to housing developments. Only 200 hectares were left for the central park but lack of funds caused the park to remain unbuilt. In the 1960s the remaining land was cut up even further to accommodate the Philippine Science High School. Finally in the 1970s what remained was parceled off to various government offices and institutions like the mint, the lung and kidney center, the BIR and the NIA. What was left of the original 400 hectares is now just 25 hectares of the Quezon Memorial circle and the Parks and Wildlife Center. The city has lost its only chance for a proper and adequately sized central park (New York, which had less people than Metro Manila today, has close to 500 hectares of Central Park). None of the intended parks and parkway system was ever built. Only a few of the playgrounds were ever constructed.

In essence, the Frost Plan was revived under the National Planning Commission first headed by Croft then later by Harvard-trained Anselmo Alquinto. The plan was revised in 1947, 1949 and finally in 1956.

The civic center under these revisions was to be moved northeast from the elliptical circle to a 158 hectare area called Constitution Hill. The three branches of government and support offices were laid in a formal layout reminiscent of the UP plan. In the middle was to be a 20 hectare Plaza of the Republic. The whole complex was to be connected to Manila by an East-West parkway called Republic Avenue. That plan was submitted and approved by President Quirino in 1949 but it would take close to thirty years before the Batasan Pambansa was completed in 1978. The rest of the complex remains unrealized and is today threatened by continuing parcelization by government offices, encroachment from informal settlers (squatters) and bureaucratic neglect.

There was a very human reason for this bureaucratic neglect. The American government gave money for the rebuilding of the Legislative Building on one condition –it would be located in its old home along P. Burgos Drive in Manila. To their delight, when Congress moved back in, they realized they were conveniently located near night club row, which had developed along Dewey (now Roxas) Boulevard. It would take Martial Law and a dictatorship to pry the legislature away from nightclub row and move them to Quezon City.

But bureaucrats don’t have the options of congressmen, so in the 1950s to Quezon City moved government offices and civil service families built their homes there.

President Marcos was of two minds when he first created Metro Manila and then moved the capital back to Manila in 1976. He seemed torn between a new City of Man, and old Manila.

He had turned to plans for a cultural center dating back to the Magsaysay administration and built the CCP before martial law. The CCP complex and the adjacent reclaimed area became the focus of a proposal in the early 1970s to lay out the area as the NGC with Malacañan Palace transferred to a feng shui-friendlier location. A loop LRT line could connect the entire CCP/NGC complex and the other new districts in the reclamation area with the existing LRT line, the rest of the metropolis and the proposed extension to Cavite. We got the first part of the MRT, but then Mrs. Marcos kept building all over the map: health facilities in Quezon City; finance facilities in Manila; sports facilities in Pasig: was it to be Manila or Metro Manila? The Marcoses never made up their mind. It was too convenient to avoid a center of government, because by dispersing government, it concentrated it in Malacanang.

So today, we have the President and the Supreme Court in Manila, the Senate in Pasay, the House of Representatives in Quezon City, and a national capital that’s a dot in government maps and not much else in reality.

But what’s the alternative? President Ramos suggested Fort Bonifacio. President Arroyo at one time wanted Clark. More on these proposals, with our guest when we return.


My View

With talk of a concerted, if unofficial, move to transform either Subic or Clark into the administrative capital of the Philippines, our officials and the public would do well to look at grand -and failed- attempts at capital-building in the Philippines.

The result is that neither Manila nor Quezon City, the once and present capitals of the country, have ever been properly or thoroughly planned, which leaves our country almost uniquely bereft of a rationally-planned and executed capital city among the countries of the region and even the world. The truth is that both Quezon and Manila Cities, for national capital purposes, are both dead, and that the time may indeed have come for a new plan for a new capital in a new place.

A new national capital is always a great means for spurring economic growth and decongesting an existing metropolis; it is also an act of faith in the future and a way of resolving the past. We’ve been independent for sixty years, but still lack a national capital. This says much about our lingering incapacity to manage our own destiny.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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