The Aborted Plan of Daniel Burnham

The United States occupation of the Philippines in 1898 ushered a new phase in Philippine architecture. America established an American-style of government and urban planning that served the needs of secular education and public services.  

In 1904, the Chicago-fame architect Daniel H. Burnham came to the Philippines on an invitation from the government to plan a modern Manila. The city then had a population of only a hundred thousand, but Burnham envisioned it as a metropolis inhabited by millions, with multi-laned avenues radiating from its central districts.  He proposed that the old moat around Intramuros be reclaimed, that Luneta be enlarged into a 30 acre-park, and that a seaside boulevard be built from the Manila waterfront to Cavite.  


Burnham’s vision for Manila was a government center occupying all of Wallace Field, which extends from Luneta to the present Taft Avenue. The Philippines Capitol was to rise on the Taft Avenue end of the field, facing toward the sea, and would form, with the buildings of different government bureaus and departments, a mighty quadrangle, lagoon in the center and a monument to Rizal at its Luneta end. 


The Burnham Plan, which the London Times called “a miracle by an Alladin,” was approved by the Philippine Legislature, which agreed to set aside two million pesos every year for the execution of the plan. When the fund had reached some 16 million, however, President Manuel L. Quezon decided to use the money on irrigation projects instead. Quezon noted that rice fields were more important than fine structures for Manila. 

Of Burnham’s proposed government center, only three units were built: the Legislative Building (originally intended as the National Library) and the building of the Finance (currently the Museum of the Filipino People) and Agricultural (Tourism Department) departments, which were completed on the eve of the War. By then, Mr. Quezon had doomed the Burnham Plan by creating a new capital outside Manila, which was named after him –Quezon City. 


The Legislative Building was started early in the 1920s. Construction was sporadic, lasting until 1926, and cost about six million pesos –a bargain price today. When the building was half-finished, the Philippines solons decreed that it was to house, not the national library, but the legislative session halls and offices. Later, the national library was allowed to occupy the basement. 

According to Nick Joaquin, the building (Legislative) along with the old Jones Bridge was undoubtedly our happiest achievement in the neo-classic manner. For a moment in our history, the style of the Romans suited our temper perfectly and we created a structure that had grace and dignity. The postwar edifice still glows with the serene spirit of the original and stands as a memorial to Burnham’s glorious dream and to the days when we felt like noble Romans, gravely founding a republic. 


Information sources:

Tuklas Sining edited by Nicanor Tiongson
Almanac of the Manilenos by Nick Joaquin

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28 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] was handled by western architects like William Parsons and Edgar Bourne. Another architect, Daniel Burnham, was known for his vision of turning Manila into a modern metropolis. Among his proposals include […]

  2. Another reason for the urban decay of Manila is the construction of LRT. Manila was once a beautiful city when LRT was not yet constructed. What a sad story for Manila.

  3. […] news article in Yahoo Ph last August 2012. Linked here is another blog elaborating a bit on the Aborted Plan of the American architect, Daniel Burnham, for Manila. I think, all is not lost but to somehow re-engineer Manila to regain it’s lost glory is […]

  4. In 1947, it was the right decision for the US Government to invite visionary Daniel Hudson Burnham to plan a Modern Manila. Even, though it wasn’t fully implemented due to then, Philippine President Quezon’s decision to fund a major irrigation project instead. Quezon made the correct decision during that time. However there should have been a government mandate to continue Burnham’s vision for Manila even after the devastation of World War II. If the plan was implemented similar to the result in Chicago, it would have encouraged major tourism and served as a catalyst for a well-organized bay front. If so, the Cultural Center Complex in the 1970’s together with the recently developed Mall of Asia by the Manila Bay will have to be built somewhere else. As evidenced even today, Burnham’s approach to open spaces and circulation for both pedestrian and vehicular is very effective in providing access for the public to open spaces and formal landscaping, and an intimate experience by Manila Bay. The neo-classical government buildings and its placement complemented the plan effectively. There were major and critical factors to be considered physically outside or beyond the confines of Burnham’s Plan such as the adjacent districts, neighboring areas, and Manila Bay. These factors were considered critically through a relationship or “tie-in” to the plan. Burnham incorporated the prevailing Philippine culture at the time and gave respect to Philippine Architects and Engineers who will play their roles to incorporate Philippines’ aesthetic values during the implementation of the plan. Despite Burnham’s very limited time of 3 weeks in the Philippines, he was able to prepare a grand plan and a bright vision for Manila. This is in addition to his city plans for Baguio in the north and Dumaguete, near southern part of the Philippines.
    I am an architect in the US and the Philippines. I lived and enjoyed Burnham’s Chicago lakefront for many years and have visited Washington DC, Dumaguete, Baguio, and Manila as well.

    • Thank you Cesare for your insights about Burnham’s plan.

    • I think it sould have said 1917… “In 1947, it was the right decision for the US Government to invite visionary Daniel Hudson Burnham to plan a Modern Manila.”.

    • thank you. It is now nearly impossible to plan something as grand as this today.

      • i’ve heard that the money that have been realigned for “irrigation projects” were in fact used to build the new capital QC. IIRC the money at that time was 16 million pesos. i’m pretty sure that money was kind of difficult to get hold of back then so Quezon had to find another way to get money to build his dream capital named after him. Quezon was a real shrewd and flawed politician who once tried to block an Philippine independence bill in 1933-because the billwas associated with Osmena and Roxas and not him.

  5. I love seeing neo-classical structure like these…

  6. it’s a pity they didn’t push through with it… they could have kept the plans and gradually realized it… sad also how they paint those old buildings instead of just cleaning them… just hide the grime…

  7. very informative. bravo.

  8. Quezon’s famous quotation “I rather be rule like hell by my country men rather than be rule like heaven by the americans” and because of the Burnham’s aborted plan we were ruled since then like hell.

    • This quotation by Quezon has, since time immemorial, been used wrongly. The whole quotation reads, “I would rather have a country run like hell by Filipinos than a country run like heaven by the Americans, because however bad a Filipino government might be, we can always change it.”

  9. thanks to quezon we have to endure being flooded all the time. together with the cancellation of the burnham plan was the cancellation of the state-of the-art paris type sewerage system.

    • it was an equally good thing to improve the irrigation… we don’t need good infrastructures to live but some healthy food on the table…and i think this was the primary concern of many Filipinos throughout the country rather than of few elite residents of manila back then…Our priority must be: what we need rather than what we want… improving our irrigation, on another point, is also about improving our economy…even better infrastructures can come later if we have stable and better economic situation. besides, why should we enshrine this plan that is not ours? can’t we have the Filipino genius to design for our own? what we see mostly in the Philippine heritage are remnants of our colonizers…and we take pride of the idea that once we were under their domain.

      On sewerage problem, don’t blame Quezon. Quezon rightly responded to the real necessity of his time. blame your leaders today. they have not been as wise as our forefathers!

  10. […] More on Burnham’s attempt to bring noble Rome to the Philippines here. […]

  11. Quezon used the money for other purposes? What is your source for this please?

    My friends and I are fighting over the reason why the plan was abandoned.

    • the plan was abandoned, instead Quezon was too busy for the preparation of our independence which was not given during his time

      • Well. It’s been said that we have the best plans for anything – even ahead of our time. But we are lousy implementers of these plans (everyone wants to leave his/her own mark by disregarding other people’s well-thought of plan).

  12. Thank you- this was an outstanding entry on Mr. Burnham- many in the west don’t realize that he did such important work in the Philippines. His design for Bagiuo seems to have been carried out quite a bit more faithfully than in Manila.
    I am interested in learning more about his work in the Philippines. Do you mind telling me some good sources? Thanks so much. I am an architect in Atlanta, GA, but I grew up in Quezon City, by the way.

  13. Post World War II could have given the Burnham Plan another chance to be implemented. Politics finally put a lit to it. So sad.

  14. The last World War has devastated Manila to the ground Patrick. The Old Legislative building is a major casualty. When it was reconstructed, some of the orginal design of Juan Arellano were lost.

    Thanks for sharing the photos and article.

  15. i’ve been researching about the sculptures on top of the National Museum, because I happen to have a piece.

    i’m now looking for the other pieces.. it could be just as beautiful as the one facing the LRT side. The set of sculptures facing Intramuros look so different from the original, because it was destroyed during the war and was just rebuilt.

    Here’s the article:

    and here’s the photo:

  16. It is my pleasure to provide you with information Fatima. Hope to hear from you again soon.

  17. oh i see.. thank you so much for clearing it up. i really appreciate it. 🙂 tnx also for the added infos.. 🙂

  18. Fatima, The first and second images from top are the facade and leftside elevation of old Department of Finance Building, respectively.

    The Legislative or Old Congress is last image where National Museum is written above the columns.

    I would probably post images of the other buildings i the near future. For more images of building built during the American era, you can also check out the links below:


    Good luck on your report!

  19. very interesting article.. this could help me on my report on philippine architecture during the american period particularly on the old congress/legislative building. 🙂

    just to be clear is the second picture that of the legislative? & the first one is that of the ?
    hoping for a reply.thanks.

    have you got more pictures of the legislative?
    some then & now pictures that you could share?
    it would really help.:)

  20. […] Pilipino Traveler on Foot blog reveals that Burnham also developed a pan for […]

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