Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Paris of the East

Paris, from on high.

When one thinks of Paris, one hardly equates it with Manila. These two very different capital cities, located on opposite sides of the globe, might as well be worlds apart.

But between the glamor of the City of Lights, and the squalor of the City of Blights, lies a little-known secret: that to signal the transition from an Old-World Spanish town to a grand metropolis of the modern American Age, Manila was originally envisioned to be laid out like Paris.

Daniel Burnham, an American architect and urban planner who became one of the most influential American architects of the 20th century, designed Manila's American imprint. 

Taking Paris as his inspiration, Burnham's planned long radial avenues, converging in a network of circles that expanded Manila away from Intramuros, Binondo, and other population centers of the Spanish era. Radial avenues developed new urban vistas and circles required new focal points. At those points, the new administration built monumental buildings.

Burnham upgraded the estero system into a second network that provided water transportation and storm drainage. With boulevards like Paris and canals like Venice, Manila was a masterpiece of the early 20th century Beaux-Arts urban planning style called ''City Beautiful.''

Joseph Hayden, Vice-Governor of the Philippines from 1933-35, writes at the end of his term: ''Manila has become one of the most beautiful, healthiest, and safest cities in the Far East.''

Burnham's layout for Manila. From skyscrapercity.

Ah, Manila. Manila.

I'm a born and bred Manila boy who's always loved the old neo-classical buildings - the Manila Post Office, the National Museum, and City Hall - much more than the imposing Spanish fortresses and cathedrals. I've also had a soft spot for the Art Deco monuments such as the Metropolitan Theater and the late, lamented Jai-Alai building.

Manila Jai-Alai building. Photo by Carl Hayden. From

I love the sweeping curves and the solid lines of Art Deco architecture. It harkens back to an earlier time, a time when Manila was elegant, glamorous, and full of promise.

Manila Metropolitan Theater. From

You can still see some remaining Art Deco structures in the Malate area - usually in the form of apartment buildings. They defiantly stand, mute witnesses to untramelled urban sprawl. Silent sentinels unable to stem the invasion of grotesque Chinese bodegas, garish condominiums and gleaming malls.

At the foot of Jones Bridge, there is a cluster of neo-classical buildings that overlook the Pasig River. The most prominent of these is the El Hogar building, built in 1914:

El Hogar, side view.

One of El Hogar's wide stairwells. Note the intricate metalwork on the railings.

Across El Hogar is the former First National City Bank, built in 1915. A massive structure supported by impressive Ionic columns evoking the solidity and strength essential to any financial edifice. Today, it stands in ruins, abandoned save for a few squatters who inhabit its once-lofty halls.

First National Bank today.

And behind El Hogar still stands the old HSBC building, one of the few English-designed structures in this Spanish-American colony and described by architect Paulo Alcazaren as "probably the last remaining building of the British Empire on these shores."

Photo from traveleronfoot

Now I understand why, walking along the actual Parisian avenues many years ago, I was struck by an oddly-familiar feeling of being...home, somehow.

Beneath the faded facades and crumbling concrete, one can still discern the forgotten beauty of a lost city in these decrepit but proud, tarnished but grand, stoic but stately monuments. If one has eyes to see, they offer fleeting glimpses - like remnants of a dream - of another time, another place. Of a genteel, dignified, and gracious city now lost in the passage of time.

That lost city.

My city.

This "Paris of the East."

Note: I wrote this entry sometime last year but thought it be best to publish it at a more appropriate time. Today being Manila's 439th birthday seems fitting enough. To behold more of Manila's forgotten architectural wonders and see the city through fresh eyes, check out I Heart Manila The author's pictures and commentaries offer refreshing perspectives on this ancient metropolis I call home.

Also, "the Paris of the East" is a more popular moniker for Shanghai, not Manila. But let's not quibble.


  1. i can still remember my old folks, they fondly talk about how Manila was so beautiful before world war 2 :)

  2. That shot of the stairwell at El Hogar is just beautiful. Thank you.

  3. and for this.. i'll hug you tight kuya rudy!

    thanks super thanks for sharing!

  4. rudy baby, i give you "City Beautiful" -->

  5. eto pa -->

  6. i love those pics. i remember my college days.

    so that's why there were no classes yesterday when i went there for mass.

  7. @ engel : I understand there's going to be a Manila Weekend celebration. It should be interesting to see how snarled traffic will be between that and tomorrow's White Fag Festival in Malate.

    @ The Constant Bonsaist : Many thanks for the links! i saw the YouTube video before, but the "City Beautiful" shots made me want to cry. It made me feel just how terribly our generation got robbed of a beautiful place we'd have been proud to call home.

    @ dabo : Hugs back at ya!

    @ drew : Thank you. I never get tired of taking pictures of El Hogar. There are just so many beautiful and wondrous aspects to that almost-abandoned derelict. To me, it is almost as haunting as peering at the remains of the Titanic.

    @ SOLTERO : The older generations always talk about how things were better and more beautiful before, but pictures truly paint a thousand words. Their stories might sound fascinating - if sometimes boring - but seeing archival footage and shots of how clean and genteel and cosmopolitan Manila once was is like seeing how truly beautiful our grandmothers once were, before age, time, and life passed them by.

    It is at once breathtaking and bittersweet.

  8. hmmmm, it's the other way around for me.

    i salivate at the spanish-era architecture :P

  9. I fondly remember the structures that you mentioned. I've had first-hand experience documenting and researching on them. Especially El Hogar de las Islas Filipinas. It is, I believe, is THE oldest structure in Manila. And the top 'mirador' was the precursor of today's penthouse. I have a soft spot for art deco, stylistically how it lends easily to the tropical consciousness, and its iconography of travel, movement, and futurism.

    Not a fan of Burnham though, he is after all an assimilative planner, taking ideas and motifs from earlier plans, and incorporating them to his latter works. Eventually leading to more complicated, detailed and grandiose schemes as an amalgamation of various incohesive planning philosophies. He did, however, had money and power to carry out his plans, despite the lack of actual training in masterplanning.

    What I did like about him is he did try to do, and intended sincerely to create, a beautiful city.

    Thanks Rudeboy. A well-written tribute. :)

  10. @ Ternie : That's 'coz you're so conio. Hmmmmpf!

    @ Ming : Or PIKTYURSKEE, as my Art Director used to say.

    @ red : Ooooooh, you did? Lucky, lucky you! I've been fortunate to have many opportunities to explore what's inside El Hogar because it's a favorite location for commercial shoots. There are plenty of unoccupied spaces there that would make for fantastic apartment suites. The rooms are huge, the ceilings high, and the windows massive. It's only a shame the surrounding neighborhood has become so downtrodden and inhospitable.

    As for Burnham, there's something poetic about his being an assimilative planner. Are we not, as a nation, a schizophrenic assimilation of many different influences ourselves?

  11. kailan kaya magkakaroon ng full rehabilitation ang Manila? Masyado ng lubog, madumi at wala ng character ang lugar na ito.

  12. no wonder there is something romantic in that side of the metro whenever i pay it a visit.

  13. i wanna live in luneta hotel! i wonder what happened to it. last i heard they were renovating it but not it seems like the construction stopped already...

  14. @ icarusboytoy : Hey there hehe. yeah, I liked the Luneta Hotel too, and yeah, last I heard they were preserving it but the last time I drove by Kalaw it didn't look too promising.


  15. i wanna convert it to a boutique hotel and live in the penthouse hehe

  16. @ icarusboytoy : There's an enterprising thought. Wouldn't be an exclusively-PLU bed-and-breakfast, would it?