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Baguio: City as art

When the world renowned American architect-city planner Daniel Burnham visited the Philippines during late 1904 and early 1905 two of the grandest urban plans in the history of the country were consequently produced. These schemes, for Manila and Baguio, and subsequent ones in a similar vein by William E. Parsons, led from the early 1900s to a new spatial paradigm being instigated throughout the Philippine archipelago: this environmental model in morphological terms drew emphasis away from Spanish churches and their nearby plazas to new, symmetrically formed green spaces at the front of kapitolyos (capitols) or city halls.

But what was additionally notable about the Burnham concept of city planning in the Philippines was its generic treatment of the urban environment: it was to be restructured as a whole for the purpose of promoting convenience, beauty, and modernity. Ultimately the new planned Philippine city was to show itself off as a work of art, which it was to concurrently demonstrate the presence of matters perceived as absent from Spanish colonial society, e.g. democratic politics, economic development, public health improvement, and urban infrastructure. Accordingly it was to bestow a quality of life for Filipinos not possible before the Spanish American War in 1898.

Drawing upon the practice of civic design, which may be said to be the attempt by the urban planner to purposefully associate a public building to its surroundings for the intention of pleasing effect, the Burnham model of urban planning sought to bring roads, spaces, statuary, and buildings into harmonious accord. Such an approach to city design was largely inspired by 19th century projects in Paris and Vienna yet had been defined in practice by Burnham in the 1890s and 1900s in Chicago, Washington D.C., and Cleveland. Hence in his mind his 1905 schemes for Manila and Baguio were to act as guides for restructuring Philippine towns and cities with their civic districts formed as single, unified compositions that articulate to the onlooking eye if nothing else the “advancement” of Philippine civilization under American guidance.

Fusing architecture, roadways lined with trees – “parkways,” urban spaces, and the natural landscape together in order to generate the finest artistic result attainable, the symbolism of the modern city as art has been downplayed within Philippine historiography and contemporary heritage discourse. In a way, for anyone interested in Baguio as a piece of art, a philosophical starting point is Ralph Doane’s paper “Architecture in the Philippines” in the Quarterly Bulletin, Bureau of Public Works.

Published in July 1918, Doane outlined why art, democracy, and leadership must work in unison if Philippine society is to advance itself. Although not directly focusing upon the environmental evolution of Manila or Baguio after 1905, Doane’s words are nonetheless pertinent to both cities’ history and heritage discussions. In the case of Baguio we must not forget that it was devised from the outset as a planned urban environmental totality, designed to be so beautiful that it would have world repute, and evidently, due to “development” it is now a place where built heritage is under threat.

So what does Doane say that is relevant to Baguio’s current heritage debate? For Doane, firstly, there is the matter of “no democracy without leadership.” Secondly, “real democracy” provides for the masses both protection of their body and elevation of their soul. Art, he notes, is critical to this process: art is a true and living expression of civilization and by the early 1900s when Baguio was planned, city planning was literally art of the highest plain. In this context, notably Doane 99 years ago fired words of warning significant to us today: “A government which fails to recognize the right of the people to enjoy the benefits of the great heritage of art; which fails to cultivate and encourage in its people the love of beauty is no true democracy.”

In other words, in Doane’s view, it is possible to have government but not governance when the municipality is not actively encouraging its citizens to have awareness of the history of their city and its environmental makeup, especially when the city was formed as art. Thus by taking Baguio’s urban form for granted, and not appreciating its environmental past and sets of qualities built physically into it, reduces the distinctiveness of the place to that of being just another Philippine city. However, of note with final reference to Ralph Doane, it also undermines the operation of democracy.

So, with this in mind, and the acknowledged importance of heritage to society’s well-being, ask yourself how democratic is Baguio. Is it? You choose the answer.

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