March 3, 2024

■  Hanna C. Lacsamana   

For those who are not familiar yet or probably misguided about the key figures in the original design of Baguio City, American architect Daniel Burnham is said to be not entirely the only one who should be credited for the major recognizable designs and establishments that exist in the city today.

In a lecture series organized by the Baguio Heritage Foundation (BHF) held on Nov. 25, noted professor and author Ian Morley wants to make the correction, if some misconceptions exist, that Baguio is “Burnham’s city” for designing it, since the architect actually wrote very little directly on Baguio about what his plans for the city to be.

In fact, Morley said while Burnham made the first sketch for the design of the city when he visited the Philippines and came to the upland Benguet in 1905 during the U.S. occupation of the country, the original design has very few details but was made as a reference by William E. Parsons, the first consultant architect employed to man the consulting architect’s office established on May 1906 through Act 1495.

“What I wanted you to know is the fact that Burnham actually wrote very little directly on Baguio about what his plan for the city to be. The name Burnham is totally synonymous with Baguio in the sense what is written of Baguio was that in 1905, it was Burnham’s city and it was likewise developed as Burnham’s city. Yes, to a degree that is true, but equally to a degree it is wrong, so it’s important as historians we get to the facts. Let’s really think what happened,” Morley said.

Under Act 1495, Parsons was empowered to interpret Burnham’s plans for Manila and Baguio the latter made before returning to the U.S., and in effect for the readjustment of these plans to fit the actual conditions at the time.

Before he returned to the U.S., Burnham basically created his draft plan for Manila but he didn’t finish his draft plan for Baguio.

Morley said as evidenced by letters of Burnham and Pierce Anderson in 1905 to the U.S. government published in the Report of the Philippine Commission, the proposed environmental form of the city was discussed in an “explanatory note” but in “very, very little urban form”.

However, it made mention of the city’s population size to be less than 25,000 persons and envisioned Baguio as a single close-knit urban environmental composition and sites to be provided for municipal and national governmental functions.

Burnham’s plan was to form a city with a “long main axis, expended by an open esplanade”.

He said in the letter that he was providing a “sketch plan”, it being left incomplete pending the arrival of additional surveys.

Burnham’s original outline, according to Morley based on written evidence, did not make references to a military land, a central park, Camp John Hay, but there is the grand axis, as he talked about an esplanade which is an open area where people can go and essentially walk and enjoy outside space.

“That’s what he sees the city to be. The report of Burnham is really taken by the hills, the green. He wants to develop the city in the ‘City Beautiful’ form which is what he is promoting, but he is not doing so much at the expense of nature. He wants this city to sit inside the topography, that’s very important,” Morley said.

Burnham wanted the design to be a single unit, where everything has to have unity and harmony, and within the site there would be local government and national government buildings arranged around a long axis marked by an esplanade.

”In other words Burnham is not the planner of Baguio because he wants to see the plans of the site so he is suggesting a plan but it’s very preliminary, it is incomplete design. What he does put forward is something we can see in the development of Baguio in later years which is this axis that exists in what was to be the national government buildings in the hilltop called governor’s mountain and then in the opposite side of the valley, that’s where you have the municipal building as the city core.”

Burnham’s report was sent to Manila and was received by Parsons who undertook the plan from 1906 to 1910.

Burnham’s plan was refined to include a central park and a lake in 1907, which would show the differences between the plans Burnham preliminarily outlined and that of Parsons whose plans made in 1910 is the city layout that Baguio people know and understand today as the city center layout.

“We can see Session Road, the market, and many things that are recognizable to us. We can equally see lands to be given to CJH, which we don’t see in 1906. We see features being formed. What we understand Baguio today that comes after Burnham and the process design is driven by Parsons. In other words, the central figure to the evolution of the city’s environmental organization is Parsons, not Burnham. Parsons was the one who undertook a very detailed survey of Baguio in 1906 so he can extensively develop the American Summer Capital in the Philippines,” Morley clarified.

Morley explained he does not aim to diminish the capabilities of Burnham in the sense that he is a genius as an architect and as a planner, but he said there is an “incredible overtone that Baguio is purely his city, and I want to say it’s not quite that straightforward.”

“If you look at the modern planning history of the Philippines, it was really American planning history and it really begins in two places: Manila and Baguio, and it begins with attention to Burnham. It was an overload of focus upon Burnham. It’s very hard now with regards to his impact to the Philippines to say original statements about him. But my point is what is written about Burnham is often at the expense of diminishing the importance of Parsons and his influence. He really was the person who took the city beautiful beyond imperial Manila and Baguio,” Morley said.

Burnham, on the other hand, is responsible for pointing out to the government the unique land shape of Baguio and that the planning of its design such as the road system must work to the land and with careful understanding of the site.”

Morley is an associate professor and vice chairman of the Department of History at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Among other numerous books, he also wrote, among other journal articles about the Philippines, the piece “Baguio: A Mismanaged Evolutionary Narrative of the City Beautiful to the City Problematic” in 2018 for the Asian Geographer: A Geographical Journal of Asia and the Pacific Rim.

Morley’s lecture entitled “Rethinking the Planning History of Baguio” was part of a lecture series of the BHF co-presented by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines and the Local Historical Committees Network in partnership with the University of the Philippines’ Kalipunan ng mga Mag-aaral sa Kasaysayan-UP Kamalayan and UP Baguio College of Social Sciences. – Hanna C. Lacsamana