SEAARC Symposium Abstract 18: “‘Manila Beautiful:’ Urban Hygiene and Colonial Architecture in Age of American Imperialism (1898-1942)”

by Prof. Gerard Lico, University of the Philippines, Diliman

Enlightened by rationality of the science of tropical medicine, the American colonial sanitarians in the Philippines saw themselves as benevolent hygienic reformers, bringing the gospel of cleanliness to ignorant Filipinos whose bodies they saw as reservoirs for pathogens acquired from filthy habits and customs. These suspect bodies would be the subject of biopolitical strategies of surveillance, allowing the colonial state to deeply infiltrate the intimate detail of everyday spatial practices. The creation of a colonial city necessitated not only the physical intervention of the colonial environment, but also the mobilization of sanitary surveillance of the colonial bodies via the lens of imperial medicine, so that new spatial forms and architectural models could be prescribed as spatial prophylaxis guaranteeing the survival of white men in an esoteric colonial ecology.

In the aftermath of a series of epidemic outbreak in first decade of American occupation, a sweeping colonial urban reengineering was implemented by the colonial authorities conscripting the expertise of imperial physicians, sanitarians, planners, engineers, and architects who prescribed disciplinary strategies to “cure” the unhealthy colonial environment by excising its dangerous and disorderly elements and reforming the unwholesome native spatial practices. Epidemics justified the medicalization of space and Foucault further suggested that “plague gave rise to disciplinary diagrams.” These disciplinary diagrams require a rigorous spatial partitioning, careful surveillance, detailed inspection and order. Creating geometry of spatial regulation, American colonial urbanism played a pivotal role in the development of colonial discipline by creating new technologies of pacification achieved through the modulation of social behavior by means of spatial and built forms. One of the primary objects of discipline in the context of urbanism was to fix the population into planned settlements. This was accompanied by a hierarchized, continuous, and functional surveillance that was epitomized by the ideal model of geometric architecture – the panopticon – and spatial form of normalizing power. The Panopticon paradigm in which built form is overtly linked to the inculcation of regulatory social norms and achievement of social reform is a colonial urban strategy aimed at creating obedient colonial subjects through knowledge of surveillance.

The logic of the new colonial order administered by the American authorities demanded vast urban cleansing, the creation of new modern space, a sterile, rational space, over and against the bleak and filthy spaces of the unenlightened past. The urbanistic maneuvers undertaken by the American regime consisted primarily of demolition and disinfection of existing sites of pathology as evinced by the historic burning of an entire community of nipa houses at Farola district at the height of the cholera epidemic of 1902, followed by the imposition of a city of ceremonial straight avenues and right angles codified through the City Beautiful master plan of Burnham for the city of Manila in 1905, and finally creation of Sanitary Barrios where the new domestic prototype hybridized from nipa house known as the “Sanitary Model House” were to be mass-produced – phases of urban strategies which asserted the authority of scientific logic and of the colonial state over the diseased and disorderly body of the city, re-ordering its disruptive flows in productive, efficient directions. Such urban geometry, as it enacts the politics of public hygiene and health, was to set the stage the colonial control of pathological social behaviors and contagions.

The cleared sites of pathology provided an empty anachronistic space where ceremonial straight avenues, right angles, and functional zoning prescribed by the City Beautiful master plan of Daniel H. Burnham were to be laid and made available for imperial place-making. Burnham recommended detailed urban procedures. It had a central civic core; radials emanating from this core were laid over a gridiron pattern and large parks interconnected by parkways. The centerpiece of the Burnham Plan was the civic core where a grand concourse emanated from the bay and terminated in arc further inland. Here Burnham envisioned a national capitol complex where colonnaded buildings were formally arranged around a rectangular plaza. Radiating from this civic core was a series of tree-lined boulevards superimposed on an efficient gridiron street system. Neoclassical monumental structures, the embodiment of the American republican ideals, slowly rose in the “Manila Beautiful” landscape, promoting the imperial image, colonial commerce and native discipline. And it was through this style that the processes of democratic apprenticeship were made more tangible in modern reinforced concrete buildings. For almost half-a-century, the implementation of colonial urban design and production of architecture created a metropolitan imagery of Manila Beautiful that bears witness to America’s sanitary zeal, reformist building program, colonial tutelage, and technological progress.


Gerard Lico is an architect, architectural critic and art historian. He teaches at the College of Architecture. He is the multi-awarded author of publications on Philipine architecture and cultural studies, designer and curator of pioneering exhibitions in architecture, and produced and directed a series of documentaries on Philippine built environments. Apart from his academic and professional practice, he served as the Executive Director of the Center for Filipino Architecture of the United Architects of the Philippines, as Head of the National Committee on Architecture and Allied of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts from 2007 to 2013, and as the University Architect of the University of the Philippines from 2008 to 2014.

This entry was posted in SEAARC symposium '15 and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *