The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1580] New Trains, Station in Ruins


In 1904, William Howard Taft, then the US Secretary of War, persuaded Daniel Hudson Burnham to prepare a master plan for the City of Manila. He sailed for the Philippines in October that year, accompanied by his wife, his youngest daughter, Margaret, and one of his designers, Pierce Anderson.

The Manila Plan was inspired by his vision of making Manila what the Spaniards used to call it – “The Pearl of the Orient.” To this end, he recommended the location of parks and play fields in every quarter of the city, the placement of fountains across the city to mitigate the trying effects of the tropical climate, the utilization of the Pasig River and the city’s expansive network of canals as nautical thoroughfares, and the grouping of new government buildings in a large civic center south of the old city, Intramuros, from which diagonal avenues radiated to the outlying areas of the capital.

Despite the generally “imperial” manner of most City Beautiful planning, Burnham’s Plan of Manila was remarkable for its simplicity and its cognizance of local conditions and traditions. He recognized the peculiar character of Manila’s architecture. He was pleased with the designs of the existing buildings, their inherent beauty and practicality, and suggested their use as examples for future structures.

Upon the submission of his report to Secretary Taft, Burnham ended his official connections with the project, but assumed almost full responsibility for selecting an architect who shall execute his plans. He started interviewing prospective architects as soon as he returned from the Philippines. In his letter to William Cameron Forbes, the Philippine Commissioner in charge of public works and physical improvements, he said that while there were many who entertained the idea, he had not yet found the man for the job; adding that it was the old question of patriotic duty as against financial interests. Finally, however, Burnham found what he had been looking for in William E. Parsons.

Parsons arrived in Manila in November 1905, and began to work on the details of Burnham’s Plan. Slight modifications were made to the original plans to adhere to the topography of the site and other considerations, such as existent buildings, socio-economic and political issues. Throughout his eight-year tenure, Parsons learned from local architecture and designed buildings of warmth, efficiency and simplicity. Despite this adherence to Spanish-Philippine architecture, Parsons still designed in the neoclassical style, either purely or juxtaposed with vernacular architecture.

In his final year, Parsons designed an integral part of the Burnham Plan – the Paco Railroad Station. Situated in striking distance to the new civic center, it was planned to serve as the gateway to the national capital, as the Union Station is to Washington, D.C. In his Report on Proposed Improvements at Manila, Burnham explicitly stated that the station will be located between Paco and Pandacan and will be approached through one of the diagonal avenues radiating from the government center. As one of the two vestibules of the city, the other being the sea port, built at a time before air travel, its importance in the fabric of the city cannot be overestimated.

As with most government buildings, Parsons used the neoclassical style of architecture, the prevalent style in the American civic buildings of that era. The creation of a pseudo-American environment was a fulfillment of the imperial objectives. The Americans wanted to differ their era from that of the Spaniards, having been tainted with corruption, cronyism, and human rights violations. It must be noted that the Spaniards came to the islands for three reasons: the conversion of its inhabitants into the Catholic faith, the amassment of wealth through the monopolization of the spice trade, and to emphasize the dominance of the Spanish Empire in the affairs of the then-known world. The Pacific adventure of the Americans was not much different. Their objectives can be summarized into two words: Democracy and Defense. They wanted to bring to the Philippines the concepts of democracy and republican government, ideas pioneered by the great civilizations of the Greeks and the Romans. They, too, had to raise the much-needed support for the United States’ new role as a world power. It was hoped that these buildings will serve as testaments to the efficient services of America in the Philippines, and that it will translate into the Philippine defense of the United States in the form of words or military power.

In plan, the site of the Paco Railroad Station was similar to the Union Station in Washington, D.C. Both were situated a few blocks away from the National Capitol and were fronted by a semi-circular plaza from which diagonal avenues ran to the different sections of the city. This scheme emphasized its significance to the city, while keeping its inferiority to the national government center. However, Parsons, a New Yorker, was inspired by the grandiosity and elegance of the Penn Station in New York, and it is from this building that he draws the inspiration for his design of the Paco Railroad Station. The resemblance of the two is obvious. The building, fronted by Plaza Dilao, had wide porticoes on either side of its main portal that served as auxiliary loading and unloading areas. The main entrance was preceded by a grand foyer bordered by four pairs Doric columns. Four stone eagles stood on either side of a round clock on the top of the cornice. The use of the Doric order, aside from being simple, can be attributed to symbolize the strength and stability of the railroad system, while the eagles, known to be agile creatures, embody the alacrity and punctuality of the trains. The station, although touted to be the gateway to the capital, is of much smaller scale than its counterparts around the world. This may have been done in accordance to Burnham’s recommendations. In Thomas Hines’ “Burnham of Chicago,” it was noted that while the siting and layout of public buildings would be formal, the actual architectural recommendations called for treatments less severe and monumental than had seemed appropriate in Europe and America.

In the context of American imperialism, however, these architectural features may mean otherwise. The use of eagles as sculptural elements in the central mass of the station building can be ascribed to the same creature in the Great Seal of the United States. While at this point of the American occupation the future of the Pacific colony was yet to be charted, the inclusion of a significant emblematic symbol associated with the United States of America may serve as a reminder of its period of rule in the archipelagic nation and its continued dominance over its foreign affairs. The use of Doric columns, the simplest of the three orders of Ancient Greek or classical architecture, can be attributed to the Philippines inferiority to its colonizers. Nevertheless, the Paco Railroad Station became a true gem in the cityscape of the City of Manila.

It had been a witness to the events of the city, from state visits to World War II battles. In the Battle of Manila in February 1945, the Paco Station was key stronghold of the Japanese forces. They had machine gun posts all around the station, and foxholes with riflemen surrounded each machine gun post. Inside at each corner were sandbag forts with 20mm guns. One large concrete pillbox in the building housed a 37mm gun. About 300 Japanese troops held the station. But this did not stop two American soldiers from advancing to the station. After killing more than 80 Japanese soldiers, one of the two soldiers, the other having been fatally wounded, lead his infantry regiment to the takeover of the Paco Railroad Station. As a result of their heroic actions, the two soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their determination to destroy the enemy and courage in the face of tremendous odds.

Its importance in the history of the city and the nation cannot be neglected. But with the decline of rail transportation in the Philippines, the Paco Railroad Station was abandoned and, later, sold to a company for redevelopment as a shopping center. Instead of conserving the structure for its historical significance and engage in redesigning for adaptive re-use, the developers chose to demolish the building. However, over the course of the demolition, the developer went bankrupt and work on site was put to a complete stop, leaving the station's façade almost unscathed.

To this day, more than a decade later, no effort had been made by the government for the restoration of this structure. What remains of it stands as a symbol of the government’s utter disregard for national heritage.

The rebuilding of the grand edifice that stood as the gateway to the national capital is not a farfetched idea. Once restored, it can function as the major train station of Manila. As new trains run on the tracks of Manila's revived railway system, the national capital deserves a grand point of entry. The building must be restored to its original single story design. The west wing shall serve the administrative functions of the operators. The east wing, on the other hand, can function as the main waiting area and hold souvenir shops and, possibly, a cafe. This layout is just proper because the platform had been moved eastward over the years.

Should this plan not prosper, the station building can be converted into a railway museum, showcasing the rich history of railway transportation in the country. I even think that the station's halls are not enough even just for the history of the station itself. In this scenario, the west wing can hold a changing gallery, the administrative offices, service facilities and a gift shop. The opposite wing can serve as a permanent gallery where photographs and artifacts related to the nation's industrial heritage can be showcased.

There are endless ways by which we can restore the station's grandeur. But it is imperative that any action taken must adhere to strict conservation and restoration principles. The restoration architects and engineers must have a clear understanding of the period's architecture--from styles to construction methods. A strong grasp of Parson's design philosophy and considerations is a must for the designers as well. In this way, the undertaking will not be in vain, and shall be a guiding example to the eventual restoration of all 19th- and 20th-century railroad stations in the country.

The restoration of the Paco Railroad Station will not only signify the resurgence of trains as an effective mode of transportation to the provinces, but will also be an important milestone in the effort to preserve Manila's architectural heritage, and a key to the fulfillment of the dream of the city's planners, that Manila will be a unified city equal to the greatest of the Western world, with the unparalleled and priceless addition of a tropical setting.

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