How a President's Dream of the Perfect City Became Quezon City
Quezon City began as a whisper in the president’s ear. War loomed ahead, and with it came dark forecasts and preemptive executive action. An ally close to President Manuel L. Quezon made the shrewd pronouncement that Manila was easy booty—enemy ships could go undetected by monitors in Corregidor and sail into Manila Bay. The country’s capital would be the first to go.
Quezon’s aims for the new city were both grand and small. While he did intend to transfer all the branches of government away from Manila, Quezon’s mounting sympathies for the common Filipino (a term history books have coined into the colloquial hybrid, “the common tao”) made him envision a capital built for the needs of the working man.
Quezon had a secret covenant with hundreds and thousands of workers he had never met but believed he knew—a notion that rivaled Neruda’s love for his descamisados or Evita’s devotion to her tearful Argentinians.
Quezon created the People’s Homesite Corporation with land procured from the Tuason family. The land covered 1,572 hectares on what is now known as Diliman. The Tuasons owned tracts so vast the Diliman purchase was likened to “a drop of water taken from a bucket.” In later years, city limits would stretch into thousands of new hectares.
The “great and impatient” Quezon began building his dream city. He commissioned a master blueprint from architectural giants Harry T. Frost (then architectural adviser to the Commonwealth government), former director of Public Works A.D. Williams, and the country’s top architect Juan Arellano.
On a small scale, Quezon wanted housing for the common man in the form of basic units that were reduced versions of suburban homes. Arellano designed these homes with a “build it smaller, not differently” philosophy. All the features of the middle class home were incorporated into the design, but on a scale that considered blue-collar resources and values. This meant smaller rooms, fewer bathrooms, smaller kitchens and less woodwork.
This also meant that some parts of the house would have to be left without partitions. Corners were cut with less cabinetry and walls were shared. Arellano’s design was executed in a low-cost housing project where 439 units were built on 100 square-meter lots. Lots were raffled off to blue-collar workers who paid for them with installments of eight pesos a month. The housing project was called—without much flair or imagination—Barrio Obrero. It would later be renamed after a tree that spawned scented white flowers in the area. It was a Kamuning tree.
Plans for Quezon City were revived after the war. Roxas began where Quezon left off, but his sudden demise left the burgeoning city in the hands of Quirino. The new president worked with Arellano on a new master plan which involved creating a quadrangle bounded by four avenues—East, West, South, and North—at the heart of the city. Principal streets would extend from the quadrangle to the city limits. There would be eight rotundas for the city, 11 thoroughfares, and a 26-hectare Quezon Memorial Circle at the intersection of Quezon Boulevard, East and North Avenues.
The plan envisioned a Constitutional Hill to be located in the Northeast part of the city. The three branches of government would be housed here—the Palace of the Chief Executive, the House of Congress and the Supreme Court. A “Plaza of the Republic” would be erected in front of Congress, where a monument to Quezon would stand in the plaza center.
The Diliman Quadrangle would be Central Park’s nearest counterpart in the country. It would be an outdoor affair, home to a botanical and zoological garden, a golf course and a stadium. Outside the quadrangle, on the northeastern side would stand bulwarks City Hall, Quezon Memorial, the government’s main housing project and the Veteran’s Hospital. The Scientific Bureaus as well as the Exposition grounds would also be constructed near the Quadrangle.
The Master Plan made the provision that street names represent a historical event, patriot, or province in the Philippines.
Though the boundaries of QC have stretched and shrunk in cyclical fashion—the movements of the city having fallen into the hands of changing politicos, their allies and dissenters—the current boundaries hold Novaliches at the northernmost limits of the City, while Diliman, Commonwealth, Cubao, Kamias, the Projects, New Manila, San Francisco del Monte and Sta. Mesa lie within its Southwest parameters.
The Master Plan made the provision that street names represent a historical event, patriot, or province in the Philippines. We see this executed in the names of major thoroughfares: Katipunan Parkway, Liberation Avenue, Malaya Avenue and Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao avenues.
Homes were made in the manner of a Filipino-Malay-Spanish style of architecture. Arellano’s aesthetic married a traditional motif with modern and functional lines. Homes on the various project sites made use of the architect’s style and took the form of bungalows and asbestos roofing. Capiz windows were added to later projects, but for the most part, these modest designs were typical of homes found in projects 1, 2 and 3. The mold was modified in Project 4, a middleclass residential site that consisted of larger homes, duplex bungalows and row houses. Residents were expected to have extra cash, and had the wherewithal for pleasure. They could spend their time in any one of the four theatres that mushroomed in the area. For Tagalog movies, they flocked to the People’s Theatre. Other residents swooned over American celluloid at the Rose Theatre.
Other projects soon emerged—6, 7 (now known as Veterans Village), and 8 were low cost-housing numbers constructed on talahib grass and rice paddies. All were made for informal settlers and low-salaried government employees. Quezon’s social justice programs were finally being realized.
In 1953, Quirino authorized the sale of a large tract of land along Highway 54 (now known as EDSA) to the Phil-Am Life Insurance Company. This site was for middle-income folks who could afford a slice of America. Modeled after American residential villages, homes were three-bedroom bungalows where local Joneses met Stepfords, and homes were separated by pruned hedges of santan and rosal. Reader’s Digest went so far as to call it “the greatest thing in modern housing anywhere else in the world.”
Quezon City became an ideal residential area for both rich and poor. When war devastated Manila, evacuees from the capital moved to Quezon City. For those of small means, this meant the projects. For the well-off, it was either Sta. Mesa Heights or New Manila, which was developed by Lebanese moguls, the Hemadys.
It is interesting to note how much of the master plan was realized. Of all the constitutional bodies, only the legislative branch was established in Quezon City. The Diliman Quadrangle, Quezon City Hall and the Quezon Memorial likewise saw fruition. Quezon Memorial, today, is bordered by the elliptical road. An aerial view of Commonwealth, Visayas, North, Quezon, East and Kalayaan Avenues reveal that they radiate from the memorial like spokes from a wheel. It recalls the Arc de Triomphe, from which Parisian streets emanate in a similar fashion.
It survived a war, changing hands, and private agendas to become, for a brief spell in 1948, the nation’s capital.
If Napoleon’s tomb lies below the gilded dome of the Hôtel des Invalides, Quezon’s remains and personal effects are enshrined within Federico Ilustre’s towering marvel, the QC Memorial Circle. To the tourist, it’s a white shrine where three mourning angels sit atop three vertical towers meant to symbolize Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. To the native, it’s like shooting hoops in a court: those QC Angels can sure trump the Notre Dame Gargoyles.
Like an epilogue in a sports flick running one-liners about what happens to star quarterbacks or underdog baseball teams after their moments of short magic, one might wonder what became of Quezon City. It survived a war, changing hands, and private agendas to become, for a brief spell in 1948, the nation’s capital.
Almost ten years earlier, in 1939, Manuel Quezon took a stroll around Diliman and stopped on a high hill with friends who would figure prominently in the city’s history. Legend has it that Quezon was struck by the sweep of wild forest and high ferns, San Mateo’s peaks to the East and the endless northward stretch of fields of grass. Those men would become statesmen, mayors and educators. That hill would become Constitutional Hill. That catch in a great man’s throat would become Quezon City.
City with a Soul by Ma. Luisa T. Camagay; and "The City Upon a Hill" from Quezon City by Manuel D. Duldulao
This article was originally published in the May 2012 issue of Esquire Philippines. Minor edits have been made by Esquiremag.ph editors.