Photo by Ina Isis Deocampo

What Would Iloilo in the 1900s Look Like with the ‘Arellano Plan’?

By joseph batcagan

juan marco arellano
Juan Marco Arellano. Photo from

The Philippines is famous for a lot of things: food, beaches, people, basically all the things one might expect from a “Choose Philippines” advertisement. One that is less-touted, however, is our propensity for poor urban planning.

All things considered, Iloilo City might be better off compared to its much chaotic counterparts in Manila and other cities. We’ve got fully functioning bike lanes and open spaces designed by Paulo Alcazaren, so it seems like there’s no reason to be salty about anything. However, while I won’t pretend that I get the intricacies of urban planning, the fact that I still get to notice makeshift parking areas clogging major sidewalks on most city blocks is indicative of the long way we have to go when it comes to building a safe and harmonious city.

Coincidentally, some guy was also dreaming about how Iloilo City could have been improved during the Commonwealth era: Juan Marco Arellano.

To Iloilo heritage advocates and fans, Juan Arellano is a familiar name. He’s basically the architect behind many of Iloilo’s art deco-styled buildings like the Jaro Municipal Hall and the original University of the Philippines in the Visayas building. His fingerprints still exist all over the city, and it’s inarguable that we could have marketed ourselves as a “heritage town” today without his work dotting the city.

old jaro municipal hall
The restored Old Jaro Municipal Hall. Photo by Ina Isis Deocampo.

With a man of his talents, it should come as no surprise that he was (probably?) the first to devise a unified urban planning system for Iloilo City. It’s still a game that Ilonggo bedroom historians like to play today: what would Iloilo have looked like if the ‘Arellano plan’ was implemented?

The closest answer to that question I have gathered so far—and you can probably see this coming a mile away—is from Facebook. Because why not?

A Colonial Scholar

Arellano was among the first batch of architects the Philippines produced during the early 20th century. Sent to study in the United States during the Commonwealth era as a pensionado, he was smack-dab in the period when American architecture was beginning to dabble in what art historians now call as ‘modernism’, a style that’s known for asymmetry, cubical and cylindrical designs, and a very functional approach to design.

Mr. Alcazaren, in an essay he penned honoring Arellano’s life and work, wrote that his interest was mainly in painting and the arts. So, it should come as no surprise that he was heavily influenced by the more aesthetic offshoots of the modernism movement, on which art deco happens to be one. We should also understand that by the time Arellano’s designs were implemented, it was only a generation ago when the Philippines was handed over by Spain to the U.S., so his buildings might have been perceived as a radical departure from the Spanish Colonial architecture that everyone was used to during that point.

During his initial period of study in America, Arellano was said to have worked for George Post and Sons, a highly influential firm during the early 20th Century, and Frederick Olmsted, Jr., the son of the same Olmsted who designed the world-famous Central Park in New York City and also a noted city planner and wildlife conservationist. At this point, we begin to see the germination behind Arellano’s proposed city plans for Iloilo, as well as for Manila and other major Philippine regions during that time.

An Old Plan Resurfaces

Bernardo Arellano III, who I know mostly for being among the first generation of Ilonggo bloggers and who’s now working at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, posted a re-imagining of the Greater Manila Transit Map last Christmas. Bolstered by a huge number of frustrated Metro Manila commuters, the post got around to about 4,000 shares which, let’s be frank, is quite a lot of engagement for a Facebook post about a map.

For this purpose, however, we’re referring you to a post he made regarding the Arellano Plan (and for the record, we have asked him if he’s related to Juan Arellano. He’s not, but he says Gabby Concepcion is).

The image is the Arellano Plan superimposed on a 2015 Google Earth snapshot of Iloilo City. For readers who have trouble understanding maps or other visual indicators like me (and which is also a reason the closest piece to art criticism I could muster was this), Bernie Arellano’s post added a more concrete and textual explanation to the map.

So, with his interpretation of the map, Iloilo City might have looked like the so-called ‘Arellano Plan’ was implemented:

Public Cemeteries

Public cemeteries in the country have always been a contentious issue. We’re just completely guessing at this point, but that may explain why the public cemetery in Delgado Street wasn’t meant to be originally there; in Arellano’s plan, that would have given way to the lagoon in front of the old City Hall (now UP Visayas) that would have provided a clear view of the sea. Yes, I’m referring to the area where the Iloilo Fish Port Complex is now located. Keep this in mind the next time you crave for fresh fish at 3 in the morning.

Mandurriao’s public cemetery, on the other hand, is currently located beside the Catholic cemetery (and, appropriately enough, two other nearby memorial parks). So, it might have been appropriate to see that how the plan called for the public cemetery to cover parts of Brgy. Calajunan, the infamous dumpsite that has since been converted into a sanitary landfill over a year ago.

On a completely unrelated note, the city government plans to develop an eco-park in Calajunan. So I guess progress?

Jaro District

The current-day Jaro wet market, which sees hundreds of vendors and buyers every Thursday, was meant to occupy what is now Locsin Subdivision—specifically, on the spot where Full Gospel Church now stands.

As for Jaro market’s current location, all that space would have been for a playground. Then again, there is indeed a playground erected in modern-day Jaro Plaza, though I figure it’s spatially constrained compared to what Arellano envisioned.

Mandurriao District

Mandurriao, to those who were not around during the ‘80s or ‘90s, really seemed like a world away from what people knew as Iloilo then; it’s all just salt beds and farmlands till SM City and Smallville arrived (and consider that Iloilo’s prisonhouse in Ungka today would have been in Brgy. Navais today if the plan was followed).

So, should it come as a surprise that Arellano’s plan imagined San Rafael to become an exposition ground, on which a residential area will pop up and a grand rotunda will be erected to serve as a monument? Keep in mind that this was all drawn up during the early 20th century when globally recognized events like the St. Louis Expo were all the rage.

The funny thing is all of these were eventually realized. As soon as the Ayala Group pegged San Rafael for development back in 2013, the Atria Park District soon rose, with Avida Towers closely following suit as of the moment. So, while it may not have been the expo showcase that he might have hoped for, the area, at least, lent itself well to commercial use.

And if you have to ask, then yes, a rotunda was erected in the form of the Donato M. Pison monument, which serves as an ideal selfie/groufie spot, as long as you don’t mind running through speeding vehicles just to get to the concrete islet.

Molo District

You know how Ilonggos like to brag about Mandurriao being Iloilo’s “in” district these days? Well, that was what Molo was during the late 19th-to-early 20th century. By virtue of its celebrated status, Molo was basically telegraphed to Arellano’s plan ever since he started drawing them up.

A few of his ideas for the Molo district, like installing a big river park, came to fruition thanks to the construction of the Iloilo River Esplanade. Installing a plaza in Compania-Fundidor, on the other hand, is too obvious to be a no-brainer.

However, it’s his plan for a wide drainage canal between Iloilo River and Batiano River around Fundidor that would have made the most sense today. Imagine how much money and labor would have been saved if city planners went with it back then.

Other facets of Arellano’s plan would have also gone like this:

  • Half of modern-day University of San Agustin would have been a marketplace.
  • The Gaisano Iloilo City Center would have been a sports center.
  • The Iloilo Airport would have been in Barrio Obrero; it was instead erected in Mandurriao before the international airport was opened in Cabatuan in 2007.
  • The Jalandoni Memorial School in Lapuz would have been the Central Terminal for Panay Railways.
  • The Dungon creek in Jaro would have its own easement.

Out of all of these though, I deem this one as the biggest miss: a tree-laned circumferential boulevard connecting the plazas of La Paz, Jaro, and Mandurriao and then exiting at the proposed prison-slash-cemetery complex at Mandurriao until it would finally end at Compania, Molo. If anything, this shows that the famed architect was really committed to implementing his own version of the “City Beautiful” philosophy in Iloilo, similar to what Daniel Burnham did with Baguio City.

To the rest of us who have been used to what Iloilo City looked like since… well, forever, it would be very hard to wrap our heads around these. The tragic thing about all of this research is that we’ll never even know why Arellano laid out Iloilo City the way he did. As of this writing, I can see no published notes of his regarding the creation of the said plan made online. If not for the noise made by some heritage advocates on social media, Arellano’s name might have gone down in obscurity, too. For an architect whose buildings are still featured in many a tourist brochure promoting the Philippines, that’s a pretty ignominious way to be honored.

From the records made available of Arellano, he might have had an idea of what would happen to his legacy, too. As Mr. Alcazaren wrote in his Arellano tribute:

Arellano retired after the war. His devastated buildings (the legislature, post office and Jones Bridge) were reconstructed, but he lamented that the original designs were not followed and were poor replications of the grand edifices they once were.

So, could Iloilo City live up to what Arellano had in mind during his lifetime? As always, the future holds no definite answers expect for the ones we fashion for ourselves. In this regard, we might learn something from Arellano’s one quality that should be of importance in today’s times: that imagination is the basis for any grand plan, especially those that look to improve everyone’s lives.

Joseph Batcagan is the editor and a writer for Project Iloilo.