The City: Latin America

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The City: Latin America

The history of the city in Latin America stretches over three thousand years and a vast geographic area. The cities vary considerably over space and time. Prior to the coming of the Spaniards, many pre-Columbian cities are thought to have been cosmograms or cosmologically conceivedthe cities' buildings and plans emulated the cosmos as their leaders conceived of it. After the conquest, the Spanish Crown sought to impose order on the new lands in its possession and based planning on a grid that had a centrally located church fronting on a plaza. The checkerboard grid plan persisted throughout the colonial period. After independence from Spain, Latin-American countries sought out new forms of city planning in Europe, especially France, that would make visible their status as newly formed republics.

Ancient Indigenous America: Mesoamerican
and Andean Civilization

Ancient indigenous cities in the Western Hemisphere were prominent, complex centers of economic, cultural, political, and religious power and authority. As administrative centers, cities functioned variously as city-states, centers of regional states, and centers of empire. Political life and religious life were intertwined and overseen by divine and semidivine rulers or the ruling elite. At the heart of most cities were palaces, monumental civic-religious structures, and the ceremonial plazas where public rituals took place. Cities were also frequently cosmopolitan, with enclaves of resident foreigners who are identified as such by cultural practices and material goods consistent with their culture of origin.

The city as cosmogram.

City plans are many and varied; in some regions, such as the central Mexican urban center at Teotihuacan, planners imposed a consistent grid plan on every structure, from central temples and palaces to small outlying barrios. In contrast, the Chimu capital of Chan Chan in Peru was comprised of large walled palatial compounds that loosely shared the same orientation. Elsewhere, notably in the clusters of buildings and temples organized around plazas among the Maya and the capital city of Cuzco (Peru), site plans are irregular in shape, their form dictated by the local topography and inherent processes of agglutination, yet still organized according to an internal logic, albeit a more organic one. The organizing plan of Cuzco has been the subject of lively debate, with some scholars suggesting that it represents a puma, while others note its grid plan tempered by topographic irregularities. Of particular interest are the forty-two sacred ceque (pathways) radiating from a central node outward, linking the sacred city to all corners of the Inka empire.

Regardless of these differences, common shared features among these pre-Columbian centers include the cosmological alignment of major buildings and of the city itself with the passage of the Sun, the movement of significant planets and stars, and the cardinal directions; the alignment of buildings with significant features of the surrounding topography such as sacred places, caves, and mountains; built statements of politico-religious power and authority such as large pyramids and walled precincts; as well as the pragmatic concerns of dense, urban life (workshops, urban housing of workers, water, food, and disposal of waste, for example). The indigenous city harmonized with its environment even as it shaped that environment and gave focus and significance to elements of the environment that were held to be important. Natural features of the landscape, such as the rivers at Teotihuacan and Cuzco, were even made to conform to the planning principles employed. As symbolic texts, indigenous cities gave visible form to collective belief and shared identity. Through the powerful intersection of cosmological time and space, the city functioned as both axis mundi and cosmogram.

Colonial Spanish America

From its inception, Spanish urban planning in the Western hemisphere was based on the grid plan, with its characteristic large central plaza dominated by a church. The earliest royal instructions (1513) and government decrees indicated that a geometric grid was to be used, but not until 1573 did King Philip II's ordinances explicitly direct that the grid be used in city planning, thereby codifying practices long in effect. Scholars have cited gridded prototypes ranging from indigenous city planning; the Roman castrum; the French bastide; the ideal city of the Renaissance architectural theorist, Leon Battista Alberti; Santa Fe (1491), the military encampment of Ferdinand and Isabella at the siege of Granada; and the apocalyptic New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation. It is probable that some or all of these multiple indigenous and European urban sources were precursors to the colonial Spanish-American urban grid and converged to serve complementary economic, social, political, and religious goals.

The ordered city.

In Mexico, the typical grid plan came into being in urban developments in the 1520s and 1530s as new towns were built and the destroyed Aztec capital Tenochtitlan, an indigenous gridded city, was rebuilt as the administrative capital of New Spain. These geometrically ordered, regularized towns met the needs of the army, church, and state bureaucracy as they provided a framework for administrative efficiency, political control, and Christian indoctrination. The urban landscape was radically altered as the multiple cultural expressions of preconquest cities were supplanted by the uniformity of the grid extended across space and time in what had become Spanish America. The grid physically and symbolically established and confirmed the desired social order and clearly marked both the land and its people as being under the well-ordered, administrative, and Christian control of the Spanish.

Republican and Contemporary Latin America

Latin-American countries, with the exception of Cuba and Puerto Rico, won their political independence from Spain and Portugal between 1808 and 1826. As newly independent countries, they sought to express national identity, progress, and modernity and take their place among the metropolises of the Western world. To do so and to refashion its capital cities, Latin America looked to Paris, which was itself undergoing modern transformation under the direction of Georges-Eugène Haussmann. France's economic connections to Latin America and its position as a champion of independence and republicanism and a center of the arts and urbanity made it a natural model for the new Latin-American republics. Large public parks and grand, tree-lined, diagonal boulevards (such as the Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City) followed the Haussmann model and reshaped Latin-American cities, freeing them from the colonial grid.

From metropolis to megalopolis.

In the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, many urban populations grew exponentially as foreign investments and overseas immigrants poured into Latin America. Capitals were enlarged to accommodate their growing populations, and the ideas of the early-twentieth-century Swiss architect and planner, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, and his followers in the Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne (CIAM) became influential. Le Corbusier's ideas focused on high-rise buildings to increase living density and relieve overcrowding, new highways to relieve traffic congestion, and urban space zoned according to function; in short, an attempt to bring order and efficiency to cities that had grown rapidly. Although Brasília, the new, disembedded capital city of Brazil planned by Lúcio Costa and inaugurated in 1960, incorporated some of Le Corbusier's ideas, his urban plans and those of his followers were rarely implemented. Le Corbusier's legacy is more clearly to be seen in high-rise buildings of cement, glass, and steel and in the peripheral highways encircling many of Latin America's major cities.

See also City, The: The City as Cultural Center ; City, The: The City as Political Center .


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Ellen T. Baird

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The City: Latin America

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