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Structures territoriales des colonies d'Amérique latine : nouvelles perspectives historiographiques en architecture et urbanisme – Spatial structures in colonial Latin America: new perspectives in architectural and urban historiography


Catherine R. Ettinger McEnulty


This article questions the traditional historiography on town planning in sixteenth-century New Spain (Mexico) with reference to the notion that towns founded in New Spain were the concretion of Renaissance models. With reference to specific cases it deals with the reuse of existing settlements, the reorganization of population on a territorial scale, and the use of the grid plan arguing the relevance of understanding local precedents in order to comprehend the new urban expressions as hybrid forms. Reference is made to scale and use in defending the indigenous contributions to the making of towns in New Spain. In closing it is suggested that research be done on flows from America to Europe with reference to the appearance of large public squares in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Entrées d’index

Index chronologique :

XVIe siècle, époque moderne

Texte intégral

1Latin America, throughout the colonial period, was stage to continuous cultural encounters which left a spatial legacy. On a territorial scale, as well as on the urban and architectural, the cultural negotiations involved in this confrontation resulted in the creation of new forms, in relation to the specific characteristics of the groups involved in the process as well as physical characteristics of the specific sites.

2The case of sixteenth-century New Spain, today Mexico, is probably the most amply documented example, particularly in relation to religious architecture. The gestation of architectural forms such as the atrio, the open-air chapels, and capillas posas that allowed for a certain degree of permanence in indigenous ceremonial uses have been of great interest to architectural historians as examples of the sensitivity of the missionaries to the role space plays in culture and in effectuating cultural change. However, the use of space as to impose a new order on the American landscape transcended the sixteenth century and the cultural encounters involved implicated many distinct cultural groups.

3The penetration of new territories on the part of colonizers and the enterprise of restructuring territory and settlements as part of the process of Christianization and Europeanization of native groups extended throughout the colonial period in most regions and faced heterogeneous conditions. In the reorganization of settlements and the establishment of missions, space was identified as key to the implementation of cultural change, to the Europeanization of the indigenous people and their conversion into good subjects of the king. A point in case are the missions founded in distinct regions that developed culturally specific architectural forms in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in accordance with specific needs and cultural values. This complex panorama of cultural exchange and the gestation of new spatialities provide an opportunity for examining space in relation to cultural change, as well as for questioning traditional architectural and urban historiography on the topic.

4The process of profound transformation of spatial structures in colonial Latin America has traditionally been viewed from a European perspective wherein Latin America was a tabula rasa, on which Spanish and Portuguese colonizers were free to impose new urban and architectural forms. This view of the genesis of local architectural and urban expressions not only negates the contributions of local indigenous peoples but also suggests a regional homogeneity that simply did not exist. The rich variety in landscapes, cultures, and ethnic groups and the active participation of these in the genesis of new forms present a multifaceted perspective for study.

5A review of architectural and urban historiography of Latin America reveals the lack of local perspectives and the scant participation of architects and designers in its construction. Most of the literature on the topic dates from the beginning of the twentieth century, much of it the work of American or European academics. Colonial architecture has been compared to its European contemporaries applying categories and periodizations derived from the study of contemporary European movements; in this context colonial architecture is envisioned as an imitation, or often, an inferior version of its European parent. Colonial urban form has been attributed almost exclusively to European models that would have been imposed on the tabula rasa.

6The papers presented in this session question traditional historiography on the topic of urban design in Latin America from local perspectives and the disciplinary approach of architecture. The participants, representatives of four different areas in Latin America (Mexico, the Andes, Portuguese America, and Río de la Plata in present-day Argentina) present specific examples of original research in these culturally distinct regions to confront traditional paradigms in the history of architecture and urban studies. Aspects addressed in the papers include notions of the relation of center to periphery, notions of the relationship between the architecture of colonizer and colonized and the contributions of local or native cultures in the gestation of new architectural and urban forms. They look beyond the objectual, into the processes behind the gestation of architectural and urban form.

7The variety of topics highlights the diversity of experiences in colonial Latin America, with reference to the strategies for the reorganization and creation of settlements and the designs implemented. The development of the individual topics share basic premises. The work of the group has focused on the built environment at three different scales: territory, settlement, and architecture, and the study of built form is undertaken from the perspective of social processes. As the colonial enterprise introduced models foreign to native experience that were transformed in different cultural contexts, hybrid spatial morphologies appeared.

8In order to frame the work presented in the following articles, mostly devoted to the design of settlements, it is useful to briefly review the vast body of literature on the subject of town planning in America, most of which focuses on understanding Medieval and Renaissance influence in the establishment and design of American settlements. Among the authorities on the subject are: Fernando Chueca Goitia,1 Leonardo Benevolo,2 George Kubler,3 Erwin Walter Palm,4 Jorge Hardoy,5 Francisco de Solano,6 and Guillermo Tovar de Teresa.7

9Most of the texts reviewed analyze town planning as if it were only the product of European experience. To cite a few examples, Chueca Goitia considers the layout of cities in America the result of the interplay of humanistic ideas and the tradition of military cities adopted in the Middle Ages in all of Western Europe for the establishment of new settlements.8 Benevolo, in the chapter he devotes to colonial cities, asserts that the design of towns in New Spain is the result of a model imposed on the region by the Spanish authorities from the beginning of the colonial period and codified in the Laws of the Indies by Felipe II in 1573. He suggests that these rules derive from the medieval tradition, the French bastides as well as from Renaissance culture.9 In the chapter on urbanism Kubler notes that plazas, as they appear in town planning in New Spain, are anti-medieval and that they rarely have clear European precedents. Yet his explanation of their origin, in spite of the monumental plazas characteristic of Mesoamerican space, points again to Europe and Italian architectural theory of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.10

10Lewis Mumford’s seminal book The City in History devotes only two paragraphs to the topic of colonial cities in Latin America. He attributes the origin of their form to the French bastide, but when faced with the problem of explaining the preexisting Mesoamerican urban tradition, following the notion of ex oriente lux, he finds it difficult to admit to the spontaneous appearance of the city as an institution in Mesoamerica but rather suggests that once the city existed, as container and structure in other parts of the world, it could propagate to areas less favorable for its development. The city “might (as an image) travel far, and detached fragments of its culture, transmitted mainly by living people, might take root in soil too arid to have brought to maturity the first urban mutants. . . . Once established, the physical structures, even the general pattern of the city, might be copied by groups that resisted this or that feature of its institutional structure.”11

11One of the most outstanding characteristics of colonial cities in Latin America in general, related to Prehispanic precedents, is the scale of open spaces, streets, and plazas. Benevolo judges this ample scale as “useless stating”: “In America, the design of streets and plazas is often uselessly grandiose, while the buildings are low and modest, generally one storey; but at the same time a modest design, for example in Buenos Aires, can become disproportionate to the future size of the city.”12 In the same publication Benevolo goes a step further, considering colonial cities in America “European cities, transplanted at great distances, just as their founders desired.”13

12Many problems arise when we confront this interpretation of the history of town planning in America with the local perspective, most notably the lack of reference to the Prehispanic architectural and urban tradition. We note at the outset of this discussion the distinction between a model, as an idea with very few concrete examples in Europe, and its implementation in a different setting. In this case, the model, derived from Renaissance ideals, contrasts with the tangible realization in America, yet the historiographic tradition described does not recognize these differences or offer explanations for them. From the idea or model, distinct regional expressions appear, that are also ignored in much of the literature which tends to treat Latin America as a homogeneous unit.

13Carlos Chanfón Olmos has suggested, with regard to the study of urban historiography in America, that “It is necessary to liberate oneself from prejudices and forget preconceived ideas in order to analyze the urban phenomena in different regions in the New World and from this analysis derive, independently, definitions and characteristics of our own that are specific to this cultural universe, without searching for models or imposing on them limitations from outside of their own context.”14

14In the context of the work of Carlos Chanfón, which is presented in greater detail in the article by Guadalupe Salazar, there is a growing body of literature that refutes the Eurocentric vision of the origin of town planning in New Spain and addresses aspects central to understanding the genesis of a city form radically different from that of medieval European cities.15

15The work done by the participants in this session points to the need to review the urban historiography of colonial Spanish and Portuguese America. Among the ideas shared by the authors of the following papers we would like to emphasize the need to understand the experience in America within the framework of a territory occupied by culturally diverse groups, each of which had its own spatial tradition, manifest in built space or in the ways in which it occupied the territory. The vision of America as a tabula rasa impoverishes the understanding of new ways of organizing and using space that were proposed during the colonial period on different scales, that is, the organization of the territory, of settlements and of architectural space. As Marina Waisman has recognized, it is important to go beyond the image of Latin America as a homogeneous unit, since in fact, cultural and geographic diversity is the rule.16 Generalizing about the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, particularly with reference to town planning, is not only difficult, but also risky. The examples presented illustrate a variety of responses to diverse situations in which a number of actors interact (the clergy, the crown, and the indigenous population). Many classifications of settlements in the Americas have been based on geographical characteristics of the sites, yet the complexity of these distinct responses can only be understood in terms of the actors in relation to the geography. In that sense, agency is also to be considered. In city planning, as well as in architecture, the forms were not imposed, but rather the result of the participation of local actors in what were often empirical processes.

16Much has been written about the Incan and Aztec civilizations and their monumental architecture yet this is only a part of the picture. The territory colonized by Spain and Portugal presents great diversity in terms of the human groups that occupied it previous to the arrival of the Europeans yet little research has been done on the spatial conceptions of the many nomadic or semi-nomadic groups and the way in which these marked the territory to be colonized. In these terms, interest goes beyond what was traditionally considered architecture, to encompass space on distinct scales as well as going beyond the objectual to take into account the processes that generate space.

17One of the most interesting ideas that largely remains to be explored are the effects of the experience in Spanish and Portuguese America on urban design in Europe in the centuries that followed. Although the flow of information and influences from Europe to the Americas is widely accepted and amply documented, flows in the opposite direction have been ignored or refuted.17 An interesting question posed is whether the emergence of the large, ordered public spaces in Baroque Europe be the result of the experience of a new urban scale in the Americas.

Note de fin

1 Fernando Chueca Goitia, Breve historia del urbanismo, Madrid, Alianza Editorial, 1970.
2 Leonardo Benevolo, Diseño de la ciudad, Barcelona, Gustavo Gili, 1977.
3 George Kubler, Arquitectura Mexicana del siglo XVI, Mexico City, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1983
4 Erwin Walter Palm, Los orígenes del urbanismo imperial en América, Mexico City, Instituto Panamericano de Geografía e Historia, 1951.
5 See for example Jorge Hardoy, Las formas urbanas europeas durante los siglos XV al XVII y su aplicación en América Latina, Lima, Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 1972.
6 Francisco de Solano,  ed., Estudios sobre la ciudad iberoamericana, Madrid, Instituto Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, 1975.
7 See for example Guillermo Tovar de Teresa, Miguel León Portilla, and Silvia Zavala, La Utopía Mexicana del Siglo XVI; lo bello, lo verdadero y lo bueno, Mexico City, Grupo Azabache, 1993.
8 Fernando Chueca Goitia, pp. 128–129.
9 Leonardo Benevolo, pp. 112–113. Translation is ours.
10 George Kubler, p. 104.
11 Lewis Mumford, The City in History, New York, Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1977, p. 93.
12 Leonardo Benevolo, La Ciudad Europea, Barcelona, Crítica, 1993, p. 108.
13 Ibid., p. 127.
14 Carlos Chanfón Olmos, ed., Historia de la Arquitectura..., p. 181.
15 One of the most important works published with a new perspective on architecture and town planning in the sixteenth century in New Spain is Carlos Chanfón Olmos, Historia de la Arquitectura y Urbanismo en México, Volumen II, Tomo I, Mexico City, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1997.
16 Marina Waisman, El Interior de la Historia, historiografía arquitectónica para uso de latinoamericanos, Bogota, Escala, 1990, p. 136.
17 Recent research that supports the idea that the American experience influenced the design of Madrid’s Plaza Mayor was considered “exaggerated” by Fernando Marías in his review of Jesús Escobar, The Plaza Mayor and the Shaping of Baroque Madrid, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003. See Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Volume 85, Number 1 (March 2006), pp. 134–135.

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Catherine R. Ettinger McEnulty, « Introduction », in Repenser les limites : l'architecture à travers l'espace, le temps et les disciplines, Paris, INHA (« Actes de colloques »), 2005.

Référence électronique

Catherine R. Ettinger McEnulty, « Introduction », in Repenser les limites : l'architecture à travers l'espace, le temps et les disciplines, Paris, INHA (« Actes de colloques »), 2005, [En ligne], mis en ligne le 24 octobre 2008, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL :


Catherine R. Ettinger McEnulty

Universidad Michoacana de San Nicolas de Hidalgo, Mexique

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