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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

Colonial Settlement Planning of the Andes in Space and Time

Alberto Nicolini


First, the origin and diffusion of the square grid urban design along the South American Andes began during the administration of Pedrarias Dávila in the Isthmus of Panama, with the foundations of Panamá (1519) and Natá (1522). The following stage was the long performance of Francisco Pizarro, present in the foundation of Santo Domingo (1502), San Sebastián (1509), Santa María La Antigua (1510), and, of course, accompanying Pedrarias in Panamá and Natá. The campaign through the Pacific to Peru, started in 1524, was finished by Pizarro when he was 57 years old, with the first great South American foundation with the square grid layout: the city of Lima. Viceregal capital since 1542, it served as a model for the following foundations made in its jurisdiction, not only due to its layout but also for the dimensions of its basic elements. Second, geometrical regularity, modulation, simplicity, and centrality are the evident qualities of the new kind of city invented between 1522 and 1540 in continental America, and because of that, this manifestation of Hispanic American culture is in harmonic relationship with the modern Weltanschauung, with Renaissance culture.  

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From Andalusia to the Caribbean Sea and ‘Tierra Firme’

1It is believed that the Hispanic American square grid was a progressive empirical construction that began with the two regular cities created by the end of the fifteenth century by Queen Isabel de Castilla and King Fernando de Aragon: Puerto Real in Cádiz (1483) and Santa Fe in Granada (1491). The latter, related to the final siege to Granada, was a regular city with orthogonal streets and modular islets. Nicolás de Ovando was present during the whole process; later on, he would go to the Indies and ten years after Santa Fe, he would found Santo Domingo, the arrival point of future expeditions to the Indies. Santo Domingo (1502) was the first Hispanic American regular city: a city with straight and wide streets cut obliquely at uneven intervals that determined trapezoidal blocks or islets of different dimensions ranging from 45 to 165 meters long. It is, thus, obvious that there was no intention of achieving a strict regularity (fig. 1).

2Some years later, Pedro Arias Dávila’s expedition arrived in America, a decisive event in the conquest and definitive settlement in the mainland, particularly the Isthmus of Panama. In 1513, King Fernando had given Arias Dávila, general captain and governor of the mainland, the famous instructions in which he recommended that, at the time of distributing the lots, solares, “there has to be order from the start; such that once the sites are built, the town seems orderly, and so the place left for the square, as well as that for the church, and the order of the streets.”1 The king’s instructions did not state precise geometric features but, in the context of the royal foundations carried out during the fifteenth century—Puerto Real and Santa Fe—it should be understood that the king was stating, and the governor interpreting, a layout with orthogonal streets and, probably, the square and the church in the middle. Arias Dávila’s first headquarters was Santa María la Antigua del Darién, the city founded by Fernández de Enciso in 1510, probably irregular from the start. Then, taking advantage of the discovery of the Mar del Sur by Balboa, Arias Dávila moved his headquarters to Panama, in the Pacific, and in that layout of 1519 and in that of Natá of 1522, the regularity of the urban design to be applied took shape. Of Natá de los Caballeros only the founding act is preserved, but it happens to be an essential document: from it, the order to outline an orthogonal square grid on a large scale is clear. The sites were square each side measuring fifty-seven meters, with blocks divided into four sites, streets of fourteen varas wide and the square in the middle. The riddle lies in the fact that the text reads “each row . . . four sites together and limiting with each other and the islet all surrounded by public streets” and does not tell if the islets were square or rectangular.2 As far as we know today, for the first time in history, Natá presented the absolute modular system. Had the islets been rectangular, it would have also created the square grid layout with blocks divided in four square sites. If, instead, the islets had been rectangular, they would have matched Alonso García Bravo’s basic principle of the design of blocks of 1522 for the new Mexico City of Cortés, that is, rectangular blocks divided in square sites, four in Natá, ten in Mexico.

3Now, the “geometrician” García Bravo had arrived in America with Arias Dávila’s expedition and had taken part in the foundation of Panama; we do not know when he joined Cortés’s expedition but the link between the two territories where urban creation was experienced is evident. At the same time Pedrarias ordered the layout of Natá, Cortés—Pizarro’s second cousin—commanded García Bravo to turn the ceremonial centre of Tenochtitlán into the city of Mexico. It is worth mentioning that the royal instructions Cortés had received about the urban “order” were similar to those of Arias Dávila. Shortly afterwards, in 1524, Pedro de Alvarado founded the “Spaniards’ city” of Santiago de los Caballeros in Guatemala and it is also possible that its layout had been the one that made the regular square grid with the square in the middle come true for the first time. In 1541, after its destruction by an avalanche, the city already outlined as a grid, was moved to its present site and it is known as “Antigua.”. In 1526, Charles V formally authorized the foundation of Antequera del Valle in Oaxaca, outlined in 1529 when its sites were distributed, apparently with the help of García Bravo. In 1532, Guadalajara (fig. 2) was newly founded in the site of Nochistlán and its layout ascribed to the square grid design and each block was divided into four square sites.3

4The first temporary conclusion that, for now, seems to describe the events reasonably would be that, by the late 1520s and early 1530s, the Hispanic American square grid urban design appeared almost simultaneously in three different American regions in the northern hemisphere : the mainland, Mexico, and Guatemala.4

5For the South American Andes, our hypothesis is the one stated at the beginning of this paper: Pizarro played a leading role in the transference of the new urban American “invention” to the southern hemisphere; he also deserves recognition for having applied it in the many settlements he founded in his short period as governor of Peru and for leaving the square grid design as a South American model to be followed in the plan of the “Ciudad de los Reyes”—Lima—which became capital of the viceroyalty after his death.

The Pacific Ocean of Francisco Pizarro

6For a third of the century (1502–1535), Francisco Pizarro gained experience as founder of cities; first, at 24, he accompanied Nicolás de Ovando in the foundation of Santo Domingo (1502), the first regular city of Indies; then, Alonso de Ojeda in the foundation of San Sebastián, in the Gulf of Urabá (1509), a wooden fortlet (castillete) surrounded by a palisade; later, Fernández de Enciso when he founded Santa María la Antigua del Darién (1510), a fortlet and a church in the site of an Indian town that was the headquarters in the mainland and the diocese see until 1519, when Arias Dávila moved the government headquarters of “Castilla del Oro” to Panama.5 Finally, at 41, he was with Arias Dávila precisely at the time of the foundation of Panama (1519)—in the presence of the geometrician García Bravo—with its regular orthogonal layout and of Natá (1522), the regular, modular, and probably squared grid city.After all this, he had acquired the soundest expertise in America until, at 46, he sailed the Mar del Sur on his own, his first failure, and then he embarked on a second trip, in 1527, when he made contact with pre-Columbian cities for the first time: Tumbes and Chan-chan.

7In 1528 he traveled to Spain and in 1529 he signed the agreements—“capitulaciones”—of Toledo, thus obtaining the imperial license to carry out the discovery and conquest of Peru. The result was the conquest of the Inca Empire in the South American subcontinent and, as a direct consequence of this, to define the urban model through the foundation of San Miguel de Tongarará (1532) or Piura, possibly, with the main square in the middle, from which run the rest of the streets in a square grid, the “solemn foundation” of Cuzco as a Spanish city (1534), which naturally had only legal, not urban, consequences; the “Ciudad de los Reyes” in January 1535, Lima, would be the new capital of the viceroyalty and its regular square grid—nine by thirteen blocks—represented the urban structure that became the dimensional geometric model for the South American cities founded from then on during the many centuries of Spanish domination. At that time, Pizarro was 57 years old and was to live for only six years more (fig. 3), namingTrujillo after his hometown in March 1535 (fig. 4).

8He also commanded the foundation of La Plata (Chuquisaca, Charcas) by Pedro de Anzures in 1538 (fig. 5), Ayacucho (San Juan de la Frontera, in 1539, Huamanga), Arequipa in 1540, and Santiago de Chile by Pedro de Valdivia in 1541.

The model of Lima and its application

9The model derived from the foundational plan of the city of Lima was the square grid, a squared system of straight streets at regular intervals, combined with square blocks forming four sites—solares—except for one, only one, that, void of any building, plays the role of the square. Due to its proximity to the river, the square of Lima was placed near the riverbed, in a clearly eccentric position respect to the rectangular layout of thirteen by nine blocks.6 This strict regularity had an advantage if, according to the evidence provided by the royal commandments and the foundational acts, the main objective of the regular equalitarian definition of the layout was the distribution of the urban land in sites reserved for public buildings and the private use of the residents. Finally, the speed at which the task of colonization had to be done demanded a simple, efficient, standardized, easily repetitive instrument, as in any other process of massive production in charge of not always knowledgeable executors. The square grid became the adequate answer for that.

10The square grid urban structure and the dimensions of the blocks in Lima, 450 feet long was to be transmitted, with some variants, through the meridional Andes to all these cities, through the Bolivian plateau to Tucumán and via Santiago de Chile to the region of Cuyo.

The success of the grid and its permanence

11The reasons for the success of the grid were surely many. Among them, the simplicity of the project and the fidelity in its later execution by inexperienced people, who having received the command of founding cities to the south of the viceroyalty did their job more than 3,000 kilometers away from their home, in the middle of an unknown territory. Another advantage of the grid was the adaptability of the four sites per block to admit successive fractions and inscribe in them buildings with patios, typical of the Mediterranean house, whichever the dimensions and proportions of each resulting lot.

12The proof that, by 1572, the square grid was a model firmly established in the minds of decision makers in the viceroyalty came to light during the visit of Viceroy Francisco de Toledo to Potosí, “who walked more than four hundred leagues from the Ciudad de los Reyes to this Villa and arrived there by November 1572. After having completed this errand so well, the Viceroy had a stroll all around the Villa, but, sorry for seeing such badly laid streets, tried to widen them as much as possible, and to establish the square in the centre of the Villa.”7 The viceroy also took up the task of laying the foundations of the main church and of building the Plaza del Regocijo. The visit ended in February 1573.


13Geometrical regularity, modulation, simplicity, and centrality are the evident qualities of the new kind of city invented between 1522 and 1540 in continental America, and because of that, this manifestation of Hispanic American culture is in harmonic relationship with the modern Weltanschauung, with Renaissance culture. Naturally, it is also possible to state that this urban geometry really derives from a rational process of pragmatic improvement: a regular weave of easy execution and predictable growth with a fair but hierarchical functional distribution and a design easy to lay out on the site by inexperienced founders.

14Also, it should be pointed out that it is highly significant that the square grid, centralized and on a great scale, appeared in the Mexican plateau after the encounter with the amazing Ceremonial Centre of Tenochtitlán and the layout of the new capital of New Spain (Mexico) over its main axes. The same can be said with respect to the layout of the city of Lima in 1535, a year after Pizarro knew the Huacaypata of Cuzco that measured 450 by 150 meters.

15In summary, Renaissance concepts, practical efficiency, symbolic content, and American precedence need not be mutually exclusive in the interpretative analysis, regardless of the stronger or weaker motivational weight they may have had in the historical conception of the design. Moreover, it is possible that the motivations were concurrent, as it is the case with successful urban or architectural designs which become long-lasting models.

Note de fin

1 Francisco Morales Padrón, Teoría y leyes de la conquista, Madrid, Ediciones Cultura Hispánica, 1979, p. 91.
2 Eduardo Tejeira Davis, « Pedrarias Dávila y sus fundaciones en Tierra Firme », 1513-1522, en Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, México, otoño, 1996, vol.  XVIII
3  Primer plano del asentamiento de Nochistlán en 1532, realizado por Chávez Haihoe con la información de Fray Antonio Tello Publisher in Eduardo López Moreno, La cuadrícula en el desarrollo de la ciudad hispanoamericana. Guadalajara, México, Guadalajara, Editorial Universidad de Guadalajara, 1992, p. 25 and Eduardo López Moreno, La vivienda social, una historia, Guadalajara, Editorial de la red nacional de investigación urbana, 1996, p. 51.
4 Jorge E. Hardoy, « El modelo clásico de la ciudad colonial hispanoamericana », en Verchandlungen des XXXVIII Internationalen Amerikanistenkongresses, Stuttgart, 1968, Munich, 1972, pp. 143-181.
5 María del Carmen Mena García, La ciudad en un cruce de caminos (Panamá y sus orígenes urbanos, Sevilla, Escuela de Estudios Hispanoamericanos, 1992.
6 Fernando Chueca Goitía, Leopoldo Torres Balbás and Julio Gonzáles y González, Planos de ciudades iberoamericanas y filipinas existentes en el Archivo de Indias, Madrid, 1951, Instituto de Estudios de Administración Local, lám. 304.
7 Nicolás de Martínez Arzanz y Vela, Historia de la Villa Imperial de Potos, Buenos Aires, Emecé editores, 1943, pp. 33 and 446.

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Référence papier

Alberto Nicolini, « Colonial Settlement Planning of the Andes in Space and Time », in Repenser les limites : l'architecture à travers l'espace, le temps et les disciplines, Paris, INHA (« Actes de colloques »), 2005.

Référence électronique

Alberto Nicolini, « Colonial Settlement Planning of the Andes in Space and Time », 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 25 octobre 2008, consulté le 23 mars 2017. URL :


Alberto Nicolini

Universidad Nacional de Tucuman, Argentine

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