The City and the Spanish Colonial Project

Claudio Nieto Rojas:

Parting from the similarities among historic centres of most Latin American cities, the following enquiry: Is there an organising logic behind the Spanish colonial city that goes beyond the premises for designing its core? And if so, what are the parameters of this organisational structure?

The City of Mexico in I524. Reproduced by permission from facsimile published in I939 by the William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan.

The checkerboard layout originated from a central square surrounded by institutional buildings is an urban scheme that has existed in thousands of towns and cities throughout Latin America since the beginning of the colonial period. The proliferation of this pattern over such a vast territory is remarkable and points out how important the urban unit was to the Spanish Empire’s colonial project. The city became the instrument for hegemony by excellence: it organised new social structures, thickened trade networks and increased the reach of both conquering campaigns and evangelising missions. As a result, the city became a highly idealised object and inspired many religious, utopian and socio- cultural treatises, ideas that would be reflected in its fabric and envisioning as the epicentre of civilised life in the colonies. The systematisation of town building practices was one of the main causes that allowed Spain to spread its influence over almost all the American continent, shaping the lives of millions for centuries.

Relacion Geogra ca [Geographical relation of Atitlan] de Cholula, Tlaxcala, Mexico, manuscript, ink on paper, 1581. (left) [Unknown artist] Panama, Plaza Mayor, during a Celebration [Bulls, Comedies and Masks], the Month of February 1748. Archivo General de Indias, Sevilla, Inv. A.G.I. Panama,299. (right)

It is no coincidence that the main cities of the Spanish viceroyalties were established in the seats of former pre-Columbian empires. Tenochtitlan—centre of the Aztec Empire—became Mexico City, capital of the Viceroyalty of New Spain; while Lima—capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru—was built in the heart of what once was the Incan Empire. Both civilisations were ideal for Spanish conquest in many ways: they had a similar administrative structure, a similar link between secular and religious powers, already conquered territories and a socially stratified labour force. All of these conditions made relatively easy for the Spanish Crown to step into the void left by those empires and send their own officials to run the place. In this sense, the Spanish conquest of the Americas was very strategic and relied more on the retrieval of pre-Columbian sociocultural structures than on military superiority. For instance, the Spanish adopted the mita, a labour system implemented by the Incas in which peasants under their control had to do unpaid work for the government during a specified period of time each year. This type of labour schemes made practically unnecessary for the Spanish to purchase African slaves to work in the colonies, it was far more efficient to exploit indigenous workforce.

Mexico City—Services and Infrastructure Plan.

Mexico City—Fundamental Types Urban Plan.

Main town planning premises contained in the Royal Ordinances. Ordinances 112, 113, 114, 115, 117, 118, 119, 120, 121 & 122 refer to the physic characteristics of the urban fabric. Ordinance 137 addresses the imposing character that each city had to seek as its main goal.


Mexico City—Religious Institutions Architectural Plate.

All these precedents set the perfect conditions for the implementation, without any major opposition, of a mercantilist economy in Spanish America. This type of model is organised with the aim of providing the highest revenue for the state, focusing on the exploitation of precious metals and short term profits. The state is entitled to x and impose all sort of trade regulations, favouring the accumulation of wealth by very few elites and the rigid hierarchisation of social groups.1 The similarities between the Spanish mercantilist model and the pre-Columbian economy made the inclusion of natives in the new social structure a critical task in the agenda of the colonial project. The creation of social structures is achieved, to a great extent, through the relations between inhabitants and institutions. Particularly, a mercantilist model tends to install a large amount of institutions in pursuance of preserving existing economic structures and building a new social order.2

Broadly speaking, two institutions exercised control over the colonies. The Spanish Crown oversaw the activities concerning sovereignty and economy: governance, impartation of justice, regulation of trade, collection of taxes, provision of services— solely to Spanish citizens—and so on. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, was in charge of social and cultural activities: imposition of catholic faith, gathering and integration of natives into urban areas, education, healthcare and intellectual production among many others. Accordingly, the crown was directly associated with the small ruling elite and the church with the masses. However, this does not mean that the described relationships were of an exclusive character, royal institutions exercised power over the entire population whereas religious institutions influenced every day’s life of each social circle. The expressed associations refer to the most direct contact held between each type of institution and a social group, being a logic motive for the vast proliferation of churches over any other type of institutional building.

Hispanic America led the world into cultural blending, a new distinct culture emerged from the mixture of Spanish and native American legacies. The city was not exempt from this cross-breading and became one of the most relevant productions of the colonial society. Its profoundly identifiable configuration is a major asset of colonial inheritance and even today represents the essential condition of what being Latin American means in space.3 The colonial city is a complex entity of multiple dimensions that embodies every single aspect of the previously mentioned cultural exchange. Besides its physical realm, the city had other intangible features that influenced its form and led to the consolidation of the same urban model throughout Spanish America. The colonial city inherited a vast traditional legacy of both Classic and pre-Columbian urban premises. The colonial city was an object of religious idealisation and utopian thinking. The colonial city was the perfect instrument of authority and hegemony.

Cultural hegemony was as important for colonial dominance as military and technological superiority. The Spanish put a great amount of effort to ensure that the natives would embrace the new sociocultural structure of the viceroyalties. The cultural conquest encompassed three main aspects: language, history and space.7 The colonisation of language refers to the efforts and techniques used by colonisers—mainly missionaries—to impose the written word as the principal way of communication above alternative means used by the natives such as iconographic scripting and drawn representation. After imposing the new literary traditions, the colonisation of history took place as a consequence.

Spanish settlements in America were vastly influenced by the Renaissance’s discourse towards the city. Historically, the conception of the urban form during the Renaissance had a series of relevant influences which came to forge an idealised vision of the city, a vision that relied more on its sense of place than on its spatial attributes as the means to understand the urban apparatus. Referring to Richard L. Kagan’s Urban Images of the Hispanic World, these two dimensions of the city represent the civitas and the urbs respectively.11 In a simplified definition, all the intangible and symbolic features of the city constitute the civitas, while all its physical aspects are the urbs. It is hard to establish a solid division between these two ideas given that both are imprinted in the urban fabric and constantly overlap. However, the use of the terms facilitates the understanding of which dimension of the city is being addressed.

An unusual contradiction emerges from examining the Royal Ordinances and their formulation process. They were issued by the time when the design conventions of the colonial city were an already established practice. Besides, many of them were unclear or lacked any measurable criteria in order to be fulfilled, questioning the nature of their influence in town planning. If the Ordinances did not bring anything new to the scenario of urbanism, they surely supported the consolidation of the grid and plaza model in Spanish America. By the 1570s, colonial settlements were still on their earliest stages of construction and their form was far from being fully developed. There lies the merit of the Ordinances, they stabilised the urban design premises that gave form to new towns and clarified all the political conditions regarding town planning, allowing that the colonial city could become archetypical.

Plans for building new settlements became diagrammatic representations of the colonial systems. Following the Royal Ordinances, simple drawings that highlighted the plaza mayor and the main institutional buildings were enough to start laying out a new city. Consequently, the way in which the Ordinances were put in practice was quite different from how they were described on paper, a very usual phenomenon during the Renaissance.24 Nonetheless, they did manage to set a common criteria of urban configuration that evolved into architectonic unity and urban density, two major attributes of the colonial city in the Americas. City plans—or perhaps diagrams—denoted the vitality of royal and religious institutional buildings as the driving elements of urban growth. Therefore, they constitute the fundamental types of the colonial city, which where articulated into the urban fabric through public squares.

1-Attractor points with weight value urban plan—Santo Domingo.
2-Main square’s overall in uence on the city—Santo Domingo.
3-Density and combined in uence of all urban nodes—Santo Domingo.
4-Zone division according to each node’s in uence ratio—Santo Domingo.

Value assignment process for each node. The same procedure is used for individual and compound nodes.(left) Con gurational analysis script. Node values are introduced in the gene pool (right).

The city is an entity with many dimensions that exceed its pure form and function. Its most representative areas are the materialisation of mainstream socio-political discourses. The translation into physical form of such ideological statements is achieved through the character of certain type of buildings combined with the significance of their emplacement. As a result, these areas of the city are imprinted with numerous intangible attributes that altogether create a very peculiar sense of place. Spanish colonisation of the Americas, for instance, produced a very singular urban form that spread immensely due to the effectiveness of its contributions to the colonial regime’s social, economic and cultural purposes. The plaza mayor was the ideal instrument for domination since it placed the architectural objects of power towards the perfect place for admiration of their imposing character: the square. However, the plaza mayor is just an urban element that—despite its outstanding authoritarian character—is far from being able to dictate the growth of a whole city as the Spanish believed. The expectation of the main square giving form to the entire city and creating typological systematised settlements throughout the colonies was perhaps a consequence of the idealisation that the urban environment experienced during the Renaissance. Therefore, it can be concluded that even the most relevant socio-political projects are not able to influence the complete urban form as it is often envisioned for this type of endeavours whereas they are perfectly capable of creating prominent urban gestures that reflect their ideological discourse and constitute the most meaningful parts of the city.

Among the sprawl patterns of the studied fundamental types, the agglomeration around squares is the most remarkable and constant configuration. This implies the tendency of institutional buildings to form urban nodes, a fact most likely driven by their intention of integrating significant locations that reflect their outstanding role in society. The configurational analysis reflects that these nodes are in fact capable of conditioning a certain area of the city towards them, meaning that they are indeed driving instruments of urban development. However, their influence ratios are highly variable given that these are strictly related to the specific characteristics each node has. With this in mind, the enquiry if certain significant urban elements—in this case institutional buildings nodes—can be the instruments of a more manageable urban sprawl rises. In other words, what if planning authorities and urban designers, instead of assigning land uses and speculating the market’s influence on the city, used the fundamental architectural types of the state—institutional buildings—as the means for catalysing the construction or reshaping of specific urban areas, strengthening an urban practice that has already been put into practice mainly through cultural buildings, proving to be quite effective during the last few decades.


Design Exercise
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