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07.29.2013
Review> Cosmic & Classical Underpinnings
Ancient Origins of the Mexican Plaza brings light to the urbanism of the pre-colonial world.
Courtesy University of Texas Press

Ancient Origins of the Mexican Plaza
Logan Wagner, Hal Box, and Susan Kline Morehead
University of Texas Press, $65

This new volume from the University of Texas Press adds architecture and town planning as compelling themes to the body of recent academic literature on the pre-colonial and early colonial Americas. It describes the scope and under-known advancement of western hemispheric civilization prior to European conquest, infection, and conversion. A Mesoamerican culture at least 4,000 years old established a sacred and harmonious system of voids and solids from as much as upon the invaders. It adapted new hybrid forms rooted in the classical Renaissance principles of Greece and Rome that were shaping Spanish cities. Two worlds mutually unaware of the other’s existence suddenly collided, yet the newcomer adjusted rather than eliminated what he found.

While not destined for the best-seller list, the book goes a long way in furthering the status of Mexico as one of the world’s Diamond-labeled “founder” civilizations.

 
 

Ancient Origins of the Mexican Plaza does so with a well illustrated look at the “symphony of volumes” that undergird the orthogonal grid and plaza which most still perceive wrongly as a linear measure of successive (if not de facto progressive) western domination. Instead, one learns how the beloved and enduring zocalo as market site and joyous living room sustains the ritualistic spaces carved from nature by the resident Mesoamericans. Their sites were in sensitive alignment with the surrounding natural terrain in representation of a primordial sea from where they saw humanity rise in subterranean, terrestrial, and celestial equilibrium with their gods. The broad plazas, mountain-like pyramids, and deep wellspring caves were stylized outdoor places designed for the community life and daily rituals overseen by a ruling elite and their religious enforcers. The authors summarize this communal investment as the “creative medium” of symbolic necessity.

In 1521, Cortés conquered Mexico and mendicant priests followed in rapid succession to convert and turn cultural upheaval into sustained political control. Their churches and surrounding fortifications were specifically sited within these sacred precincts for reasons both formal and syncretic. The fusion of their 16th century architectural and decorative vocabulary was executed by the hands of native Mesoamericans, who combined them with the ancient cosmology on which their own building traditions relied. These origins endured in a contact language of colonialism. Extant plazas and ceremonial passages were co-opted in part for the new churches, and the advent of the atrio zone, or walled communal space, for outdoor conversion of the displaced native populations. They fused these new exterior rooms with the act of Christianizing. Colonial form followed Mesoamerican function. Most contemporary Mexican plazas still feature atria alongside their secular plazas as an exemplary achievement of global urbanism.

 

The book’s third chapter features specific field surveys, amply illustrated by amateur yet fully descriptive photographs along with commendable measured drawings, rendering the text appealing to designers. Additional plans constitute a fine appendix of full-page site drawings, which alone provide a useful template to any practitioner, whether professional planner or eager activist in shaping the civic realm.

The book’s weakest, if well-intended, aspect is its concluding chapter, which makes the case for modern application in contemporary American town planning as identified with the (unnamed) New Urbanists. It is the historic Mexican template as an antidote to sprawl. Such a hopeful argument holds up well formally but the complex polemics of land use, environmental impact, gates, and cars is not fleshed out fully.

In its totality, however, it succeeds in conveying the authors’ introductory claim:

The communal open spaces of Mexico delight all of our senses. When we can also sense the layers of Mesoamerican and European history creating the place, the passion in the iconography and the human art and labor of building, along with the people moving around us, the space consumes us with its spiritual and sensual qualities.
Paul Gunther

Paul Gunther is the President of the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art in New York.