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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 59
Año: 1999
Autor: José Luis Romero
Título: Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas

From Naked Blueprint to Actual City

The pace—fast or slow—at which cities developed was visible in the way in which their societies grew and became stable and diversified, or their economic activity progressed, or forms of life more typically urban were adopted or new cultural concerns began to emerge. But a city’s progress was most evident in the concrete, physical fact of its layout and buildings. Founding a city was a symbolic act, but it did not give the city its physical reality. The blueprint had to became a building project, and the project, in turn, an actual city, materially built. Once a site was definitely selected, the project would be slowly set into motion, as government, religious or private buildings were erected on the plots that had been previously mapped and formally awarded to the settlers or set aside for public works.

Whenever the blueprint became a project, the actual scale and layout would reveal how the founders viewed the prospects of their new cities. Some capitals—Mexico City, Lima, Buenos Aires—were assigned an initial urban area of over one hundred blocks. But for the vast majority of cities the initial area assigned to them was of about twenty-five blocks. In both cases, it took a long time for cities to be compactly built outside of their downtown areas. By the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, very few cities had grown beyond that perimeter, although some scanty suburban areas were beginning to form here and there.

Urban population grew rather slowly. In the early eighteenth century, Mexico City may have had up to forty thousand residents, Lima thirty thousand, and Bahia ten thousand. But none of the other Latin American cities could match even the last of these figures. Recife and Buenos Aires had a population of about eight thousand, São Paulo and Caracas about seven thousand, Bogota and Asunción about five thousand. These were thus small urban societies that could not hasten construction on all their vacant lots and felt no need to do so. Besides, with the exception of the major capitals and some mining or port cities, there weren’t enough resources, during this period, to raise cities out of nothing. Urban construction went on: private homes, public buildings, churches, and convents. But well into the eighteenth century, the physical development of cities was still slow, and only exceptionally did it go beyond the blueprint of the founders.

All the same, what had once been country land was parceled out and transformed into an urban space: the virtual city of plans and blueprints was progressively becoming a reality, as a new church or a new house was built and especially as an entire society was carrying its daily life in that space, filling it with its memories and aspirations. On the blueprint, the city square was an open area, vacant like all the others. The first thing to be built there was the pillory; the market came soon after: the empty space began to fill and take shape, and it took on all its functions as a square when the city hall, the church, even the jail, were built on its edge. The square became the center for social contact in the city, no matter how modest its buildings might be or how rudimentary its public services, often limited to a water well. But it was a few steps away from the city hall, the governor’s mansion or the court building; and it was there that most economic transactions took place, as did the few public celebrations held by the city. For this reason, the main square was the first area that deserved the attention of the city authorities, the hustle and bustle of the marketplace permitting. On occasion, some of the open space of the square was reduced by temporary constructions that would give roof to the merchants; but the space was of such value to everyone that it could never be permanently reduced. The main streets would always lead to the square; and this original layout was carefully maintained in almost every city. On these streets, near the square, the wealthiest citizens built their homes. Those of lesser means settled further away, frequently around the churches—parishes at times—that began to be built on the lands that the different orders had been granted. Near these churches, smaller squares were created, each with its own water well; these minor squares became small neighborhood centers where the common people—sometimes Indians and blacks—found their meeting place.

The most important urban phenomenon was the unplanned birth of the suburbs, which initially were home for Indians, blacks, and other marginal groups. In the two centuries that followed the founding of Mexico City, several new neighborhoods were added to the ones that Alonso García Bravo had planned in his original blueprint. Of these new neighborhoods, the most important ones were Santa Cruz and Santiago Tlatelolco. In Lima, two new neighborhoods were formed: El Cercado, a settlement of converted Indians, and San Lázaro, a slum on the banks of the Rimac river, which was settled by Indian shrimpers; a hospital for lepers was established in San Lázaro soon after its settlement. In Bahia, to the original upper city was added the cidade baixa (lower city) along the waterfront. Recife, which had started as a fishing village next to Olinda, became a city under the Dutch. When the Portuguese reclaimed the area, Recife became once again a suburb, and it remained as such until its residents succeeded in making the authorities recognize the importance of their town.

Cities developed slowly and sparingly, but their growth was, in fact, a steady process of creation. Everyday activities gave order and structure to urban life and made apparent some urgent needs that had to be immediately addressed, particularly in major cities. With two or three thousand residents, a city could perhaps function without regulating its own growth or organizing its services. But when their populations reached or surpassed ten thousand, it became obvious that their lack of planning was hampering urban life. The answer was, precisely, a number of attempts at urban planning. When Mexico City was founded—literally, implanted on a lagoon—and began to grow, the natural draining system was altered, and the city soon felt the threat of flooding. The first floods occurred in 1553 and recurred several times afterwards, while the authorities found little they could do except deal with the consequences. But at the beginning of the seventeenth century, when Viceroy Montesclaros began construction of the aqueduct of Chapultepec to supply water to the city, he also started work on a vast drainage system, which took longer than a century to be completed. Water supply was a common concern of all cities, and their answer was to build water wells in the main squares; but they did little to improve their sewer systems, which were just open ditches running through the streets. In the capital cities, efforts were made to pave some streets; in Mexico City, drainage and sewer ditches were also built, as well as bridges to cross the canals. Montesclaros— who left Mexico to become Viceroy in Peru—ordered the construction of a new bridge over the Rimac river in Lima to replace the ones that had collapsed. This new bridge, built with stone pillars and masonry arches, was completed in 1610.

Only in major cities was there some concern to improve their appearance and to pattern them after the model of the metropolitan courts. But they had to begin with the most rudimentary things. It was a big step ahead to remove the pillory from the main square and do away with the sight, not of the executions that fascinated the crowds, but of the dead bodies left on display at the very heart of town. When the authorities wanted to lend some air of dignity to the city, as one chronicler put it, they thought of creating places for recreation. Mexico City, Old Guatemala and Lima were all proud of their promenades: from the times of Viceroy Luis de Velasco, it was customary in Mexico City to go out for a walk to the forest of Chapultepec. But it was in Recife, under the Dutch administration of Maurice de Nassau, that a complete remodeling of the city was ever attempted, following a plan by Peter Post.

In fact, what actually changed the look of the cities, during the first two centuries of their existence, was the rise of good architecture. Describing Lima, Father Bernab‚ Cobo wrote in 1629:

Generally, the houses are built of adobe. The early structures were crude, covered with mats woven from reeds and rustic wood from mangrove trees. Their portals and patios were neither imposing nor beautiful, although quite large and spacious. However, almost all these early structures have since been torn down in order to build more expensive homes using solid, intricately carved wood, with strong beams and oak ceilings, and every imaginable curiosity that the beauty of art can conceive. By now, few homes are covered with matting, because of the rain. For when the rain is heavy, water runs through the matted roofs and the houses leak in many places. But few building are made from quarried stone either, because the materials are lacking. In this entire valley there is not a single good quarry from which to cut building stone. Thus, when stone is used, it has to be brought by sea from Panama, five hundred leagues away, or from Arica, two hundred leagues from here, or from other places far away.

Mexico City did not have that problem, because it was built out of the wreckage of the temples of Tenochtitlán: “There,” wrote Friar Toribio de Benavente, “died many Indians, and it took many years to extricate their bodies; and out of that came countless stones.” With that stone were built those noble houses on Tacuba street that in 1554 earned the admiration of Cervantes de Salazar. One character in his Diálogos [Dialogues] describes them as follows: “They are all magnificent and built at great expense, as befits such noble and wealthy occupants. They are so solid and secure that one would think they are not houses, but fortresses.” Among them, those that most resembled a real castle were the so-called “old homes of Cortez,” which were built in front of the main square and made up “not just a palace, but another city altogether.”

Besides Mexico City, stone was also in abundant supply in Cuzco and Quito. But in other cities, fine houses were built with adobe, brick and wood. Three hundred of them, according to González de Nájera, had been built in Santiago de Chile at the beginning of the seventeenth century; and many were “the noble homes of sons and descendants of conquistadores.” In Tunja, adobe, brick and wood were used to build the home of its founder, Gonzalo Suárez Rendín, as well as those of Juan de Vargas, the King’s notary, and other public officials and encomenderos. The same materials were used in Old Guatemala to build the homes of Bernal Diáz del Castillo and the judge Luis de las Infantas, as well as those along a single street that was called “Nobility” because—as Friar Tomás Gage pointed out in 1639—its residents were the best families of the city. Not even the house of the Ponces, in San Juan de Puerto Rico, was built in stone, although stone had been the material called for in the original plan.

Father Cobo wrote that in Lima “the public buildings outshine the private homes.” The same could be said of other cities as well. Yet the Viceroy’s palace in Lima was not a sumptuous building; and, although somewhat better, neither was the Viceroy’s residence in Mexico City, not at least until the original building burned down in 1692. The following year, construction began on the new residence. Completed four years later, that building did have a certain grandeur. The palace of the Captains General in Old Guatemala and the palaces of Recife and Bahia were quite elegant, but the seats of government in Bogota, Caracas, Asunción or Buenos Aires were rather modest, as were, during these two centuries, the city halls, which, like the seats of government, usually faced the main square.

Most architectural interests and concerns centered on religious buildings. The empty city of the original blueprint rapidly filled up with churches, convents, and schools, which together occupied a good portion of urban space. In the early seventeenth century, a small city like Santiago de Chile had, as Alonso González Nájera said, about three hundred houses and “four monasteries, two convents and one school.” As for the most important city of the Indies, Bernardo de Balbuena devoted an entire chapter of his Grandeza Mexicana to the religious buildings of Mexico City. Thus, before long, some cities would acquire that very special character still visible in places like Cholula, Bahia, Puebla, and Quito, with their many religious buildings, or that distinctive urban layout that results from setting, at the heart of the city, a large religious building, such as the convent of San Francisco in Tlaxcala, or the two fortress-like convents of El Carmen, one in Bahia, the other in Olinda; or, in Arequipa, the immense grounds of the convent, better the citadel, of Santa Catalina; or, in São Paulo, the Jesuit College, which itself was the heart of the city.

Once a city was founded, one of the first buildings to be erected was the cathedral or head church. The buttressed houses naturally came first. That is why in 1554, when the imposing, fortress-like homes of the first settlers of Mexico City had became well-known and admired by many, one of the characters in Cervantes de Salazar’s Diálogos could say: “It is a shame that a city, famous probably like no other, and with so many wealthy citizens, should have such a small, humble and unadorned church in its most public place.” And yet, by that time, the Archbishop had “a house with elegant doors and lintels and a roof with towers, at either extreme, much taller than the one downtown;” the structure of the house and its construction were so solid that some would say: “not even mines shall bring it down.”

As soon as the circumstances allowed, cathedrals were built; and when they tumbled down, as frequently happened, they were rebuilt, each time better than before, sturdier and with more splendor. By the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century, magnificent cathedrals had been built in Santo Domingo, Guadalajara and La Paz, Mexico City, Salvador de Bahia, Chuquisaca and Trujillo, Puebla, Lima and Cuzco, these last three with original designs by the architect Francisco Becerra. Once their towers and porticoes were completed, these cathedrals, which faced the main square, became imposing structures that dominated the urban centers. It took many years to complete the decoration of a cathedral, which was, as much as the construction, the work of Spanish artisans and their native apprentices. In Quito, the Franciscans opened a school where Indians were trained to master all the arts and crafts of building.

Different religious orders entered into fierce competition to impose their influence on the cities. From the very start and in almost every city, Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, Mercedarians, and Jesuits obtained large plots of land where they would build their convents and churches. Donations and alms supported the construction work, and in the first two centuries of colonial life, the gentrified cities came to have quite a conventual air about them. In Quito, the Franciscans built an architectural complex of almost thirty thousand square meters, composed of a convent and three adjacent churches: San Francisco, San Buenaventura, and a third one known as La Cantuña. Describing the complex that the Franciscans built in Mexico City, Friar Agustín de Vetancourt said:

It has almost three hundred cells, where prelates, residents, sick people and guests live alongside nearly two hundred monks; there are additional cells—in an upper floor, in a lower one, and between floors—that can accommodate many other residents. All the dwellings are well-furnished, without regard for rank or station, and they are appointed to suit the occupants position, with passages and offices as each may require.

In Tlaxcala, the Franciscans had, besides the convent, the Church of the Assumption, the open chapel of the Holy Sepulcher, the hospital and, in the enormous atrium, another chapel, the entire complex walled like a citadel. The complex in Puebla was no less grandiose, and there were important groups of religious buildings in other cities: La Paz, Lima, Salvador de Bahia, Cuzco, Bogota, Sucre, Arequipa, to name but a few.

The Dominicans also had their share of city plots, where they built their churches and convents. In Puebla, their buildings were of exceptional artistic quality, especially the Rosary Chapel. In Mexico City, their complex opened onto the porticoed square of Santo Domingo. In Lima, Quito, Oaxaca, Cuzco, Santo Domingo, Salvador de Bahia, and so many other cities, their buildings gave proof of the wealth and influence of the order. The buildings of the other two mendicant orders—the Carmelites and the Augustinians—were less imposing, but they had nonetheless countless churches and convents; some of them, like that of El Carmen in Quito, and those of San Agustin in Lima, Quito and Bogota, were important religious centers in the life of the cities, as well as monuments of exceptional beauty. The Mercedarians, in turn, built opulent churches in Lima, Quito and Cuzco.

The influence of the Jesuits was also very strong, and their power was reflected in their churches and colleges. The church they built in Guanajuato was an extraordinary art display, as were those in Quito or Potosí. But it was their church in Cuzco that surpassed all the others, with its remarkable facade and its imposing structure that stood, almost defiantly, facing the cathedral.

Countless new churches were built in the cities. Each of them drew the particular devotion of some group of the faithful. As time passed, churches grew in number, and vast sums were invested in them. In his Grandeza Mexicana, Balbuena said the following about the wealth in land and the revenues of the religious buildings in Mexico:

Sus fundaciones, dotación y renta¨
de qué guarismos compondrá la suma
por más letras y ceros que consienta?

[their foundations, endowments and income
would make up what sum, with what numerals,
no matter how many letters and zeros one might add?]

The number of churches increased so much that in 1664 the council of Mexico City requested that the King forbid the religious orders to purchase new land or found any more convents.

It was not the secular constructions but the religious buildings that left their mark upon the cities of the gentry. They embodied the significance of the church in those societies, as well as some essential traits and attitudes of their upper classes. They also embodied some important social and cultural facts, since the architectural styles responded not only to the weight of Spain’s influence but also to the particular conditions of city and region. Thus, for instance, Elizabethan style was the choice for the cathedral of Santo Domingo; attempts were also made to introduce the plateresque style; Herrera’s style was the first important influence; the decisive influence was that of the Baroque. This is true not only because the Baroque produced the largest number of major architectural works but because it offered a general paradigm, for both construction and decor, able to encompass every form of expression that arose in the societies taking shape in the New World. There were, thus, quite a few forms of Baroque. Many of them were more or less faithful imitations of Iberian models. But many new ones arose freely out of the contact between the two worlds. These new forms constitute the so called barroco mestizo (half-breed or hybrid Baroque): the church of San Lorenzo, in Potosí, with its statue of an Indian St. Michael, the church of La Misericordia, in Olinda, and the one of Santo Domingo, in Puebla, expressed to the utmost degree that fusion of Iberian genius and indigenous imagination.

It is fair to say that, in some way, the appearance of this hybrid style foreshadowed a certain crisis in Baroque society; for a Hispanic upper class that puts up with a dark-skinned Virgin is indeed conceding that it has assimilated some elements of the native cultures: their food, their dances and songs, their clothing, a few costumes, and perhaps even some superstitions, which are, nonetheless, ideas. Undoubtedly, this happened in many cities, and the change was helped in good measure by the flock of servants who were the background of domestic life and took part in raising and educating their lord’s children, and also perhaps by the throng of women with whom the young learned the secrets of love and mature men practiced them. The experience of living side-by-side and dealing with one another ultimately taught to many that the so-called “castes” were also composed of human beings and that even the Virgin and St. Michael could have copper-colored skin. But to admit this was to acknowledge an important flaw in the very conception of the Baroque society of the Indies. The Christ of Miracles in Lima, the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico and the Christ of Earthquakes in Cuzco contributed to the crisis of this society.

The significance of the Christ of the Earthquakes and other hybrid images was that they were endowed by popular imagination with the power to forestall all the natural forces that threatened the city: earthquakes, floods, volcanic eruptions. Natural catastrophes had destroyed many cities at one time or another, and some more than once. But few cities were ever completely abandoned. When the authorities decided to relocate Guatemala City, many chose to remain behind, in what came to be called Antigua; from then on there were two Guatemalas, though in fact there were three. There is a long list of cities that fell down only to rise up again, like Cuzco in 1650, Guatemala in 1717 or Caracas in 1641.

There was always the chance that a city might fall to an enemy attack, especially those that were ports. To escape that danger, cities began to build citadels and castles, like those in Havana, San Juan, Veracruz, Cartagena and Valpariso. The ramparts of a military fort may well have been the first major construction of a city. Behind the ramparts, the actual city could rise out of the naked lines of its blueprint.