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At this point we should step back a moment and look at how towns and cities were planned and laid out in the colonial period of the Southwest and Mexico. We need to have an understanding of Spanish town planning because the basic precepts as practiced in colonial times influenced the collective architecture of houses, institutional structures, such as government buildings and churches, as well as public spaces. These in turn formed the very specific streetscape that defines Latin American urbanism.

Plaza in Oaxaca, Mexico [31K]
image of a street in Alamos [16K]

Plaza in Oaxaca, Mexico


Street in Alamos, Mexico

Immediately after the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish, the victorious soldiers (conquistadores), settlers and missionaries were all building in a haphazard and piecemeal fashion. Therefore, an early Viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza, issued a policy that insisted on a standardized design for the major building types such as government buildings, churches and monasteries. This was known as the principle of "moderate design" ("traza moderada"). Not too long after, in 1573 the King of Spain, Philip II, decreed a more extensive set of rules for the building of towns and cities in the Americas. These ordinances are known as "The Law of the Indies." While these rules applied to many facets of colonial life such as administering the native population as well as legal and fiduciary regulations, their main legacy has been the form of Latin American cities. The Law of the Indies decreed, among other things, that all new towns must have a central plaza surrounded by important buildings with portales or arcades, and from which the principal streets, laid out in a grid pattern, shall begin. Smaller secondary plazas were also called for as well as narrow streets, in hot climates, in order to provide shade. New towns reflecting these principles were built all through the Americas.

aerial view of Antigua, Guatemala [60K]

Aerial view of Antigua, Guatemala, showing
the regular grid partern of streets and plazas

Suggested reading:

University of Miami School of Architecture. The New City, volume I, University of Miami School of Architecture: Princeton Architectural Press, © 1991

Now, what does all this have to do with Southwest architecture? The answer is that many urban settlements including Santa Fe, New Mexico (1610) and Alamos, Mexico, almost 140 years later (1748) were laid out with regards to the Law of the Indies. True, due to the great distance from the center of governmental power in Mexico City, and the independent nature of earlier settlers on the frontier, the builders of these towns did not totally adhere to the Law of the Indies, but they often followed the basic precepts of a central plaza surrounded by important buildings with arcades, and a grid of narrow streets radiating from this core.

Map drawings courtesy of Nina Veregge, Architect
plan of central Sante Fe showing the plaza [28K]
plan of the core of 18th century Alamos, Mexico [26K]

Plan of central Santa Fe showing the plaza


Plan of the core of 18th century Alamos, Mexico

Both Albuquerque, New Mexico and Tucson, Arizona originally were laid out with plazas. The citizens of Albuquerque still have theirs, but Tucson lost its Plaza La Mesilla in 1969 when it was destroyed in order to realign Broadway Blvd. Tucson's original Cathedral, San Agustín, was sited on the east side of this important public space.

Plazas and surrounding arcades greatly contribute to making cities dynamic and people friendly. When cities such as Tucson gave up these public spaces to the automobile, they abdicated the hearts of their downtown to lifeless expediency.

Map drawings courtesy of Nina Veregge, Architect
map of Albuquerque 1898 [23K]
map of Tucson, 1901 [38K]

Map of Albuquerque, 1898


Map of Tucson, 1901

Suggested reading:

Veregge, Nina. "Transformations of Spanish Urban Landscapes in the American Southwest, 1821 - 1900," Journal of the Southwest, Winter 1993.

Fortunately, and thanks to the vision of a Tucson couple, Jean-Paul Bierny and Chris Tanz, with support from the University of Arizona's Southwest Studies Center and the City of Tucson, there is a proposal in place to build a new plaza on what is currently an asphalt-surfaced parking lot across from the existing San Agustín Cathedral. If this proposal is implemented, Tucson would have a second chance to possess a wonderful public space near its downtown core similar to cities like Santa Fe and Albuquerque, not to mention the hundreds of plazas in Latin America.

Drawing by Bob Vint Associates Architects, courtesy of the Southwest Studies Center
drawing by Bob Vint Associate Architects of Plaza San Agustin [49K]

Plaza San Augustín