Jose Bernardi on Logan Wagner, Hal Box, and Susan Kline Morehead’s Ancient Origins of the Mexican Plaza: From Primordial Sea to Public Space
Architecture inevitably expresses something about the people for whom it is designed. Sometimes this is not deliberate, but architects often try to create spaces that speak to its audience, whether they offer hope for a better future, interpret a particular group’s identity, represent a culture’s symbolic construction of the world, or even blatantly spout propaganda. Whether viewers fully grasp what the architecture says is another matter. Few visitors to Washington, DC, for example, understand that the city’s repeated allusions to Greco-Roman architecture initially reassured an early modern populace, terrified by their recent rejection of the monarchy, that their fledgling country was not in danger. By sampling the material grandeur of successful ancient democracies, DC’s planners and architects suggested that the future was bright. Even though tourists rarely make these connections, they nevertheless often feel something of the intended effect: the imposing, symmetrical and tastefully adorned marble behemoths that line the streets of the city convey a sense of permanence and power that is difficult to ignore.
Undoubtedly one of North America’s most expressive architectural innovations is the Mexican square. Like tourists in Washington, DC, few visitors can fully appreciate the significance of monumental Teotihuacán, a pre-Hispanic city that reached its peak around 500 CE, or fully grasp the intentions behind the impressive scale of the urban structure, with a ceremonial rectilinear avenue of five kilometers precisely aligned to the surrounded landscape, and the stepped Pyramid of the Moon and Pyramid of the Sun, echoing the hills in the distance. Built at a time when European settlements were restricted behind defensive walls in a broken pattern of streets and alleys, this axial order composed by sunken plazas intentionally mapped an orderly universe on earth.
Mexican plazas were originally created as part of a religious compound composed by a vital three-part ensemble of the atrium, the church, and the open courtyard or plaza. Most were located in new towns designed on top of Mesoamerican settlements. The evolving nature of the plaza as a public space was enriched with the Laws of the Indies, creating a secular space of commerce and seat of political power, later transformed in the nineteenth century with new European trends emphasizing hygiene, the picturesque, and social engagement. Since then, the plaza has served as a stage for protest, debate, revolt, entertainment, and display. Today, Mexican plazas function as communal living rooms. They supply places of commerce, stages for religious festivals, galleries for artistic creations, rallying points for political demonstrations, and venues for enormous concerts. While the population shift to suburbs has in general sapped the vitality of the American public square and sparked the creation of private spaces for congregation, such as the shopping mall and the coffee shop, in Mexico the public square remains the center of communal life.
Until the late twentieth century, scholars minimized the involvement of indigenous Mesoamericans in the creation of Mexican architecture, including the plaza, because they imagined that the colonial Spaniards simply imposed a new cultural order after eradicating the old one. But a recent wave of scholarship reveals that the roots of the contemporary Mexican plaza derive from a creative synthesis of Mesoamerican and European cosmologies, religions, and cultures. Perhaps most intriguing is the fact that both cultures, Spanish and Aztec, understood their blended architectural innovation to be saying something quite different about the world.
The roots of the contemporary Mexican plaza derive from a creative synthesis of Mesoamerican and European cosmologies, religions, and cultures.
In the exact center of Tenochtitlán, the capitol of the Aztec empire, a massive sacred precinct held a temple used for human sacrifices and Montezuma’s royal palaces, along with many open-air squares, raised platforms, and other buildings.
Before the Spanish arrival, the sacred precinct symbolized the primordial sea of Mesoamerican cosmology, and the temple represented the absolute center of the universe. The imposing capital city of the Aztec empire was organized on two intersecting axes culminating in the sacred precinct; this geometry defined the ritual space as the navel of the world, the axis mundi at which the supernatural reality of the heavens intersected with the earth as well as the underworld. Mesoamericans understood the cosmos as a constant struggle between chaos and order in which humans play a remarkable role: they offer themselves as foodstuffs to nourish the gods, regenerate the power of life, and thus ward off impending cosmic doom. In the cyclical struggle within Nahuatl culture, human blood — offered through ritual sacrifice, much of the time willingly, at the temple in the sacred precinct — represented the battle for regeneration and blood as sustainer of life, the pillar upon which the order of the world depends. Perhaps it is not so strange, then, that the early mendicant friars found in the Aztec people a remarkably receptive audience as they preached about the efficacious sacrifice of Jesus’s body and blood on the cross, which transformed into baked grain and was then ingested during the ritual of the Eucharist.
The European friars soon discovered the layers of symbol and cosmology that formed the Mesoamerican worldview, and they quickly built Christian outdoor ritual spaces that slightly resembled the Aztec sacred precincts to take advantage of these cross-cultural symbolic resonances. The Spaniards, however, had their own architectural history: they arrived in Mesoamerica shaped by 800 years of struggle with the Muslim Moors, from whom the Spanish royal armies had finally re-taken Iberia only decades earlier. During the Reconquista, the Spanish had adapted and re-used Moorish structures; likewise, Alonso García Bravo, commissioned by Cortés, incorporated the overall plan of Tenochtitlán into Mexico City by retaining the rectilinear grid and four quadrants that converged in the main plaza, which housed the freshly built political and ritual centers of New Spain. This Plaza Mayor, now known as the Zócalo, stood adjacent to the Aztec sacred precinct. Bravo oversaw the destruction of the Aztec temple and recycled its stones in the square, which included a new Cathedral, commercial spaces, and several palaces for Cortés.
The recently arrived Franciscan and Augustinian friars believed the Spanish city that replaced Tenochtitlán to be a New Jerusalem, which led them to mix Christian images of Jerusalem with a reinterpretation of the Aztec concept of the square as the axis mundi. Likewise, the newly converted Aztec faithful were transfixed by the Franciscan adoration of the blood and sufferings of Christ — concretized in Francis’s stigmata — and the Augustinian escutcheon, a bleeding heart pierced by the arrow of divine love. The friars replaced Aztec sacrificial altars with sacred atriums and churchyards with centrally-located crucifixes that selectively incorporated symbols of Aztec sacrifice, including corn, skulls, polished obsidian, and eagle bowls that held the hearts of what would have been interpreted as sacrificial victims, offerings and rituals that perpetuated ancestral beliefs. Though the friars referenced a European Christian tradition that dates back as early as the third century CE of viewing church courtyards as symbolic of the garden of Eden, for the Aztecs the agricultural and paradisiacal motifs signified elements of their own ancient mythology.
These two cultures — European Christian and Mesoamerican — accommodated each other by interpreting the other’s symbols in light of their own.
The symbolic meaning of these church spaces differed for the Mesoamericans of New Spain, including the Aztecs and other speakers of Nahuatl. They primarily viewed these spaces as reminders of the mythical original space that connected heaven and earth, which was symbolized by a cross that diagramed the meeting point. These two cultures thus accommodated each other by interpreting the other’s symbols in light of their own. As James Lockhart argues, each group interpreted in strikingly different ways the resulting blended architecture, a phenomenon that Lockhart dubs “double mistaken identity.” This so-called mistake nevertheless opened up a space where both cultures interacted (even if by misinterpreting each other). Thus, the European drive to replace Nahua culture managed to preserve it, albeit in a transformed state. And in the many plazas scattered throughout contemporary Mexico this distinctively blended cultural form continues to be transformed and yet persist today.
The development of the Mexican plaza in the early sixteenth century is a fascinating topic, and it has been adequately summarized and well illustrated by Logan Wagner, Hal Box, and Susan Kline Moorhead in Ancient Origins of the Mexican Plaza. Yet the volume suffers from several shortcomings, including a lack of interaction with recent scholarship on the subject — Lockart’s famous “double mistaken identity” is presumed but never mentioned — and a thesis that is both too loose and too ambitious. The book claims to follow the plaza from its early modern origins to its contemporary forms, but in truth it focuses only on the early sixteenth century, when the European mendicant orders were interacting rather fluidly with the Mesoamericans. The transformation of the plaza during the rise of the secular, local orders of priests in the seventeenth century, the fusion with European models of squares in the nineteenth century, the plazas as stages for revolt during the Mexican revolution in the early twentieth century, or how the plaza as a public space was part of the modern experience, remain largely ignored, and the three pages devoted to the Mexican plaza in the twenty-first century leave behind any connections to native culture and focus instead on tourism. An analysis of the role indigenous people play in modern society might have provided more adequate closure. Finally, there is a lack of theoretical rigor in this volume; the arguments would have benefited from any number of different concepts of cultural synthesis. In the end, though it offers excellent images and serves as a fine introduction to the issues at hand, this volume seems more a synthesis of many relevant books on the subject than an original scholarly contribution.
The Mexican plaza synthesizes five hundred years of cultural endurance and transformation. Originally conceived as a place of religious proselytism, persuasion, and conversation, it evolved as an epicenter of opposing dialogues. Differences slowly intertwined and irreconcilable understandings of the cosmos began to be negotiated; both parties became aware of other ideas and had the wisdom and courage to incorporate them into their own system of beliefs. At a time when religious ideas can be used to inflame conflict and support sectarian positions, the contemporary plaza is the space where people can still be protagonists of their own histories, where they can have a say about how they want to shape their future. At a time when most public spaces are privately owned, specifically branded, and designed as artifacts to transform the visitors into eager consumers of products and culture, the plaza remains the place where quotidian routine can be experienced as both meaningful and fulfilling. The relevance of the plaza resides in the constant tension between the sacred and the secular, between rapid change and the permanence of the enticing, mythical weight of the past. The persistence of the Mexican plaza as a public institution resides in its capacity to maintain its links with the past, yet incorporate innovation, and to remain an active part of the struggles and challenges of human experience.
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