The grid and the hill: Puebla’s urban form (c. 1530s–1610s )

Puebla’s urban form (c. 1530s-1610s)

In the decades following Puebla’s founding in 1531, the nascent town must have appeared rudimentary, much like any other in early-sixteenth-century New Spain. Indeed, at that point, Puebla’s urban landscape consisted of a series of buildings of varying quality, from adobe huts in the periphery to some seignorial stone palaces for the wealthiest Spanish vecinos or citizens in the town’s traza central or central grid. The buildings stood scattered among vacant lots, many of which were used as gardens, in a gridded layout of unpaved streets (see Figure 2.1).1 However, slowly, the town progressed from an elemental settlement into a legible and orderly urban establishment toward the end of the century.

The guiding element that informed Puebla’s urban development, from its establishment in the early sixteenth century until the mid-twentieth century, was its urban form, which ordered how people settled within the city and dictated its growth for centuries afterward.

In effect, the gridded form is a crucial design principle that urbanisti- cally defined hundreds of cities founded during Spanish America’s viceregal period. As such, its origin and ramifications have been the subject of ample and debated scholarship. Some of its topics have resisted untangling, such as the orthogonal model’s origin as exercised in the American continent.2 These discussions usually involve the idea that the urban model was a cultural practice that ran continuously throughout Western and Spanish history: from Thales of Miletus to Vitruvius and from Roman castrametation to the early medieval settlements that marked the advance of Christian towns in Aragon, culminating with Santa Fe de Granada, in Andalusia, a supposed precedent of the gridded urban paradigm that landed on the shores of the Caribbean, along with the first Spanish colonizers of the Americas.

These discussions also often interrogate the notion that Spanish colonial urbanism found its inspiration, or at the very least, was imbued with religious symbolism, in the theological works by the Catalonian Friar Francesc Eiximenis. Another line of thinking highlights the urban grid’s practical ends, classifying the orthogonal model as part of an early modern understanding of urban space that played a critical role in deploying colonial institutions. Another branch of thought, perhaps more subdued compared to the ones

A map-diagram representing an approximate rendition of Puebla’s urban morphology and density around the mid-seventeenth century

Figure 2.1 A map-diagram representing an approximate rendition of Puebla’s urban morphology and density around the mid-seventeenth century.

Source: By the author and Trevor Wood.

earlier, has argued that pre-Hispanic urban traditions informed the gridded layout in the Spanish Americas and that Spanish colonizers at times replicated, and at other times simply merged pre-Hispanic urban elements, particularly the central plaza (square), with European cultural-urban practices.

As it happens, Puebla de los Angeles’ urban form can touch upon the most controversial and relevant debates surrounding Spanish colonial urbanism because, as will be argued in this chapter, Puebla’s urban design was in one way or another, and to lesser or higher degrees, informed by all of them. Indeed, Puebla’s urban form embodies a pivotal moment in the history of urban design in Spanish America, helping to pave how urban practice would evolve during the rest of the viceregal period in New Spain. Therefore, this chapter discusses the various sources and elements that informed Puebla’s urban form. Questions such as the origin of the city’s urban design, its place within the context of the long and ample tradition of Spanish urbanism in the Americas, and its symbolic meanings all form part of this discussion.

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