Puebla’s orthogonal design: the material expression of New World urbanism

In the twentieth century, when scholarship on Puebla’s urban form awakened urban historians’ interest, the research adopted a functionalist stance, inferring that the form Puebla adopted was a product of ordered and rational ideas, supposedly emanating from Renaissance urban principles. The now-classic study by author Eloy Mendez Sainz is a case in point. Mendez Sainz carried out a thorough study of Puebla’s urban form, publishing his Urbanismo у morfologia de las ciudades novohispanas: el diseno de Puebla (Urbanism and Morphology of New Spanish Cities: Puebla’s Design) in 1988.3 The author exposed the essential characteristics of the urban form. Namely, the streets run parallel with the central axes, wherein point zero is the main square generated by the cardo maximus (a north-south central axis in Roman urban design) and the decamanus maximum (the east-west central axis in Roman urban design). The intersection of the axes, in turn, marked the site of a rectangular plaza, where the city’s prominent civic and religious buildings find their location. In turn, the axes present an incline of approximately 24° 30' north to east (see Figure 2.1), with an exact reproduction of urban blocks of 200 by 100 varas (a vara measures approximately 83.59 cm), which would make the blocks 83.59 m by 167.18 m, in other words, a 2 to 1 proportion.4

The first reason for the north-south axis’s declination, argued Mendez Sainz, was to have stormwater runoff flow naturally down the streets and into the San Francisco River’s zigzagging causeway (which now runs in underground pipes under what is today 5 de Mayo Boulevard). The second reason was to protect the settlement from the prevailing northern winds, an idea that is possibly drawn from Vitruvius.5 However, Mendez Sainz’s contribution was to propose that the urban blocks’ declination also obeyed military-defensive purposes.6 In effect, there are two prominent hills in Puebla’s vicinity: the first stands to the northeast of the main square and was called Cerro de Belen, nowadays known as Cerro de Loreto, and the second one is located due west from the main square and was called Cerro de San Juan, nowadays known as Cerro de la Paz. The hills and the gridded layout align so that a clear linear perspective from the city’s streets allows for a privileged view of both topographical features, thus serving defensive purposes.7 While the functionalist aspects of the grid, as highlighted by Mendez Sainz, are of utmost importance in viceregal novohispanic (New Spanish) town-making, it is also imperative to dig deeper into the urban tradition and origins of Puebla’s urban form in order to perceive its full cultural and social complexity.

Hispanic urban surveying traditions: the legal and practical aspects of city-making

When it comes to urban form, the Classical world should be credited for handing down the tradition of sacred geometry to medieval Europe, at least when applied to land-surveying traditions. As Joseph Rykwert has pointed out, the Corpus Agrimensorum Romanorum, loosely translated as the Corpus of Roman Surveying, a series of treatises probably composed during the first century AD,8 was a “rationalized” tradition that the Roman world inherited from earlier Etruscan beliefs, and these, in turn, were based on the recognition of the sacredness of boundaries and ownership titles.

Rykwert also pointed toward the cosmological implications of land surveying, basing his affirmation on how ancient sources, such as Plutarch, Mac- robius, and Varro, revealed these ideas.9 The cosmological symbolism began with the act of choosing a site for the new settlement. This single act entailed the site’s examination by the town founder, who had by then observed the movement of animals, the flight of birds, and cloud patterns to detect any issues with the site and determine whether the day for performing the founding rites would be propitious. In the Italian Peninsula, the practice of har- uspicy or extispicy (divination through examining an animal’s entrails, but mainly, in the Ancient Romans’ case, the animal’s liver) was also associated with rituals practiced when founding a new town, as reported by Vitruvius.10

These foundation rituals proceeded to determine the two intersecting axes: the cardo maximus and the decamanus maximus. These axes provided the colony with the basis for laying out the new settlement, but their implications ran deeper than mere functionality. The decumani or east-west axes were aligned with and embodied the sun’s course while the cardines or north-south axes, on the other hand, provided a symbolical axis for the earth.11 Lilley summarized it in this form: “The Corpus Agrimensores texts and their gromatic derivatives provide one reason why surveying had cosmological symbolism in the Middle Ages. For the Romans, the very act of surveying was itself cosmically oriented.”12

The legacy of rhe ancient Corpus Agrimensorum’s land-surveying techniques, with its notions of sacred cosmology, the establishment of boundaries, and religious and civic order, was complemented and fused during the early medieval period with legal and statutory codes that defined ordered and practical land-distribution practices in the Iberian Peninsula. In effect, in the Iberian Peninsula, the notion of an orthogonal urban practice can be traced to the refounding of the town of Jaca in the Province of Aragon, a small town in the Hispanic Marches, the neutral military border established by Charlemagne and the Umayyad Moors in the Pyrenees. The Aragonian King Sancho Ramirez chose the town of Jaca to be reestablished as the capital of the Crown of Aragon in 1076. He provided it with the title of ciitdad (city) and redesigned the town establishing two streets reminiscent of the cardus and decumanus, and therefore reviving, in the wake of practices derived from the Corpus Agrimensorum and the notion of the Heavenly Jerusalem as a religious - intellectual ideal, the practice of orthogonal urbanism.13 When Jaca was refounded, King Sancho also issued fueros, legal codes detailing privileges that settlers would receive if willing to populate the new Jaca. These fueros included agricultural and mercantile liberties for Jaca’s citizens and importantly, a distribution of solares or land plots in a series of urban blocks surveyed on equal dimensions.14 The practice of resettling or refounding towns in the Crown of Aragon by employing fueros derivative of Jaca’s spread, alongside the expansion of Christian territories into Al-Andalus, with towns such as Estella (Lizarra in Basque) in the Province of Navarra in 1077 setting a precedent that would cross over to the Kingdom of Castille toward the thirteenth century.

In effect, the Castilian statutory code issued under the rule of Alfonso X (1252-1284) and known as the Siete Partidas or Seven Entries contained ordinances instructing land-surveying and distribution practices along with mechanisms to issue land titles and uphold them. In 1348, King Alfonso XI issued ordinances sketching out the laws governing a city and its outlying territories, including different land titles in the law code known as the Ordinances of Alcala. Classical culture also influenced this law code - namely, by notions contained in Plato, Aristotle, and Seneca’s writings, which placed humankind and the importance of communal living at the center of urban life.15

Urban establishments from the fourteenth century, such as Briviesca (1314) in the northern province of Burgos, came to exemplify, through their urban form, a gridded layout with a central square. This paradigm represented the lasting influence of Roman castrametation in the Peninsula, ratifying ancient beliefs about the cosmological essence imbued in the concept of land ownership, boundaries, and the processes by which a town became sacralized territory ratified by the Spanish Crown through the establishment of civic and religious buildings, which were representative of those two institutions at the center of the grid.

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