Puebla during the sixteenth century: urbanism and architecture

Puebla de los Angeles had, by 1570, some 800 households. By 1600, that number had risen to approximately 1,500 households with approximately 120 urban blocks that had been, at least partially, filled with residential buildings. By the late sixteenth century, the city also boasted of having a cadre of civic and religious landmarks, including the city hall, the new cathedral building that was beginning to be built, two hospitals, a Jesuit college, and a number of palatial residences for the city’s elite.21 The city was evidently densest at its central core, known at the time as the traza principal or central layout, which must have occupied some seven or eight blocks in the east-west axis and some ten blocks in the north-south axis, with the San Francisco River acting as a barrier to the expansion of the traza principal to the east and south (see Figure 2.1). As early as the 1530s, the periphery of the city began to be settled by Indigenous migrants searching for employment and better life conditions. The city council began granting native settlers solares or land plots as early as 1539.22The first three Indigenous barrios (neighborhoods) or altepeme (a Nahua ethnic state and the plural form of altepetl) to be formed were San Francisco, also known as Tlaxcaltecapan, in the vicinity of the Franciscan monastery; San Pablo de los Naturales, in the vicinity of the Dominican monastery; and Santiago, also known as Cholultecapan, which was also under the guard of the Dominican Order. Each one was rather independent, and each one possessed a parish church and a tianguis or market.23

The city sprawled out in dozens of urban blocks, many of which were uninhabited or just partially inhabited. A good number of plots were employed as urban gardens, as were the peripheral, uninhabited lots. These circumstances must have provided the impression that Puebla, at the turn of the sixteenth century, was a small, low-density town, with most constructions standing one-story high.24

The heart of the city was undoubtedly the main square or plaza principal, the site of a public fountain, and the pillory. The other half of the square was left unoccupied as it doubled as the main marketplace and on special occasions, as the site for a temporary bullfighting ring. The northern side of the main square was occupied, as it continues to be today, by the casas de cabildo or city council halls. The block occupied by the city halls was split into two halves by an alley crossing across it, which still exists to this day. (The alley is now covered with a steel and glass nineteenth-century roof and is informally known as El Pasaje or The Passageway.) The western halfblock was occupied by the city halls and the house of the alcalde mayor or city mayor right next door. The city halls were one-storied and only acquired a second story sometime at the start of the seventeenth century. The albdn- diga or city granary and the jail occupied the eastern half of that block.25 The main square was arcaded on three sides: north, east, and west (the south side remained open toward the cathedral). Initially, the arcades were wooden and were replaced by stone arcades by the 1580s.26

The town’s first buildings of a temporary nature were made of adobe with rough lime stucco, with flat, compressed earth roof slabs supported by rough timber beams or sloped timber roofs that were thatched. Such are the techniques that are still found in rural settings in the Region and State of Puebla and elsewhere in Mexico today. Toward the last decades of the century, however, those buildings had been replaced by permanent buildings of a more refined quality in terms of their materials, manufacture, and ornamentation, and they were mostly buildings belonging to members of the city’s elite and important civic landmarks. An example is the Casa del Dean, the residence of the Dean of Puebla’s Cathedral Chapter, built c. 1580, and amply discussed later in the chapter.

In that regard, when a building was constructed with masonry, it was referred to with the term cal у canto, which stands for stone and brick masonry with lime, while the term canteria, meaning stone-carved, referred to elaborate stone ornamentation, usually found in the main gate or portal of a building, or around windows. While some construction materials were difficult to come by and were scarce during the sixteenth century elsewhere in New Spain, such as lime, quarried stone, or brick, this does not appear to have been the case in Puebla.27 As a matter of fact, the quality of the building manufacture of poblano architecture was notable. As Biihler noted, Puebla enjoyed the benefit of having relatively easy access to all the primary construction materials of the time: sand (obtained from the San Francisco River banks), timber, stone, clay for brickmaking, and an abundance of lime. During the archaeological excavations of the 1990s in the San Francisco and El Alto areas of the city, a good number of lime kilns dated to the sixteenth century were discovered, as well as brick and ceramic kilns.

During the sixteenth century, brick as a construction material was not as popular as stone masonry for wall construction while ceramic tiles did not become a locally made material until the advent of the Talavera-style glazed ceramic industry in the seventeenth century in Puebla. Also, few buildings appear to have had sloped roofs in Puebla. Roofing techniques in the sixteenth century varied. Timber roofing for religious buildings was common, with examples being Puebla’s old cathedral, the Franciscan monastery at Tecali (2 km to the southeast of Puebla), or the Franciscan monastery at Zacatlan (in the northern mountains of Puebla State), which still possesses its original timber roof structure, covered on the exterior with ceramic tiles. Timber roofs in the City of Puebla were scarce, perhaps due to the lack of treated timber and a range of aggressive insect plagues that attacked wood and the deforestation that occurred in the central parts of Mexico during the sixteenth century. These circumstances led to the eventual replacement of timber roofing structures for masonry barrel vaulting starting in the seventeenth century.28 For the remaining constructions, residential and civic buildings were built with flat roofs, made with a layer of compressed earth, covered on the exterior with a layer of thin bricks, and underneath, in the interior, the earth was retained with a layer of thin board planks and the whole slab was supported with timber beams. The thin wood planks, usually made of pine and fir, are called tejamanil and are probably of Indigenous origin.

The availability of good-quality materials and the effective craftsmanship provided by the Calpan, Cholulan, and Tlaxcalan laborers made the architecture of Puebla of a particularly high manufacturing quality. Biihler, having surveyed and cataloged a large percentage of historical buildings in Puebla, noted the scarcity of adobe constructions in most of the city’s historical center, except for the peripheral barrios, where the prevalence of adobe rises considerably. Most of the viceregal buildings surveyed by this scholar appeared to have, from early on, been built in cal у canto.19 According to Kubler, the hotspot of refined and sophisticated constructive knowhow in sixteenth-century New Spain was the Mexico City area, where the

A view of the corner balcony of the Castillo de Altra family residence in downtown Puebla, dating from the early seventeenth century

Figure 3.1 A view of the corner balcony of the Castillo de Altra family residence in downtown Puebla, dating from the early seventeenth century. This corner detail is a relevant example of the high quality of building manufacture present in the city.

Indigenous masons, smiths, and carpenters, applying native techniques that they had mastered for generations, and adding European-taught crafts and techniques, came to be highly regarded. Texcocans and Xochimilcans, for instance, were among the most sought-after construction craftsmen.30 Since Puebla had a sizable community of Indigenous immigrants from Mexico City, including Texcocans, that circumstance might have elevated the quality of Puebla’s construction craftsmanship. Given the quality of the materials and the consolidation of the city’s architectural culture by the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries, it is now essential to understand the theoretical underpinnings behind the articulation of this rich architectural tradition (see Figure 3.1).

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