Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Frank Lloyd Wright and the Maya

Taliesen West facade
Taliesen West facade

Cindy and I visited the Frank Lloyd Wright workshop/school Taliesen West (in Scottsdale) over the Christmas holiday. Our nephew, Los Angeles architect James Diewald, was in town, as were Cindy's parents. I had heard that Wright was influenced by ancient Maya architecture, so we looked for evidence of this at Taliesen West. It didn't take long to find. Several of the buildings exhibit a sloping exterior wall in a form common in the architecture of ancient Mesoamerica. The outward-sloping panel is called a "talud" by Mesoamericanists. It is most famous at Teotihuacan, where the sloping panels alternate with vertical framed panels called "tableros." But Wright used the talud without the tablero.
Xochicalco, Feathered Serpent Temple

Contrary to various books about Wright's influences, the closest parallels of this talud form are not to the Maya, but to ancient central Mexican architecture, such as the Feathered Serpent Temple at Xochicalco. ((NOTE: I am not providing links for Xochicalco, since the readily available websites (e.g., the Wikipedia entry for Xochicalco) are pretty bad and filled with nonsense. Xochicalco was an urban center southwest of Cuernavaca that flourished from the sixth to ninth centuries AD; I worked at the site as a graduate student. Major recent fieldwork projects were directed by Kenneth Hirth and Norberto González; see references below)). A number of Maya cities did use the talud form, though.

At Taliesen West I asked our guide and some employees at the (very nice) bookstore about Mayan influence on Wright's architecture, but they didn't know much. One person said that this was one aspect of Wright's life that had not been researched yet. That didn't sound correct. I skimmed through various books on Wright's architecture in the bookstore, and they mentioned his explicit use of Maya models as a matter of course, mostly in reference to a set of houses he designed in the 1920s in Los Angeles.

Hollyhock House, Los Angeles
Hollyhock House, Los Angeles

The Hollyhock House was built for Aline Barnsdall between 1919 and 1921, and shows a general formal similarity to buildings and complexes (the so-called "Nunnery  Quadrange") at the Maya city of Uxmal. This is a distinctive and attractive house; see more photos and information at the Hollyhock House website.

Ennis House, Los Angeles

Ennis House, Los Angeles

The Ennis House (built in 1924) uses similar forms and techniques, but has a greater number of specific Maya items in its architecture and decoration.Wright's client evidently had an affinity for Mayan art. Like the Hollyhock House, this is a gorgeous and fascinating structure; see more at the Ennis House website.
This house was used as a set in a number of films and television shows, including  Blade Runner and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

What is Maya about these structures? Two features stand out to me; there are probably others. First, the overall form of the individual structures and their configuration resembles building in the so-called "Puuc Style" of the Yucatan Peninsula. Uxmal is the best-known city with predominantly Puuc architecture, and the well-visited site of Chichén Itzá has much architecture in the Puuc style:

Chichén Itzá

The second Mayan feature of Wright's Los Angeles houses is the use of individual blocks to produce walls with a rich textured surface. Wright called these "textile blocks." The Puuc Maya used varying kinds of blocks to produce textured walls, some depicting the rain god and others geometric in design.
One of Wright's "textile blocks"
Mosaic facade at Kabah (Puuc Maya)

Compare the Kabah facade to both interior and exterior walls at the Hollyhock and Ennis houses. There are other Maya parallels that turn up in Wright's work over a period of many years. They were not at all limited to the Los Angeles houses.

A bit of library research turned up much information about Frank Lloyd Wright's Mayan (and more general Mesoamerican) influences.  By far the best account is Barbara Braun's excellent book, Pre-Columbian Art and the Post-Columbian World: Ancient American Sources of Modern Art, which has a chapter called "Frank Lloyd Wright: A Vision of Maya Temples." In a 1930 lecture, Wright said, "I remember how, as a boy, primitive American architecture, Toltec, Aztec, Mayan, Inca, stirred my wonder, excited my wishful imagination" (quoted in Braun, p.138). Braun goes on to chronicle Wright's use of Mayan architecture. She does not seem to have a good grasp of non-Mayan Mesoamerican architecture, however, and Wright's use of elements from sites like Xochicalco, Tula, and other non-Mayan cities is a topic that could stand some additional research. Additional information can be found in Ingle (1984) and Tselos (1969), a semi-rigorous article. The 1920s and 1930s were a period when ancient Mesoamerican art and Mesoamerican traditional culture more generally were very popular in the U.S., and Wright was in the midst of this movement (see works by Braun, Delpar, and Park below).

I was particularly interested in the role of the Chicago fair of 1893, the Worlds Columbian Exposition, in the possible development of Wright's appreciation for Mayan architecture. Wright was working in the office of Chicago architect Louis Sullivan at the time, and participated in the design of several structures at the fair. The fair also included full-size replicas for several Puuc Maya structures (from Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, and Labná). When the fair was dismantled, these were later assembled at the Field Museum of Natural History (in Chicago). It was not clear from the sources I consulted (see below), however, how much of an impression these made on Wright, or the specific nature of their possible influence on his ideas.

Puuc Maya replicas at the Chicago Worlds Fair, 1893
I highly recommend this outstanding account of the Chicago fair, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness in the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson. I really enjoyed this book a few years ago (although I can't recall now whether Larson discusses the Maya buildings).

Sources on Maya influences on Frank Lloyd Wright:

Braun, Barbara  (1993)  Pre-Columbian Art and the Post-Columbian World: Ancient American Sources of Modern Art. Abrams, New York.

Delpar, Helen  (1992)  The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican: Cultural Relations between the United States and Mexico, 1920-1935. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

Heinz, Thomas  (1979)  Historic Architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright, Ennis-Brown House. Architectural Digest (October):104-111, 160.

Ingle, Marjorie  (1984)  Mayan Revival Style: Art Deco Fantasy. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Park, Stephen M.  (2011)  Mesoamerican Modernism: William Carlos Williams and the Archaeological Imagination. Journal of Modern Literature 34(4):21-47.

Steele, James  (1992)  Barnsdall House: Frank Lloyd Wright. Phaidon, London.

Tselos, Dimitri  (1969)  Frank Lloyd Wright and World Architecture. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 28(1):58-72.

On Puuc Maya architecture:

Andrews, George F.  (1995)  Architecture of the Puuc Region and the Northern Plains Area. Labyrinthos, Lancaster, CA.

Gendrop, Paul  (1998)  Río Bec, Chenes, and Puuc Styles in Maya Architecture. Translated by Robert D. Wood. Edited and with a forward by George F. Andrews. Labyrinthos, Lancaster, CA.

Kowalski, Jeffrey K.  (1987)  The House of the Governor: A Maya Palace of Uxmal, Yucatan, Mexico. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Pollock, Harry E. D.  (1980)  The Puuc: An Architectural Survey of the Hill Country of Yucatan and Northern Campeche, Mexico. Memoirs vol. 19. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge.

Proskouriakoff, Tatiana  (1963)  An Album of Maya Architecture. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

On Xochicalco:

de la Fuente, Beatriz, Silvia Garza Tarazona, Norberto González Crespo, Arnold Leboef, Miguel León Portilla and Javier Wimer  (1995)  La Acrópolis de Xochicalco. Instituto de Cultura de Morelos, Cuernavaca.

González Crespo, Norberto, Silvia Garza Tarazona, Hortensia de Vega Nova, Pablo Mayer Guala and Giselle Canto Aguilar  (1995)  Archaeological Investigations at Xochicalco, Morelos: 1984 and 1986. Ancient Mesoamerica 6:223-236.

Hirth, Kenneth G. (editor)  (2000)  Archaeological Research at Xochicalco. Volume 1, Ancient Urbanism at Xochicalco: The Evolution and Organization of a Pre-Hispanic Society. Volume 2, The Xochicalco Mapping Project. 2 vols. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Hirth, Kenneth G. (editor)  (2006)  Obsidian Craft Production in Ancient Central Mexico: Archaeological Research at Xochicalco. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

López Luján, Leonardo, Robert H. Cobean and Alba Guadalupe Mastache  (2001)  Xochicalco y Tula. CONACULTA, Mexico City.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Deep History vs. the Urban Revolution: Which was more important?

Deep History
The deep history of our species — our origins and early development — has seen an explosion of research in the past decade. Knowledge of our hominid ancestors has increased greatly with new fossil finds and new models. A major strand of research right now is the development of modern human capabilities. When did our brains reach their modern size? When did our ancestors begin using modern-like language? What is the earliest evidence for the use of fire, for symbolic behavior, for trade? A hot topic now is the origins of cooperation. Humans engage is cooperative behavior much more frequently and intensively than any other species. How did this come about, and how did it relate to the biological and cultural innovations that made us human? (see Mithen 2006, Richerson & Boyd 2004, Bowles & Gintis 2011).

While I don't want to downplay the importance of this research on human deep history, some caution is required. Authors sometimes suggest that an understanding of deep history  and human biology can explain modern human society (e.g., Pinker 2002). But in tracing out the social development of human society, such authors often ignore a crucial middle territory — the Urban Revolution — that created many of the important features of recent and modern society. This is the conclusion of an outstanding book review by Colin Renfrew (the leading archaeologist today) in the latest issue of American Scientist. Renfrew reviews the book, Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present (Shryock and Smail, eds, 2011). I am a big fan of good academic book reviews. The best book reviews are gems: short essays that not only say what the book is about and whether it is good or bad, but also set the book into its intellectual context. Renfrew's review fits in this category.

I own the book, Deep History, which is an admirable attempt by historians to extend our understanding of "history" back into the distant human past. Most chapters are jointly written by various combinations of excellent scholars (archaeologists, anthropologists, historians). But in skimming and reading through it I thought the individual chapters are very good but the sum total is not satisfying. Renfrew's book review explains the basis for my dissatisfaction. Renfrew notes,

The Urban Revolution
"By stressing the very remote past of the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic era and then leaping to the modernity of today's world, without much emphasis on the intervening ancient world of Greece and Rome or the earlier civilization of Sumer and Egypt (or indeed of the Incas and the Aztecs), do the authors risk recreating the Noble Savage? By underplaying the ancient civilizations, from Shang China to the Olmec of Mesoamerica, are they perhaps jumping from savagery to modernity without having sufficiently considered the mediating effects of barbarism or of early civilization?" (p. 68).

In other words, the contributors to the book Deep History ignore the Urban Revolution. Starting with the first formulation of this concept by V. Gordon Childe in the 1930s archaeologists have shown how most of the key institutions of modern society (kingship, government, social classes, laws, urbanization, writing, complex economies) originated in the early states around the world, from Mesopotamia to Egypt to China to Mesoamerica. Granted, none of these innovations could have occurred without the development of human cognitive and cooperative abilities. And neither could they have occurred had societies not previously worked out crop domestication and agriculture (the so-called Neolithic Revolution, also a term that originated with Childe). But while the Neolithic Revolution led to some important changes in demography and settlement, the Urban Revolution brought about much more radical and far-reaching changes in the organization of human society.

For more information about the Urban Revolution, see my previous post on this. Better still check out Childe's highly influential article, "The Urban Revolution" (Childe 1950) and my recent commentary on the historical status of that paper (Smith 2009).

The opposition posed above— Deep History vs. the Urban Revolution — is artificial, of course. It is not possible to determine rationally which of these was "more important." But without the Urban Revolution, the innovations of Deep History would never have led to modern society, and we might still be living a tribal life in campsites and villages, rather than a socially complex life in cities and towns.


Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis  (2011)  A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and its Evolution. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Childe, V. Gordon  (1950)  The Urban Revolution. Town Planning Review 21:3-17.

Mithen, Steven  (2006)  After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20000-5000 BC. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Pinker, Steven  (2002)  The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking, New York.

Richerson, Peter J. and Robert Boyd  (2004)  Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Shryock, Andrew and Daniel Smail (editors)  (2011)  Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Smith, Michael E.  (2009)  V. Gordon Childe and the Urban Revolution: An Historical Perspective on a Revolution in Urban Studies. Town Planning Review 80:3-29.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The modern construction of an "ancient" monument

The Centro Ceremonial Otomi ("Otomi Ceremonial Center"), near Toluca, Mexico, was built by the State of Mexico in 1980 to honor the Otomi peoples and their culture. It is one of the strangest built environments I have ever been in. Read about my visit last year on the blog from the Calixtlahuaca Archaeological Project. And if you are in central Mexico, go see the place (especially if you are a fan of James Bond movies!).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Aztec Urban Agriculture

Chinampa farming in Tenochtitlan
Urban agriculture is a hot topic right now, but it's nothing new. The Aztecs were doing this 600 years ago. Today, the cultivation of crops within cities is expanding all over the world. This practice is being promoted by city administrations, by planners, and by grassroots organizations. Urban agriculture provides food for urban residents; the food is fresh; and the maintenance of green areas has health benefits. This practice is being touted as a positive force in creating more sustainable cities.

The growth of urban agriculture is also the target of a rapidly growing scholarly literature. Agronomists are studying the soil nutrients of urban agriculture, engineers are looking at water supplies, anthropologists and sociologists are examining the social aspects of urban farming. This research targets both developing countries and the developed world.

What people don't seem to realize is that urban agriculture was quite extensive in ancient cities. Although a few writers acknowledge that ancient societies practiced urban agriculture, they view it as in isolated and rare practice limited to a few isolated places. Most writers about modern cities, of course, just ignore deep history. To them, urban agriculture is something new, a product of the sustainability movement. For example, the "Solutions" website wrote in November 2010 that urban agriculture is "a new movement."

In fact, urban agriculture was a "new movement" several thousand years ago.  The history of ancient urban agriculture has yet to be written, but there are some good archaeological and historical examples from the area where I do fieldwork, ancient Mesoamerica. Swedish archaeologist Christian Isendahl (2010) performed chemical analysis of ancient soils to show that the ancient Maya grew crops within their low-density cities. Calixtlahuaca, the Aztec-period urban site where I am working now, was a giant cultivated hillside; people built stone terraces for their houses and for gardens. But the most spectacular example of ancient urban agriculture in Mesoamerica was the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan.

Tenochtitlan, the island capital
Urban agriculture at Tenochtitlan is not a new discovery. It was known to Europeans from the time Hernando Cortés and his band of Spanish soldiers entered the Aztec capital in 1519. They remarked on the many green areas devoted to farming. The famous Aztec chinampas (often incorrectly called "floating gardens) covered many acres of the city. Built on a island in a large lake, Tenochtitlan was crossed by many canals. Indeed, the Spaniards called it "the Venice of the New World."

The chinampas are a remarkable form of agriculture. They were very intensively cultivated, with three to four crops a year. The chinampas are an example of a more widespread farming system called raised fields. This was a system of farming in swamps or shallow lakes. Soil was scooped up from the lake bottom and piled onto long parallel rows. The fields were sometimes held in place with trees or wood stakes. Crops planted on top of the rows had easy access to water, and the soils were very rich. Periodically the canals between the fields were cleaned out and the muck piled on top of the field (a process known as "mucking"). This material was rich in decaying organic material, a great natural fertilizer.

Aztec map of a chinampa area
Raised fields were devised a thousand years or more before the Aztecs in lowland Mesoamerica, and the system was  used by the Classic Maya (AD 0-800). In South America, raised fields were invented independently, and large systems were built in the Llanos de Mojos of Bolivia, and around the edges of Lake Titicaca between Bolivia and Peru.

By the time Tenochtitlan was founded (AD 1325), this was an ancient agricultural method in Mesoamerica, although rare in the highlands. The Mexica people founded their city in the shallow waters of Late Texcoco. As the city expanded, vast areas of chinampas were constructed at the city edges.The island was located in an area where the salty waters of Lake Texcoco met the fresh waters of Lake  Xochimilco in the south. When Tenochtitlan grew large, a system of dikes was built to keep the salty waters away from the city (and to control flooding).

Urban chinampa fields in Tenochtitl
A remarkable Aztec map (black-and-white figure at right) shows one area of Tenochtitlan with large canals and footpaths, blocks of parallel chinampas, and the houses of farmers. Soon after the Spanish conquest, the Aztec peoples started using the machinery of the Spanish legal system, including written wills. These chinampa farmers left
their houses and fields to their descendents, and the wills often contain maps of their holdings. The next figure shows some of these drawings, compiled from such wills by ethnohistorian Edward Calnek. Most farmers owned two or three fields, located adjacent to their houses. As shown by the painting of Tenochtitlan at the top of this entry, the Aztec capital (with its 100,000+ inhabitants) was ringed with chinampas.

In addition to Tenochtitlan, Lakes Xochimilco and Chalco (south of the city) were covered with chinampas in Aztec times. Although this system was highly productive, it met only a portion of the food needs of the imperial capital. Food was also obtained through the markets and through taxes.

Chinampero in 1900

After the Spanish conquest, Tenochtitlan became Mexico City. Lake Texcoco was drained and the chinampas no longer functioned. In Lake Xochimilco, however, the chinampas continued to be farmed in the colonial period and are still active today, growing flowers and vegetables for the Mexico City market.
Tourist boats at the "floating gardens"
The chinampero (chinampa farmer) in this great 1900 photograph (from the 3rd edition of my book, The Aztecs) is using a flat-bottom canoe of the type used by his Aztec ancestors. Today, the Lake Xochimilco chinampas are a tourist attraction. You can ride in a larger version of these canoes and see the fields up close, and you can even be serenaded by a mariachi band in a boat (for a fee). For tourists, the chinampas are called "floating gardens." These fields obviously do not float. That label probably comes from the practice of using floating rafts for germinating the plants, which are then transplanted into the chinampa surface.

Urban fields in Zinacantepec, 1579
The chinampas of Tenochtitlan are one of the more spectacular examples of ancient urban agriculture, but they are far from unique in the Aztec world. An early colonial map from Zinacantepec ("place [or hill] of the bat"), shows fields and houses in and around the town. Zinacantepec, located near Toluca and Calixtlahuaca, was a city-state prior to the Spanish conquest. This early map probably preserves much of the ancient settlement pattern (with the addition of a Christian church). Look closely at the nine houses surrounding the church. This was the downtown area of the town, and the artist had painted much of the area between the houses in green, indicating cultivated fields (the green is faint, but clearly present in this part of the map).

Medieval urban herb garden
A search of ancient and premodern cities in other parts of the world would no doubt turn up many other examples of urban agriculture. Just this morning I just found a great color illustration of a Medieval urban herb garden from a 15th century French manuscript.

When writers today call urban agriculture a "new movement," they are in error. But I am less interested in correcting such errors than in bringing to light a whole world of urban possibilities that existed in past times. The more we know about the past, the better we will be able to plan for the future. Look at the quotation from Winston Churchill in the top right corner of this blog: "The farther back we look, the farther ahead we can see." Or, in the words, of former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, “It’s very hard to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been.”

Here are some sources on the Aztec chinampas. The first complete and scholarly book on the city of Tenochtitlan to be published in English is now in press (Rojas 2012); it has much good information on chinampas and other features of the island city.

Ávila López, Raúl
1991    Chinampas de Iztapalapa, D.F. Colección Científica, vol. 225. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City.

Calnek, Edward E.
1973    The Localization of the Sixteenth Century Map Called the Maguey Plan. American Antiquity 38:190-195.

2003    Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco: The Natural History of a City / Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco: La Historia Natural de una Ciudad. In El urbanismo en mesoamérica / Urbanism in Mesoamerica, edited by William T. Sanders, Alba Guadalupe Mastache, and Robert H. Cobean, pp. 149-202. Proyecto Urbanismo dn Mesoamérica / The Mesoamerican Urbanism Project, vol. 1. Pennsylvania State University and Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, University Park and Mexico City.

Rojas, José Luis de
2012    Tenochtitlan: Capital City of the Aztec Empire. University Press of Florida, Gainesville. In press,

Smith, Michael E.
2012    The Aztecs. 3rd ed. Blackwell Publishers, Oxford.

For more context on urban agriculture see:

Boone, Christopher G. and Ali Modarres
2006    City and Environment. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

Isendahl, Christian
2010    Greening the Ancient City: The Agro-Urban Landscapes of the Pre-Hispanic Maya. In The Urban Mind: Cultural and Environmental Dynamics, edited by Paul Sinclair, Gullög Nordquist, Frands Herschend, and Christian Isendahl, pp. 527-552. Studies in Global Archaeology, vol. 15. Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University, Uppsala.

Ljungkvist, John, Stephan Barthel, Göran Finnveden, and Sverker Sörlin
2010    The Urban Anthropocene: Lessons for Sustainability From the Environmental History of Constantinople. In The Urban Mind: Cultural and Environmental Dynamics, edited by Paul Sinclair, Gullög Nordquist, Frands Herschend, and Christian Isendahl, pp. 367-390. Studies in Global Archaeology, vol. 15. Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, Uppsala University, Uppsala.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Defining cities and urbanism (again)

I just found out that my post "What is a city? Definitions of the urban," is the most popular post in this blog. Since my views on this topic have been changing slightly, perhaps it is time for more consideration of the topic. The earlier posts contrasts two definitions: the demographic definition (cities are places with lots of people and social complexity) and the functional definition (cities are places whose activities affect a larger hinterland). In Mesoamerica, these opposing definitions have been most commonly invoked in comparisons of Teotihuacan and the low-density Maya cities. This iconic comparison, from Sanders and Price (1968) is informative:

Are these both cities? Teo and Tikal at the same scale

My thinking these days has shifted slightly. I am less concerned now with coming up with complete definitions of city and urban than with exploring the different kinds of features that make up the concept of urban. The different definitions of urbanism (the two I have discussed, and others as well) vary in the weight given to three main features: Population, complexity, and influence. Settlements can be urban-like on one, two, or all three of these dimensions. The one we choose to emphasize depends on our goals.


In the traditional (demographic) definition of urbanism, population is of primary importance -- both the number of people and the density per unit of area. For the functional definition of cities, the population doesn't matter much. Right now, in our project on semi-urban settlements, population is the most important attribute. These are places like refugee camps and internment camps that are formed rapidly, and we are looking to see whether they have neighborhood organization. For our purposes, it doesn't really matter whether these places exhibit social complexity, or influence on a hinterland. What makes them "semi-urban" or city-like is their aggregation of people in one place. Similarly, Roland Fletcher's important work on settlement size (Fletcher 1995) is about the role of population size and population density on human settlement dynamics.


My university campus
Social complexity or variation is part of Louis Wirth's (1938) demographic definition of urbanism. This refers to occupational specialization, social classes or wealth variation, ethnic or cultural differences. Large population concentrations do not necessarily exhibit social complexity; large villages are an example. Settlements with urban functions--that is, settlements that influence a hinterland--almost always have some kind of social complexity. If a settlement has administrative functions, then it probably has government officials, bureaucrats of various types, perhaps military personnel--which means it would have social complexity. The same holds for economic or religious urban functions. But can a settlement be socially complex but NOT have a large population or urban functions? This would have to be some kind of self-contained highly specialized installation, perhaps a university campus or a large medieval monastery in a rural area.


Urban influence: capital city (Addis Ababa)
Urban functions are activities and institutions in a settlement that affect or influence a larger hinterland. This is what I mean by influence. A settlement can be large but have little complexity and little hinterland influence (e.g., a large agricultural village), or it can be complex with little influence (e.g., the college campus mentioned above). This dimension of "urban-ness" is important because it addresses the roles of cities in their societies. Cities are important nodes in a regional landscape, and the concept of influence points to the varying roles they play. So from a general perspective, when I need to define cities or urbanism, I usually point to the functional definition (as in my 2008 book, Aztec City-State Capitals).

Population, complexity and influence capture much of what we usually mean when we talk about concepts of the city or urban settlement. Most definitions of city and urban can be constructed from variations in these three factors. But sometimes we learn more by focusing less on such definitions and more on the individual dimensions. These three factors, and the ways they vary across time and space, are crucial components of the wide urban world

Fletcher, Roland
1995    The Limits of Settlement Growth: A Theoretical Outline. Cambridge University Press, New York.
Smith, Michael E.
2008    Aztec City-State Capitals. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.
Wirth, Louis
1938    Urbanism as a Way of Life. American Journal of Sociology 44:1-24.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Did premodern cities have "urban issues"?

The basic premise of this blog is that cities and urbanism have been around for thousands of years, and that it is interesting and useful to take a broad perspective on these things. The "Wide Urban World" is the realm of cities from ancient Mesopotamia to the present. Consideration of premodern cities can provide insights into modern urban issues, and research on contemporary cities can help historians and archaeologists understand past cities. And consideration of both modern and past cities will allow us to understand the nature and variation of urbanism much more fully than a narrow focus on a single time period or place. Beyond this blog, my colleagues and I have made this point in a number of publications (see the list at the bottom).

There is an alternative understanding of the meaning of the term "urban," however, that is much more narrowly conceived. To some, "urban issues" are issues of contemporary cities (and perhaps their predecessors over a century or so). Either past cities did not have "urban issues," or else their "urban issues" are irrelevant to modern concerns, not worth considering. This is the viewpoint of the well-known policy institution, the Urban Institute, which features "nonpartisan economic and social policy research." This kind of "present-only" perspective on urbanism can be called "presentism." For critiques, see any of the papers below (particulalry Harris & Smith 2011).

Now there is another presentist institution, the new "Urban Portal" of the University of Chicago, billed as "a gateway to the latest in urban social science." I looked around the site and its resources, and much of it looks interesting and important. But I found no explicit acknowledgement that history or comparison are considered important for urban social science. Well, that is certainly not my view of the topic. Let me re-write their "about" section in a more accurate manner:

"The Urban Portal is an online hub designed to provide experts and non-experts easy access to current research and resources on CONTEMPORARY urban issues IN THE UNITED STATES. The Portal is a core project of the University of Chicago Urban Network, an emerging community of scholars and others that aims to spur innovation in the study of MODERN urban processes and to encourage interdisciplinary discourse in urban research, theory, and policy THAT EXCLUDES HISTORICAL OR COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVES."

If you'd like to see a more formal scholarly argument for the kind of broad approach to urban studies I advocate, look at this White Paper some of us submitted to the program "Future Research in the Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences" at the National Science Foundation, or look around our website.

Briggs, Xavier de Souza
2004    Civilization in Color: The Multicultural City in Three Millennia. City and Community 3:311-342.

Fletcher, Roland
2009    Low-Density, Agrarian-Based Urbanism: A Comparative View. Insights (University of Durham) 2:article 4.

Grant, Jill
2001    The Dark Side of the Grid: Power and Urban Design. Planning Perspectives 16:219-241.

2004    Sustainable Urbanism in Historical Perspective. In Towards Sustainable Cities: East Asian, North American and European Perspectives on Managing Urban Regions, edited by André Sorensen, Peter J. Marcutullio, and Jill Grant, pp. 24-37. Ashgate, Burlington, VT.

Hakim, Besim S.
2007    Generative Processes for Revitalizing Historic Towns or Heritage Districts. Urban Design International 12:87-99.

Harris, Richard and Michael E. Smith
2011    The History in Urban Studies: A Comment. Journal of Urban Affairs 33(1):99-105.

Smith, Michael E.
2009    Editorial: Just How Comparative is Comparative Urban Geography?: A Perspective from Archaeology. Urban Geography 30:113-117.

2010    Sprawl, Squatters, and Sustainable Cities: Can Archaeological Data Shed Light on Modern Urban Issues? Cambridge Archaeological Journal 20:229-253.

York, Abigail, Michael E. Smith, Benjamin Stanley, Barbara L. Stark, Juliana Novic, Sharon L. Harlan, George L. Cowgill, and Christopher Boone
2011    Ethnic and Class-Based Clustering Through the Ages: A Transdisciplinary Approach to Urban Social Patterns. Urban Studies 48(11):2399-2415.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Urban Planning in Ancient Central Mexico

1. Plaza at Dos Pilas, Maya city
There is much to learn from archaeological maps of ancient cities. Even in places where we have no written documents, archaeologists can often get a good idea about aspects of ancient urban planning from maps alone. Consider political capital cities in central Mexico. Sites such as Teotihuacan, Tula, and Tenochtitlan (the Aztec capital) are visited my millions of tourists every year. The progression of city plans in this area over time gives us insights into the people who built and inhabited these urban centers. I am going to review the situation in five stages. This will be a simplification of often-complex archaeological findings, and for more details you can check the references at the end.
2. Tikal

1. The Basic Mesoamerican Urban Plan

3. Yagul
Mesoamerica is the culture area that runs from northern Mexico through northern Central America. It includes the Aztecs, the Mayas, and many other cultures. The most widespread and ancient pattern of urban planning in Mesoamerica has several features. First, the plaza was the basic unit of planning. Public buildings like temple-pyramids, palaces, and ballcourts were arranged around rectangular public plazas (see fig. 1, Dos Pilas, a Maya city). Second, the largest public buildings and plazas were concentrated in a "downtown" area that shows definite planning of layouts. Figure 2 shows the downtown of Tikal, one of the largest Maya cities. I also include a photo of Yagul, a small site in Oaxaca, that shows the kind of planning found in the downtown areas of Mesoamerican cities, from the Maya to the Aztecs. A third principle of Mesoamerican urban form is that residential neighborhoods were not formally planned. Residences were built in a hap-hazard fashion with little attempt to line them up or closely coordinate their locations or form. The many small squares surrounding downtown Tikal are patio groups, the main form of housing at Classic Maya cities.

5. Teotihuacan
2. Teotihuacan Innovations: An Urban Experiment
4. Teotihuacan (1950s)
Teotihuacan started off around the time of Christ as one of several competing chiefdom centers in the Valley of Mexico. After lava from the eruption of Mt. Xitle destroyed its main competitor, Cuicuilco, Teotihuacan entered a period of rapid urbanization. Two huge pyramids were built (figure 4) and the city rapidly expanded to cover nearly 20 square kilometers. The builders of the city made several major innovations in urban layout to create a city unlike any that had come before or after in Mesoamerica. First, they laid the city out around a central avenue, the so-called "Street of the Dead," instead of using public plazas for structure. Second, they extended the planned district from the downtown to cover the entire city. The whole city shows an orthogonal layout (fig. 5). Third, a standardized form of multi-family residence was used, called the apartment compound. The degree of standardization in housing and the extent of orthogonal planning are without precedent in Mesoamerica. Some authors have suggested that these (and other) traits suggest a highly regimented society with strict controls on individual behavior. Although I am skeptical of some of these arguments, it is clear that the builders of Teotihuacan were very powerful and imprinted their power on the entire urban landscape. The city was burned and its government collapsed around AD 600.

7. Tula
3. Toltec Revival: Rejection of Teotihuacan Ideals

6. Downtown Tula
 After the fall of Teotihuacan, cities during the "Epiclassic" period (AD 700-900) were built on fortified hilltops, employing more traditional Mesoamerican planning principles. Xochicalco and Cacaxtla are the two best know of these sites in central Mexico. Then the Toltec peoples (AD 900-1100) built Tula, a large capital north of the Valley of Mexico (figs 6, 7). This urban plan was a radical break from the Teotihuacan plan. The Toltec kings returned to ancient Mesoamerican planning principles. Not only is Tula based around a large public plaza, but the arrangement is one of the most formal and monumental plazas in all of Mesoamerica. Large buildings are balanced symmetrically across a square plaza, and all buildings adhere strictly to the same orthogonal grid. That grid does not extend to the residential neighborhoods, however; housing at Tula is haphazardly arranged, just as at most Mesoamerican cities. The plan of Tula represents a rejection of Teotihuacan planning principles, and a return to the ancient Mesoamerican planning ideas, with a vengeance. This is the most "Mesoamerican" of urban plans within ancient Mesoamerica.

4.  Aztec City-State Capitals: Keeping the Toltec Ideals Alive
8. Coatetelco
9. Coatetelco, ballcourt

After the fall of Tula, the Aztecs arrived on the scene. The Early Aztec period (AD 1100-1300) was a dynamic time of population growth and the expansion of city-states across the landscape. Kings established dynasties, and they claimed descent from the Toltec kings as the basis of their legitimacy. To the Aztecs, the Toltecs were the wise, great, and wonderful ancestors. So it is hardly surprising that these petty kings, who ruled small city-states, copied their cities after Tula as one way of claiming Toltec descent. Compare the plan of Coatetelco (fig. 8) to that of Tula: they are almost identical (except that Tula is much larger than Coatetelco!). The architecture and layout of these Aztec city-state capitals were political statements by the Aztec kings, proclaiming not only their power and glory, but their links to the Toltec past (this is one of the main arguments of my book, Aztec City-State Capitals).

5.  Tenochtitlan, the Imperial Capital: Back to Teotihuacan and the Toltecs
10. Tenochtitlan

11. Tenochtitlan
Tenochtitlan, was not founded until 1325, during the Late Aztec period. At first Tenochtitlan was just another city-state like Coatetelco and many others. But as the Mexica people (inhabitants of Tenochtitlan) grew politically and economically powerful, they soon started to dominate their neighbors, and in 1428 the Aztec Empire was established, with Tenochtitlan as its capital. Its wealth and power grew dramatically, and soon the Mexica kings felt the need to differentiate their capital from the many small cities of the other Aztec peoples. First, they walled off the downtown; in place of the open public plaza, they created a walled sacred precinct. Then they turned to the ruins of Teotihuacan and Tula for inspiration. The entire island city was laid out with an orthogonal grid, probably in imitation of Teotihuacan (although I should note that the city expanded by filling in raised agricultural fields, which had an orthogonal layout to begin with). The Mexica built Teotihuacan-style shrines and used Toltec-style ritual objects in their state ceremonies. The king sent people to excavate at Tula to find the buried riches of the Toltecs. Then, in 1519, Hernan Cortés arrived to conquer the Aztecs, and Tenochtitlan was built over to become Mexico City (whose street pattern today originated in the Aztec urban plan).

This story has several lessons. First, looking at ancient city plans can be very informative. They give us insights into political and social processes from hundred, or even thousands of years ago. Second, urbanism and planning were highly dynamic processes. There was no "standard" pattern of central Mexican capital city. City plans, forms, and significance changed over time, and careful analysis, city-by-city and period-by-period, is needed to tease out these changes. Third, even though we cannot name the planners and architects responsible for these cities, we can reconstruct something of their context and aspirations. Many of their urban creations lasted for centuries (in some cases, far longer than most modern cities have survived so far), and left impressive marks on the landscape.

Read about these ancient cities and visit their ruins in Mexico. They are an important part of the Wide Urban World.


Andrews, George F.
1975    Maya Cities: Placemaking and Urbanization. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Calnek, Edward E.
2003    Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco: The Natural History of a City / Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco: La Historia Natural de una Ciudad. In El urbanismo en mesoamérica / Urbanism in Mesoamerica, edited by William T. Sanders, Alba Guadalupe Mastache, and Robert H. Cobean, pp. 149-202. Proyecto Urbanismo dn Mesoamérica / The Mesoamerican Urbanism Project, vol. 1. Pennsylvania State University and Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, University Park and Mexico City.

Cowgill, George L.
1997    State and Society at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Annual Review of Anthropology 26:129-161.

Diehl, Richard A.
1983    Tula: The Toltec Capital of Ancient Mexico. Thames and Hudson, New York.

Smith, Michael E.
2007    Form and Meaning in the Earliest Cities: A New Approach to Ancient Urban Planning. Journal of Planning History 6(1):3-47.

Smith, Michael E.
2008    Aztec City-State Capitals. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Dense living

Dense living
I just found an interesting aggregation site called "Dense Living."   It brings together blog posts, tweets, and other internet items, under the banner,

"Dense Living: Most of the worlds population will live in cities. Let's look at this trend and its consequences.”

Here are a few of the entries:

  • Dense designs
  • Is new urbanism sustainable?
  • Theory of evolution links cities, science, fractal geometry
  • Urban sprawl around Istanbul
  • Did ancient cities have urban sprawl?  (sound familiar? it should).
  • Paolo Soleri: a vision of dense, liveable cities

By the way, some of the densest settlements ever occupied on earth are early Iroquois villages. They were extremely dense because the long-houses were packed in behind palisades on hilltops for defensive reasons.

Check out "Dense living" for some interesting news and stories.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Round Lake: From Methodist Camp Meeting to Modern Village

 The village of Round Lake is located in Saratoga County, NY, between Albany and Saratoga Springs. It stands out in upstate New York for its unusual layout and architecture. I used to live in Saratoga County, and I was always intrigued when I drove through Round Lake. The village consists largely of houses in Victorian style (gingerbread molding, steep gables, front porches, etc.), but many are small cottages, far smaller than most Victorian style houses in the U.S. The houses are located very close together, but with parks and open spaces throughout the settlement. The streets are narrow and laid out in a generally concentric wagon-wheel arrangement around a large wooden assembly hall in the middle. There is an old Victorian style hotel at the edge of town, but the village has few stores or other businesses. Interesting, quaint, and charming, the architecture and layout of Round Lake stands out like a sore thumb in the region around Albany,  New York.
Last spring, as part of an ongoing investigation into semi-urban settlements, I began reading about religious camp meetings. As I looked at their spatial structure, it dawned on me that Round Lake must have originated as one of these summer religious camps. They contain numerous small and insubstantial shelters—usually tents or cabins—arranged around a central circular clearing in the woods where the preaching takes place. Some have a simple elevated open-air stage, and some have more substantial preaching halls. As temporary summer camps, there is no need for a large number of permanent businesses. It seems that in Round Lake, a camp meeting settlement had turned into a permanent village.

Last week my wife and I found ourselves back in the Albany area with a few hours to kill, so we headed over to Round Lake to see whether my interpretation was correct. The first thing we noticed was a historical marker (New York State has great roadside historical markers) that confirmed the village’s origin as a Methodist camp meeting site in the late nineteenth century. We walked around and took some photos (seen in this posting) and talked to some residents. At the Public Library we purchased a history of the town, written in the local history genre. The book is:

Hesson, Mary, David J. Rogowski, and Marianne Comfort
         1998       Round Lake: Little Village in the Grove. Round Lake Publications, Round Lake, NY.
The first meeting, in 1868 (from Hesson et al.)

Round Lake was founded in1868 by the Methodist-Episcopal Church of the Troy Conference. The Rensselaer and Saratoga Railroad stopped at the site, and the first meeting that summer drew 8,000 people! The first preaching, as at many camp meetings, was done from a raised platform built of wood. Attendees stayed in tents. In 1874 Ulysses Grant attended the meeting, and in 1885 the large auditorium was built, with a pipe organ.In 1887, the religious association that had organized the events was changed legally to the Round Lake Association, giving the settlement a broader base than just a summer religious revival camp.By the end of the nineteenth century, secular educational and cultural events had been added to the program, alongside the religious meetings.
The auditorium.
A surviving hotel

Over time, people started building more permanent structures, small wood frame houses in the Victorian style. Wealthier residents built larger houses, and temporary guests stayed in one of several hotels, one of which still survives. Today, the village of Round Lake is a charming place whose residents see themselves as friendly neighbors. Even the librarians, who are not from the village, noted the friendliness of the residents and the open, public aspect of life in the village.
The village, with the lake in the background (from Hesson et al)

The history book mentioned above has some fascinating facts about early Round Lake. In 1878 an entrepreneur built a scale model of the holy land on the shore of the lake, including a large diorama of Jerusalem. Visitors could wander around Mount Lebanon and Galilee, and hear one of the two daily lectures at the park. In 1887 the George West Museum of Art and Archaeology opened in the village, and through good fortune came to house an ancient Egyptian mummy excavated (looted?) in 1881 at Thebes. And we are told that in the winter, people raced horse-drawn buggies on the frozen lake. When I lived in Saratoga County I saw truck races on the ice of the same lake.

1819 camp meeting (not Round Lake)
For more information on nineteenth century camp meetings, see these sources:

Andrzejewski, Anna Vemer  (2000)  The Gazes of Hierarchy at Religious Camp Meetings, 1850-1925. Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 8:138-157.

Deviney, Claudia Head  (2002)  From Spirit to Structure: A Study of Georgia's Historic Camp Meeting Grounds. MA thesis , Department of Historic Preservation, University of Georgia.

Duggan, Betty J.  (1995)  Exploring the Archaeological Potential of the Religious Camp Meeting Movement. Tennessee Anthropologist 20(2):138-161.

Moore, William D.  (1997)  "To Hold Communion with Nature and the Spirit-World": New England's Spiritualist Camp Meetings, 1865-1910. Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 7:230-248.

Weiss, Ellen  (1987)  City in the Words: The Life and Design of an American Camp Meeting on Martha's Vineyard. Oxford University Press, New York.