Two worlds, one city : the historical development of early colonial Mexico City

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Two worlds, one city : the historical development of early colonial Mexico City
Sherman, Stephen Alexius
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Denver, CO
University of Colorado Denver
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Physical Description:
112 leaves : ill., maps ; 29 cm.


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College of Architecture and Planning

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University of Colorado Denver
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Auraria Library
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Full Text
This Thesis is Submitted in Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Degree of
Master of Urban and Regional Planning
by Stephen Alexius Sherman
University of Colorado at Denver
School of Architecture and Planning
May 1993
Planning Program

University of Colorado at Denver
School of Architecture and Planning
Two Worlds, One City:
The Historical Development of Early Colonial Mexico City
A Thesis Submitted in Partial Fulfillment
of the Requirements for the Degree of
Master of Urban and Regional Planning
Stephen Alexius Sherman
May 1993

In memory of Dr. David R. Hill
His patience and encouragement made this work possible

In 1521 Mexico City sprang from the ashes of war shortly after
the three month siege which devastated its Aztec predecessor
the island city of Tenochtitlan. Accounts of the
conquistadors' exploits often overlook the contributions of
the native inhabitants of the region. This research
demonstrates an Aztec influence at the urban planning level
exhibited in the form of the Spanish capital city. The
conquest and rebuilding of Mexico occurred at a very early
phase in the Age of Discovery when trial, error and confusion
certainly played their role in the establishment of Spanish
colonial cities. However, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, unlike any
other city in New Spain, had a plan on the ground before
conquest even began. The political and spiritual power of
Tenochtitlan forced the Spanish to build their capital atop
the old, but the site location was only one of the native
influences upon the Spanish city (even to this day) The grid
network of major roads and ceremonial precincts, their
arrangement derived from a heavenly order, fit nicely into the
Spanish conception of how their capital should look and
provided the basic framework for the colonial grid. In
addition, the grid-like arrangement of canals and associated
streets were incorporated into the new city's form. Equally
important was a smooth transition of power from the Aztec to
the Spanish overlords. The greatly outnumber conquerors needed
to quickly rebuild the city and the most efficient way to
accomplish this was to use what was already available to them-
-the streets, canals, dikes and chinampas of Tenochtitlan.

INTRODUCTION ................................................... 1
Purpose and method ........................................ 1
Geographic location ....................................... 4
Historical background to Mesoamerican civilization ... 7
TENOCHTITLAN PRIOR TO CONQUEST ................................ 13
Mythohistorical Background and the Ideology of Form . 13
The Elements of City Form:.................................18
The siege of Tenochtitlan..................................43
Rebuilding the capital ................................... 46
A CITY OF TWO WORLDS............................................54
The Influence Debate ..................................... 57
APPENDIX A: Maps of Pre-Conquest Tenochtitlan ................. 74
APPENDIX B: Maps of Colonial Mexico-Tenochtitlan .............. 86
APPENDIX C: Additional Maps and Discussion .................... 94
APPENDIX D: Tenochtitlan's Growth and Development ............ 102
APPENDIX E: Hints on Pronunciation of Nahuatl Words .......... 103
BIBLIOGRAPHY ................................................. 107

A city built on time. A city of mirrors and kaleidoscopes of
color and complexity. A city center of cosmic proportions. A
city of a continuum of cities from ages past. A city of the
mind, a city of the senses, and a city beyond the senses. A
magnet and a whirlwind, seen from within and from without,
horizontal, vertical and center. All this and more describes
the city we now call Mexico. To journey to this city
requires more than a road map. This will be a journey not
only through the streets and the history of the city but of
the minds that conceived of it. This city, Mexico City,
cannot be assessed by its purely physical form for it is as
much an abstractiona city and a symbol. The ideological
manifestation of millennia of urban development in
Mesoamerica. This city is a mirror of the cosmos built upon
a mirror-like lake and the images it casts reflect into

Chapter I
Through the careful examination of textual and cartographic
sources this research will determine the nature of indigenous
city planning influences upon early Spanish colonial planning
practices in Mexico City. As a city of two worlds, both old and
new (having elements of both still present even to this day)
Mexico City (Tenochtitlan, Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, Mexico-
Tenochtitlan) presents an interesting case study for the student
of urban form history and development. Tenochtitlan, the Aztec
island capital, was the product of a New World urban tradition
dating back more than 2,000 years1. The Spanish conquest of 1521
abruptly altered the course of the urban tradition which preceded
What influences might this great pre-Hispanic legacy have
had on planning and development in early colonial Mexico City?
A variety of historical, archaeological, ethnographic, and
planning texts, as well as maps, will be employed in an attempt
to answer this question.
In an analysis of this type maps are essential but at the
same time limited in their usefulness. The dozens of maps of
both colonial Mexico City and its forerunner Tenochtitlan, range

from the fanciful to those based on contemporary descriptions,
reasonable conjecture and archaeological evidence. Had Mexico
City died in its infancy, as certain advisors to Cortes believed
it would, the task of reconstructing its past form might have
been made much easier. However, the seed planted on the isle of
Tenochtitlan shortly after conquest has grown to its current
state of megalopolis. The remains of the ancient and colonial
city lie buried beneath five hundred years of unrelenting urban
growth. Speculation based on the sources mentioned above remains
one of the best available alternatives in deciphering the shape
of things five hundred years ago in the city of Mexico.
Tenochtitlan experienced rapid change beginning immediately
after conquest in 1521. For example: Canals, an integral part of
the Aztec city which had no draft animals or wheeled vehicles,
became secondary features in Spanish times and were often filled
in favor of roads. Additionally, the shape and size of the
islands upon which the city was constructed changed through time
largely as a result of the indigenous raised-field agriculture
known as chinampa. Later, as the Spanish began draining the
lakes, the islands all but disappeared as they became part of the
mainland. Mexico City has endured phenomenal growth and
experienced dramatic changes and to take a "snapshot" (a simple
before and after) of any given time period would present serious
difficulties and would not effectively meet the goals of this
research. In analyzing changes and continuities in form one must
take into consideration the remarkable and continuous

metamorphosis of Mexico-Tenochtitlan.
Maps of Tenochtitlan prior to and one hundred years after
conquest provide valuable insight, yet a variety of maps from
various periods in the city's history more clearly illustrate the
nature of the changes that have occurred. Archaeological
evidence and historical description have produced numerous
hypothetical renditions of pre-conquest Tenochtitlan and a number
maps of post-conquest Tenochtitlan, often drawn much later than
the time period they represent, are also available. Several maps
have been chosen from this wealth of cartographic interpretations
which seem to most clearly demonstrate the pattern of growth and
The numerous maps of pre- and post-conquest Mexico City
provide only a limited understanding of its form. With the
exception of the most prominent features, identifying
elements of the city and tracing their evolution through time
becomes almost impossible. The graphic detail and consistency
required of the maps simply does not exist. Therefore,
contemporary descriptions of the conquest and reconstruction of
the city, as well as more indirect allusions to city form,
provide the final necessary ingredient for a description of the
colonial city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan.
Though the focus of this research remains the early colonial
period to about one hundred years after conquest the descriptions
and depictions of the city in various stages of development
provide vital clues to its form in the early colonial period.

Pictures, literary and artistic, of later periods can be most
useful for defining those features that remained intactsuch as
canals, buildings, streets etc. with the expressed intent of
identifying pre-Hispanic (Aztec/Nahuatl) influences upon early
Spanish colonial city planning in Mexico City.
The initial intent of this analysis was to produce a
detailed map of colonial Mexico City one hundred years after
conquest showing those elements of the pre-conquest city that
influenced its form. However, during the course of the analysis
the methodology changed from one based upon graphic
representations to one of a descriptive nature. The end product
will provide better understanding of the form of Mexico City but
also of the processes that influenced it appearance.
MESOAMERICA: The term Mesoamerica describes that region of
modern day Mexico and Central America that once accommodated two
of the most magnificent civilizations in the New World.
"Geographically it forms part of tropical America, including, at
the time of the Spanish Conquest..., central and southern Mexico
with the Peninsula of Yucatan, Guatemala, El Salvador, and parts
of Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica" (Weaver, 9). It
was in this region that the Mayan civilization of the Yucatan and
the city states of the Basin of Mexico flourished.

The Basin of Mexico: Having no natural drainage outlet the
Basin has often and erroneously been referred to as the Valley of
It was shaped in several volcanic phases. The earliest
phase seems to have occurred on the northern boundary
of the valley...Mountains then vaulted upward enclosing
the valley on its western and eastern peripheries. And
lastly, a string of volcanoes towering above the
mountain ranges erupted to the south, completing the
encirclement about two million years ago. The plateau
that was thus created has a somewhat oval shape,
extending 68 miles north to south, and about 50 miles
east to west, with a total surface of about 2,700
square miles (Kandell, 10).
The Basin housed five lakes, Zumpango, Xaltocan, Texcoco,
Xochimilco and Chaleo (See Figure 2), ranging in depth from nine

to twelve feet. During
periods of heavy rainfall,
however, "the lakes formed a
single sheet of water" (Wolf,
60). The closed nature of the
system meant that salts
eroding from the mountain
slopes entered the lakes
creating brackish conditions.
This phenomenon would later
threaten agricultural
production in Tenochtitlan,
providing incentive for massive public works projects designed to
alleviate the problem.
Early hunters and gathers of Asia and Eurasia, probably
following big game, crossed the Bering Strait land bridge into a
New World. Ten to twelve thousand years ago3 the withering
glaciers and rising oceans severed that link and for all
practical purposes split the world in twoa situation that would
remain virtually4 unchanged until only five centuries ago.
The first groups of these nomadic hunters and gatherers
reached the Basin of Mexico approximately fifteen thousand years
ago5. The bountiful harvests of wild game and plants in the New
World forestalled the agricultural revolution that had hit the
Middle East; however, cultivation in the Basin did come about in
time, with changes in climate, demographics and a variety of

other factors. The earliest farm communities in the Basin
emerged some 2,500 to 3,000 years ago and huddled along the
"southern slopes...where rainfall was highest" (Kandell, 17).
As an area of intense human occupation for millennia the
Basin of Mexico, which had attracted hunters and gatherers and
gave birth to New World agriculture, ultimately gave rise to
complex civilizations .
Archaeologists have concocted a number of elaborate
chronologies outlining the rise and origins of Mesoamerican
societies but the antiquity and uniqueness of these cultures is
unquestionable6. The earliest residents of the New World had no
prior knowledge of civilization and so formulated their own
unique version within the isolated context of a world split in
"The Aztecs arrived at the lakes'(Texcoco) edge in a hungry
and savage state around the middle of the thirteenth century
[A.D.]" (Kandell, 27). Two thousand years of Mesoamerican urban
tradition preceded them.
The first cities of ancient Mexico began to emerge in the
Valley of Oaxaca and the Valley of Mexico by the middle of
the first millennium BC. These urban centers did not
suddenly appear; their roots can be traced back through many
centuries in both areas, as well as in the Gulf Coast
Lowlands (Sabloff, 30).

These early cities and cultures provided the backdrop for the
indigenous urban society engineered by the Aztec Emperors in the
final two centuries before conquest.
The Olmec culture provides the earliest example of complex
society in Mesoamerica. Primarily located in the Gulf Coast
Lowlands the Olmec, best known for their giant carved stone
heads, established the social and political framework that would
influence later more complex societies in the region. "Briefly,
the culture is made up of two components: a 'civilized' elite and
the...'folk' component" (Adams, 52). Though not city dwellers
per se the Olmec established trade networks that led to the
establishment of trade centers and ultimately large urban
conglomerations. "[T]he elite component centered on clusters of
civic architecture in the Gulf Coast zone...the folk component,
the mass of the population...lived hamlet- and
village-sized communities" (Adams, 52) 7. The Olmec began to
decline in power by around 500 B.C. as more powerful groups took
center stage.
The "first true city in ancient Mexico: Monte Alban"
(Sabloff, 46), located in the Valley of Oaxaca, "rose to
preeminence" (Adams, 236) around 400 B.C. reaching its peak
around 500 A.D. The result of cooperation between three major
powers in the Valley, of which San Jose Magote was foremost,
Monte Alban has been called a "disembodied capital"(Sabloff, 50).
Its purpose seems to have been to provide a sense of security and
cooperation between the major powers of the valley8.

Monte Alban is arranged on a north-south axis with two
enormous platforms at either end of a very large plaza.
The platforms support complex arrangements of pyramid-
temples, palaces, patios, and tombs.
This grand city peaked at a population of approximately 24,000
but by 700 A.D. the site was all but abandoned.
Farther to the north in the Basin of Mexico lies the most
magnificent example of early Mesoamerican urbanization,
Teotihuacan. Abandoned almost seven hundred years before the
rise of Tenochtitlan, Teotihuacan had a profound impact on urban
development in this later period. The city, with an estimated
population at least 120,000 at its peak9, came to dominate the
Basin. Teotihuacan's monumental nature clearly indicates a city
"subject to planning, but it is not clear whether it was built in
accordance with a master plan established early in the city's
history" (Millon, 42). The largest structures as well as the
five kilometer long Street of the Dead were laid out very early
in the development of the site10.
Teotihuacan at about A.D. 600 sprawled over a huge
irregular area of about 20 square kilometers, about 8
square miles. The space was occupied by avenues,
markets, plazas, temples, palaces, apartment compounds,
and a grid systems of streets, slums, waterways,
reservoirs, and drainage systems. The city ultimately
was laid on a north-south axis of about 15-1/4 degrees
east of north. ...Another major avenue is on an east-
west axis, and the axes intersect at the location of
the administrative, religious and market center of the
city, the 'citadel' zone (Adams, 203).

Teotihuacan declined around the middle of the eighth century A.D.
losing its dominance but not its mystery. It became in Nahuatl
cosmology the location of the creation of the Fifth Sun, or the
present age of the universe.
Tula (Tollan) next rose to prominence in the Basin. The
Toltec Empire, though short-lived lasting from approximately 940
A.D to 1150 A.D., became an inspiration for further development
in the Basin culminating in the Aztec Empire and its capital city
The arrival of the Aztecs in the Basin came on the heels of
the collapse of Tula. Toltec heritage became a status symbol
envied by all those who aspired to greatness and civilization.
To be counted as one of their decedents meant power, influence
and in essence, royalty. The Aztecs appreciated the authority
such an affiliation might bring them and exploited any connection
with the revered Toltec Empire, as did many other groups in the
In the creation of their capital the "Aztecs in effect
combined the highly nucleated and planned urban design of the
Teotihuacanos and the militaristically oriented expansion of the
Toltecs" (Sabloff, 117). The Aztecs had built for themselves and
millions of others a center of a universe and a foundation for
Proud of itself
Is the city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan
Here no one fears to die in war
This is our glory
This is your command
Oh giver of life

Have this mind, oh princes
Who could conquer Tenochtitlan?
Who could shake the foundation of heaven?
(Broda, 4).
The weakening of this foundation could be felt as soon as the
first Spaniard set foot on Mesoamerican soil. Heaven and earth
were shaken to their foundations when the Spanish arrived in the
Basin of Mexico in 1519 yet
the Spanish did not feel the
tremors. The roots of a
civilization had been cut and
the withering of a culture as
rich and ancient as any on
earth had begun. The fall of
the city of Tenochtitlan-
Tlatelolco meant the end of a
whole perception of being for
the native inhabitants of
Mexico. To understand the
Aztec city one must understand
the Aztecs themselves. Their
way of life, their thoughts,
their religion and cosmology
all find expression in the Tenochtitlan. The great urban centers
of the Basin of Mexico were more than just places to live, they
were the embodiment, for the native of Mesoamerica, of what it
meant to be a human being.

The arrival of the Spanish brought an end to a perception of
the world held not only by the natives of Mexico but by the
Europeans as well. A full one half of the entire planet was
completely unknown to the other. In fact, up to his death in
1506, Columbus remained convinced that the "Caribbean lands that
he had claimed for Spain were part of an archipelago lying off
the coast of Asia and that further exploration would reveal a
passage to the riches of the East Indies" (Kandell, 85). In the
beginning no one understood the significance of the events
unfolding before them. As the true extent of the situation
became clear conguerors arrived with their heads filled with
stories told decades before the western hemisphere was even known
to exist11.
In the Basin of Mexico in A.D. 1519 the first contact
between Europe and a major, active, New World civilization
occurred. To most anyone living today it would seem that it was
bound to happen eventually but at the time it was an encounter so
phenomenal and unfathomable that even those engaged in it did not
fully understand its magnitude. The incredible marvel that was
the Age of Discovery and colonization in the New World has no
comparable likeness in history. So mighty a collision between
such deeply rooted cultures acted to blend elements of both. In
Mesoamerica and Europe urban centers acted to focus the intensity
of cultural traits within a limited space, and so Tenochtitlan
focuses two cultures onto one location, and certainly it is not a
pure reflection of either but a fusion of both.

Mvthohistorical Background and the Ideology of Form
It may seem strange to include myth and religion in a work
pertaining to city planning, yet the city of Tenochtitlan, like
the great medieval cathedrals of Europe, constitutes the physical
manifestation of a system of belief. Nahuatl concepts of
horizontal and vertical space, of the universe and the earth, as
well as mythical beings all play an important role in
Mesoamerican urban form. The layout of the Aztec capital
reflects the directional orientation of their cosmology. To omit
this information would be to exclude the meaning and purpose
behind the city. The intention here is to give the reader a
better feel for the clear reflection of mythical and religious
themes in the physical form of Tenochtitlan.
The Vertical, the Horizontal and the Grid
The Nahuatl universe involves both a vertical and a horizontal
component consisting of thirteen levels of heaven and nine levels
of underworld. Precariously wedged between the levels of heaven
and hell lay a horizontal disk floating in a cosmic sea clinging
to the lowest level of heaven by its edges which rose up to meet
itthe earth, Tlalticpac These cosmic elements do not exist

independently but meet at a point, a place of "ontological
transition,"12 where heaven meets earth and where earth meets
the underworld. Upon the horizontal earth, sandwiched between
heaven and the underworld, rests a center of creation, a center
of civilization and, finally, a center where both creation and
civilization are maintainedTeotihuacan, Tula (Tollan) and
Tenochtitlan respectively. Nahuatl history finds meaning in
movement across this horizontal plain as actors and actions
migrate from one point of interest to another.
The creation and migration myths of the Nahuatl people
involve much movement between and within these various levels.
Space and time tie in to one another through the action of
movement across the landscapeLeon-Portilla refers to this as
the spatialization of time. History is recorded as stops along
the way.
Creation of the Nahuatl Universe: The dual creator deity
Ometeotl stands at the pinnacle of creation while his/her sons,
the four Tezcatlipocas, remain firmly planted at four corners of
the universethe location of creation.
"[T]he only entity with a real self foundation is
Ometeotl, the dual deity, origin and foundation of the
cosmic forceshis sons. For this reason, although
Ometeotl dwells on the summit of Omeyocan, the
thirteenth heaven, to sustain and to give foundation to
the world, he is also in its navel or center" (Leon-
Portilla, Thought 45)

Representative of four of the five directions and of the
elements, earth, wind, water and fire (Leon-Portilla, Thought 33)
the Tezcatlipocas gathered to create a new epoch, or what the
Nahua called the Fifth Sun.
Teotihuacan, in the northern part of the Basin, became the
focus of creation or the navel and foundation of the universe the
seat of the Fifth Sun. At this location the Tezcatlipocas put
time, motion and life into the world. Together they surround the
fifth direction13 represented by Ometeotl. North, south, east,
west and center form the heart of the quadripartite arrangement
that became basis for the plan of many Mesoamerican cities
resulting in the regular north-south grid layout of streets and
canalsan arrangement clearly visible in the Aztec capital.
The dynamic nature of the navel of the universe meant that
it could change location along with the centers of power. By the
time of Spanish conquest, Tenochtitlan had already become the
center and foundation for the world. The Templo Mayor, the core
of Tenochtitlan, reigned as the navel of the navel of the
universe; the location where victims of sacrifice gave their
lives in the furtherance of the Fifth Sun. The Great Temple
reflects many Nahuatl beliefs and, as a multi-level pyramid with
four directionally oriented corners, it may very well symbolize
the shape of creationOmeteotl at the top and center and the
four Tezcatlipocas oriented to the four cardinal points14.

Migration Myth and Location Choice: The Aztecs arrived in the
Basin of Mexico relatively late in the pre-Hispanic period.
Their odyssey is recounted in their elaborate migration myth
whereby their patron deity, Huitzilopochtli, prompts the move
from their original home of Atzlan to the south and ultimately to
Tenochtitlan. Their leader may have been responding to the
collapse of the Toltec empire and the resulting political unrest.
The Aztecs, also known as the Mexica (pronounced Mesheeka),
hailed from a region to the north where they prospered for some
time in the idyllic island setting of Atzlan. Nigel Davies
believes that the Aztecs may have been more than one group from
more than one location. In fact their reputed home of Aztlan may
have been "as much a concept as a place" (Davies, Aztecs 8).
The concept of Aztlan finds expression along the migration
route and finally in the form of their island capital of
Tenochtitlan. In Coatepec, one stop along the way, the god of
war and Aztec patron deity Huitzilopochtli ordered, through his
priests, that the river be dammed to "reproduce the conditions of
their former home, Atzlan, as well as those of their future
island capital" (Davies, 15). Thus, the island city of
Tenochtitlan may represent the fundamental origins of the people
who lived there. The networks of roads and canals mirrors the
cosmic order of creation while the island upon which the city
rests represents both Atzlan and Tlalticpac (the earth as a disk
floating in a cosmic sea). The city reflects creation and origin
and has been called both a city and a symbol.

In many Mesoamerican origin myths migration is a common
element and the Aztec odyssey resembles those of other groups in
the Basin. The various trials and hardships encountered along
the way solidified the group's identity. The fulfillment of
their identity would come with a fixed point of reference, a
location they could call home, where their journey would end and
their growth as a culture could flourish.
The Aztec migration from Atzlan finally brought them to the
island they named Tenochtitlan after the "tenochtli, the hard-
fruited prickly-pear" (Soustelle, 1) which grew there. Here an
eagle perched atop a nopal cactus clasped a serpent in its beak
a symbol still found on the modern Mexican flag. Though much of
the myth remains outside the scope of this research, the final
act, the sighting of the eagle and the subsequent establishment
of Tenochtitlan, provides a basis for their location choice.
The omen functions well as an "official explanation for
their choice of this small island in lake Texcoco as their
capital but certainly more earthly factors played a role.
Unconsciously perhaps, the priests of Huitzilopochtli
had made an ideal choice. In the first place, the
material advantages were considerable: birds and fishes
positively abounded, and conditions for plant
cultivation proved to be excellent (Davies, Aztecs 38).
Davies also points out that the watery locale provided easy
access by way of canoe to most of the important centers in the
basin while at the same time providing protection against

threatening neighbors. In their long migration the Aztec had
difficulty, to say the least, in making friends and had a great
propensity to wear out their welcome. The island of Tenochtitlan
provided a sufficiently remote location thus becoming
"the...first settlement the Mexica never had to abandon" (Davies,
Aztecs 38).
In 1325 A.D. (1345 A.D. by some estimates) the Aztecs
established their capital and the navel of the universethe new
Atzlan, the new Tula (Tollan)15. They built what would become
the Templo Mayor, then only a crude temple, on the site of the
nopal cactus. Once the center had been established the four
subdivisions, based on the four sacred cardinal directions, took
shape. The five directions thus converged at the center of the
The Elements of City Form:
Tenochtitlan grew by chinampa agriculture, nourished by
water and water borne trade, while at the same time supported and
strengthened by core and causeway. These elements formed the
flesh, blood and bones of Tenochtitlan which acted to keep the
city alive.
The city of Tenochtitlan can be divided into three elements
that merge and connect in a systemic manner, finding analogy in
biological systems, but having their basis in religious belief.
The structure around which the city grew and that which held the
city together falls under the term 1) Skeleton and includes the
causeways, major streets, and ceremonial precinctsthose

elements linked to Nahuatl belief systems. 2) The Flesh
includes the chinampa and associated residential plots,
buildings, canals and those elements of the city that fill in the
areas around the skeletal network. 3) The Water, through which
the city maintained its vitality and life, makes up the third
SkeletonCore and Causeway:
reflected the religious
beliefs of the Nahuatl
people, as discussed above,
but also provided a very
real framework within which,
and around which, the city
grewa scaffolding of
sorts. The directionally
oriented layout of the
causeways and major interior
roads found its blueprint in
Nahuatl cosmovision and
defined the shape of
Tenochtitlan. Certainly the
causeways and streets served
the secular and utilitarian
purposes of access and commerce but the canals became the primary
means of transporting the day-to-day goods that kept the city
The skeleton (See Figure 4)

As merely an outline upon the earth (a concept etched into
the soil around which buildings, chinampa plots and settlement
areas sprouted and grew) the skeleton's physical form existed
only as a network of major streets. Essentially existing in
space as an abstract form the skeleton furnishes the area
allotted to ceremonial movement (or movement within ceremonial
space) whose orientation and outline has its origin in Nahuatl
beliefA map or blueprint where activities find their place.
The skeleton's only outward appearance may be the hard packed
earth of the streets and causeways.
The migration myth ends with the foundation of the Aztec
city as the wretched group of nomads at last finds refuge upon
the isle of Tenochtitlan Priests of Huitzilopochtli, in an
early morning ritual, sighted the nopal cactus of prophesy upon
which perched the eagle whose presence consecrated the location.
Thus the central core of Tenochtitlan, the Templo Mayor and the
associated ceremonial precinct from which the skeleton would
radiate, had been establishedthe culmination of decades of
wandering. It could be said that the ceremonial skeleton was the
first element of the city to have been established. The master
plan of the city existed in the Nahuatl cosmology and culture
long before the city itself had ever been foundedthe details
would come later as the city grew16.
Anthony Aveni, Edward Calnek and H. Hartung point out
Huitzilopochtli's long-time association with both the eagle and
the sun and conclude that,

The full equation would be Huitzilopochtli=eagle=sun,
which suggests that the culminating event of the
foundation myth might have been the actual observation
of the sun "perched" on the nopal cactus as it rose
above the particular point on the eastern horizon to
which the Templo Mayor actually was aligned. (Aveni,
Calnek and Hartung 289)
The establishment of the Templo Mayor, the focus and core of the
city, served as a celestial reference point for periodic re-
calibration of the calendar. The north and east-looking
observers of the foundation myth described by Aveni, et al, had
by their very gaze created the beginnings of Tenochtitlan's
Figure 5 Central Ceremonial
Precinct. (Bray, 99).

That the skeleton's orientation had its basis in a long-
standing cosmological tradition becomes obvious as one observes
care and precision in planning and laying out of
Precolumbian cities... duplicated all over the Valley of
Mexico, even down to the clockwise (east of north) skew
and the equinox orientation. This skew manifested
itself in colonial period churches and villages and in
raised fields [chinampa] dating from the time of
Teotihuacan (Aveni, Calnek, and Hartung, 307).
A tradition so powerful that, unbeknownst to the European church
builders, it even affected the orientation of the colonial
At the heart of the skeleton lies the enclosed central
ceremonial precinct. This precinct and the large buildings and
palaces that immediately surround it represent the pre-Hispanic
The wall that surrounded the temple enclosure, known as the
Serpent Wall (coatepantli) for the decorative serpent heads that
adorned it, measured approximately 440 yards in length from east
to west, and 330 in width (Soustelle 20). ["380 by 330 yards"
(Bray, 100) ] "Sahagun18 lists no fewer than 78 buildings or
classes of buildings forming...the religious quarter enclosed by
the coatepantli..." (Soustelle, 20). Gates on the north, west
and southern sides opened onto broad avenues leading to the
causeways that linked the island to the mainland. The eastern

avenue met the lake and went no further. The New Palace of
Moctezuma occupied the southeastern corner just outside the
Serpent Wall. The Palace of Cihuacoatl and the adjacent Palace
of Axayacatl also occupied a prominent location along the
southwestern corner of the sacred precinct. Within the enclosure
could be found the most spectacular of the city's monumental
structures, the Templo Mayor or Great Temple.
The primary causeway stretched westward toward the mainland
and supported the aqueduct which supplied the city with fresh
water from the spring at Chapultapec Hill nearly three miles
away. "The flow was
apparently so great that the
spring long attracted people,
including the Toltecs,...after
Tula was destroyed"
(Doolittle, 121). The Aztecs
began "construction...on the
first aqueduct in A.D. 1418"
(Doolittle, 121). Doolittle
describes a technique
involving reed mats that were
anchored in place using
stakes. Once properly
situated rock, mud and sod
were placed upon them until they sank and "the newly created
lands were well above the water level" (Doolittle, 122). This
Figure 6. First Aqueduct
(Doolittle, 121).

series of islands was joined together by a conduit constructed of
earth and clay and split tree trunks which spanned the 3 to 4
meters between the small islandspedestrian bridges also linked
the islets. "This aqueduct functioned until A.D. 1449, when it
was destroyed by flood" (Doolittle, 123).
masonry of
lime and worked
conduit emptied
for cleaning
surface consolidatedk
with sand & stone
lound.iK*'. IIjl H
2 3 4 5
Figure 7. A.D. 1465 Aqueduct (Doolittle, 123).
Later in "A.D. 1465 a completely new aqueduct was built to
replace it" (Doolittle, 123) and if the older islets had been
used at all they were enlarged considerably so that they measured
"between 10 and 12 meters wide and tens of meters long"
(Doolittle, 123).

Although these newly renovated islands were longer,
wider, and higher then their previous counterparts, the
most impressive part of the new aqueduct was the
superstructure that actually carried the water. It
was a masonry structure 1.6 meters high and 2.5 to 3.0
meters wide across the top. It was somewhat wider
across the bottom, as it was trapezoidal in cross-
sectional shape. ...The superstructure stood on a
foundation of sand mixed with lime and small stones,
and footed with stakes driven into the islands.
Hollowed logs were still used between the islands.
The most curious aspect of the new aqueduct is
undoubtedly the part that actually carried the water.
Unlike the earlier clay lined conduit, the new one was
mortared like the rest of the structure. Also, instead
of one conduit, there were two, each being 75
centimeters deep, 30 centimeters wide at the bottom,
and 60 centimeters wide at the top. ...water was
carried in one while the other was being cleaned and
repaired. (Doolittle, 123-4).
The enormous energy invested in the construction of these
aqueducts testifies to their importance. However, the conduit
was only half of the structure which also provided access, by
foot, to and from the mainland.
The nearly one hundred years between the founding of the
city (1325 A.D.) and the construction of the first
causeway/aqueduct indicates the Mexicans rapid ascent to power.
However, in the interim the occupants of Tenochtitlan and
Tlatelolco made the trek to and from the mainland by canoe. The
ease with which this could be accomplished outweighs the massive
effort required to build even the simpler, earlier aqueduct.
What made the construction of the aqueduct of such prime
importance but the need for water? Yet water had obviously been
transported by other means for nearly a century. What could have
prompted the need for a solid linkage of earth and stone that

tied the island to the mainland and its water source? Perhaps a
massive increase in demand for fresh water19, perhaps a need to
express their newly acquired power through such a monumental
construction, perhaps larger quantities of goods were crossing
the lake to the burgeoning capital of the Aztec Empire thus
requiring a firm access route made of dry land, perhaps all of
these factors and more play a role.
The fact that other causeways were constructed minus the
aqueduct lends support to the idea of a need for a dry land
linkage (the islands were linked by removable wooden bridges).
The stone required to construct the enormous Templo Mayor, the
Serpent Wall, palaces and other temples certainly demanded that
enormous amounts of stone and fill traverse the lakeno small
feat for a canoe. The massive building that took place in the
period after the overthrow of Tenochtitlan's master city
Atzcapotzalco20 (1428 A.D.) would have needed a fixed route of
solid earth for the transport of heavy loads. The
causeway/aqueduct system could have fed the city's need for water
and building supplies while at the same time provided a visible
reminder of Aztec power. However, the intense effort and
engineering that went into the construction of the conduit itself
cannot be ignored.
Since "more water than was needed for household use was
brought over" it seems likely that "[t]he bulk was used for
agriculture" (Doolittle, 125).

Most of the water was probably used to maintain the
lake level around the 500 to 1,000 hectares of raised
fields that existed on the edge of the island city.
Some however was used for irrigating gardens within the
city. ( Doolittle, 125)
The value of water to the raised chinampa fields and to the city
as a whole played a key role in the aqueduct and causeway
construction. This could imply increased population pressures
requiring increased food production. Ultimately, however, the
city outgrew its capacity to produce its own food supply.
The southern causeway of Ixtapalapa, the route by which
Cortes first entered the city in 1519, has been described as
being "two leagues long (Approximately 5 miles)...wide enough to
accommodate eight horses abreast, and as straight as if drawn
with a ruler. ...At intervals...are drawbridges over the channels
through which the water flows from one [side of the] lake to the
other" (Gomara, 138) A second aqueduct21, built by emperor
Ahuitzotl, accompanied this causeway which was linked to lesser
causeways leading to the cities of "Mexicalcingo, of about 4,000
houses...Coyoacan, of 6,000; and Churubusco, of 5,000" (Gomara,
138). "Before...[the causeway] reached the street [on the
island] it was interrupted by a wooden drawbridge ten paces
across, under which the water flowed from one lake to the other
(Gomara, 138-9).
Little has been said of the causeway of Tepeaquilla, which
extended north about two and a half miles, but there is no reason
to believe that it was any less spectacular than the other three.

The construction of causeways and aqueducts certainly had a
number of influences and the final product had many functions
commercial and ceremonial.
Following the lines of cosmic order the skeleton spread out
from the core driving north, south, east and west, splitting the
city into its four Great Quarters. Each quadrant had its own
central ceremonial precinctmirroring the city as a whole. The
island is also criss-crossed by other lesser roadways and
numerous canals all conforming to the spine made up of the three
great causeways and the four boulevards. The whole of this
transportation network combines to form the complete skeleton
around which the flesh of the city grew.
The Growth of TenochtitlanFleshing Out of the City's Bones:
Buildings, chinampa settlements form Tenochtitlan's flesh
the pulsating, organic, living element of the city. The flesh
goes beyond the relatively static and abstract nature of the
skeleton; it constitutes the physical components of city form or
the shape of the built environment.
Mexico was a city of sixty thousand houses. Those of
the king and lords and courtiers were large and fine;
those of the others small and miserable, without doors,
without windows, but, however small they might be,
seldom containing fewer than two, three or ten
inhabitants, so that the city had an infinitely large
population. ...Its thoroughfares were of three kinds,
all wide and splendid: one of water alone, with a great
many bridges; others of earth alone; the third kind was
of earth and water...half on land, where men could
walk, and half in the water, where canoes could
circulate (Gomara, 156).

With its whitewashed buildings, cleanly swept streets and
"naturally clean" (Gomara, 156) waterways Tenochtitlan certainly
was a site (pun intended) to behold.
Buildings: Fortunately the awe-struck conquerors felt compelled
to describe their discoveries prodigiously. Many of these
descriptions were written decades after the conquest but their
exquisite detail further demonstrates the magnificence of what
the authors had seen. Though many of the reports may have been
distorted with time and tainted by the glorious victory of the
boastful conquerors the general appearance of the city comes
The witnesses all record the same impression:lofty
towers rising everywhere above white, flat-roofed
houses...Most of the houses single-storeyed, low
rectangular... Indeed,only the great men's houses were
allowed to have two floors...the nearer one came to the
great teocalli [ceremonial precinct] the more luxurious
the houses became; there were the palaces of the high
officials and those that provincial dignitaries had to
keep up in the capital, and then the official buildings
such as the House of Eagles, a sort of military club,
the calmecac, or higher colleges, the tlacochcalli, or
arsenals (Soustelle, 11).
In the "central zones were house-to-house concentrations with no
chinampas" (Adams, 378) and many homes served as workshops and
storefronts where the various craftsmen inhabiting the city made
their living. Along the city's periphery, away from the palaces
and shop houses, multitudes of housing plots set upon raised
fields crept toward the mainland and toward Tlatelolco. This

concentric arrangement of structures, ranging from splendid at
the core to squalid at the periphery, was forced into a grid
arrangement by the causeways and canals between which they were
Tenochtitlan's sister city Tlatelolco had originally been
located on a separate island to the north but ultimately became
one with the city and island of Tenochtitlan22. How this
happened has as much to do with agriculture and land reclamation
as politics.
Chinampa: The "excellent conditions for plant cultivation" that
Nigel Davies mentions above refers to chinampa agriculturea
form of irrigation agriculture unique to the Basin of Mexico.
Chinampas, erroneously called floating gardens, involve the
construction of a rectangular raised platform measuring
approximately 330 feet long by 15 to 30 feet wide (Coe, Chinampa
93) , usually rising no more than a few feet above the water
level. The chinamperos begin by erecting a frame of wooden
stakes woven with vines and branches. Within this frame they
place layer upon layer of water vegetation cut from the lake and
canals until it reaches the proper height and finally mud taken
from below the water's surface forms the crown (See Figure 8).
"Thus each plot has its own built-in compost heap" (Coe, Chinampa
94) .
Chinampa created land between which flowed the canals that
comprised the bulk of Tenochtitlan's transportation network, for

the Aztec capital was a "city of canals rather than streets"
(Weaver, 426). Canoes performed many of the day-to-day functions
of transportation and conservative estimates count "some two
hundred thousand small boats [on the lake]...and some will affirm
that in Mexico alone there are commonly some fifty thousand of
them...(Gomara, 159-60).
Michael Coe places the beginnings of chinampa style
agriculture around the first or second century A.D. with the rise
of Teotihuacan "the only power at that time capable of such [a
large scale organized] undertaking" (Coe, Chinampas 96). Coe
points out that the orientation of the grid of canals in
Teotihuacan, Xochimilco and most other chinampa towns points to
15 to 17 east of true north probably as a result of astrological
reasons. The arrangement of the skeleton, based upon those very
same astrological reasons, had the same effect on the orientation

of Tenochtitlan's chinampa plots.
In Tenochtitlan "[c]hinampas were carefully planned and
laid out in grids for maximum efficiency of maintenance and
production" (Weaver, 459). The importance of chinampa
agriculture is that the surplus of food produced by the plots
around and outside of the city allowed the Aztec capital to
become a true city occupied by tradesmen, craftsmen, nobility and
Chinampa Residential Sites: In Tenochtitlan "[r]esidential
space was created by the consolidation and partial drainage of
higher ground or by the construction of artificial platforms for
residential structures" (Calnek, Settlement 105). In "Settlement
Pattern and Chinampa Agriculture at Tenochtitlan," Edward Calnek
describes the relationship of chinampa residential plots to the
city as a whole. Using aerial photographs and other evidence
Calnek reconstructed selected, though representative, chinampa
sites and keyed them to a base map. Describing a chinampa area
immediately to the south of the Tlacopan (western) causeway
Calnek states:
The most important design features characteristic of
this layout include the regular alternation of streets
and canals at right angles to the east-west axis of the
city. Residential sites flanked both sides of each
north-south street; chinampas were located on both
sides of each canal...The result was a highly formal
mirror image pattern with each segment marked off by 2
streets or canals (Calnek, Settlement 109).

Chinampas were a major factor in shaping the form and layout of
the city. The grid arrangement of canals (from which the plots
were irrigated) and streets was a
natural outcome of chinampa
Calnek estimates that
"[r]esidential sites in all
categories, with the exception of
the palatial structures occupied by
noblemen of the highest rank, only
rarely exceeded 600 m2 in total
extent...The majority of chinampa
sites vary from about 100 to 400 m2 in total extent" (Calnek,
Settlement 111). The number of occupants raged from a minimum of
only a few people to a maximum of 25 to 30 occupantshaving an
average of 10-15 individuals (which agrees with Gomara's
The larger chinampa holdings would normally have
provided no more than 15% of family subsistence income;
in a large number of cases, the actual contribution
must be estimated at a fraction of 1% of family needs"
(Calnek, Settlement 112)
Calnek reasons, therefore, that "chinampas were prized as a
source of garden fresh vegetables rather than a major source of
family income" (Calnek, Settlement 112).
Settlement, 109).

Chinampa, 93).

Chinampa size varied somewhat in different parts of the city
with the largest plots, the only ones capable of supporting the
families that tended them, located on the southern periphery.
Here Calnek points out that the 4,000 to 5,000 square meter sites
exceeded the minimum requirement to support the average nuclear
family. However, these sites do not represent the majority of
the city and much of the produce that supported the inhabitants
came from outlying and tributary regions.
Chinampa, Canals and Streets: That the arrangement of chinampa
plots was coordinated through some type of overall plan seems
The evidence...implies an exceptionally rigorous
approach to city planning throughout the major periods
of urban growth. The layout of individual sites, and
of entire districts, was closely coordinated to that of
primary and secondary streets and canals. The size of
individual residential areas and chinampa gardens was,
within relatively narrow limits, predetermined by the
execution of a plan which must have included
standardized estimates of the spatial needs of typical
urban domestic groups (Calnek, Settlement 111) .
Through a coordinated effort the chinampas, streets, canals and
aqueducts all combined to form a system whereby the city was
Water, The Lifeblood of Tenochtitlan: While the skeleton may
have been the creation of gods, and the flesh simply human
constructions within a heavenly framework, the final element,

Water, was of nature born. In a way unlike any other major city
in the Basin the island city of Tenochtitlan depended heavily
upon water for its survivalwater became an integral part of the
very nature of the city. As the lifeblood of Tenochtitlan water
provided the means by which the nutrients of city life traveled
throughout the capital. The canals, lakes, and aqueducts were
essential to city form for without them there would have been no
Tenochtitlan as we know itit would have been a dry land city of
another kind. Though the skeleton's outline might have remained
the same the chinampa, canals and the impressive and dramatic
causeways would not have existed at all. Water, like the
Skeleton and Flesh, helped to shape the city.
The water that filled the canals of the Aztec capital
allowed canoes, laden with the goods of the empire easy access to
all areas of the city. Water flowing from Chapultapec Hill and
other sources filled Lake Texcoco, thus diluting the salty waters
from the eastern part23 of the Basinmaking chinampa agriculture
possible. Water also served a defensive function but defense
from water became a necessity as well. In addition to the heavy
construction of the 1465 aqueduct the construction of the nine
mile long Dike of Nezhualcoyotl helped to curb the all too common
flooding. The dike also helped to seal in the sweet water
flowing in from the western side of the basin.
Dike of Nezhualcoyotl: Vulnerable to flood and salt water
intrusion from the eastern part of the lake, the Aztecs took

great strides to protect their city and its chinampas. The Dike
of Nezahualcoyotl provided a defense against salt water intrusion
and flood.
[I]n 1449...the level of the lagoon rose until it
flooded the whole city. Moctezuma, [Moctezuma
Ilhuicamina or Moctezuma I as opposed to Moctezuma II]
not knowing what to do, summoned his wise friend
Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco, who enjoyed a reputation as
a master builder. On his advice, and with the help of
other neighboring rulers, a great embankment was
constructed as a protection against the waters,
measuring nine miles in length and constructed of large
stone slabs...(Davies, Aztecs 91-2)
Completed in 1466 the dike "effectively controlled most of the
flooding problems, but also impeded circulation within the
embayment" (Adams, 373) necessitating the construction of the
aqueduct from Chapultapec Hill. Thus controlled, the waters of
the lake provided an essential element to the continued existence
of the city.
The practical functions of water are obvious, the ceremonial
functions less clear. Perhaps in a ceremonial or religious sense
water (canals and aqueducts) acted as a transmitter, vibrant
waves of energy that emanated from the skeleton. Water purveyors
drew their supply from designated areas along the aqueduct and
transported it by canoe (by water) to all parts of the city,
keeping it alive physically and spiritually. Water is the best
and true connection between the skeleton and the flesh, forming
the blood and veins of the city.

In all its magnificence Tenochtitlan was not a European city
but a city of an entirely different culture and of entirely
different world. Tenochtitlan existed as a grand city but when
discussing elements of planning before and after conquest it is
important to remember that Tenochtitlan grew somewhat gradually
whereas Mexico City as a colonial city had to grow much more
The skeleton with its cosmo-religious origin and the canals,
as part of the chinampa agricultural system, clearly preceded the
city itself. Together these two elements combined in an
organized way.
Definitions of city come from far and wide, past, present
and even predict the future, but perhaps most importantly they
are culturally based. It is crucial to keep in mind the cultural
and historical contexts of the pre-Conquest and post-Conquest
City of Mexico. Whether it had a population of 100,000 or
300,000, Tenochtitlan's cultural and material form leave little
doubt of its urban character by any definition.
It stands to reason that city planning, with its dependence
upon the concept of city, would be difficult to define and that
any definitions would also be culturally based. Must a city plan
come from certified comprehensive planners who systematically
draw up maps and regulations to meet the mundane goals of
sanitation, transportation, housing and the like? Or can a city
plan have it origins in a tradition of religious practices which

hold certain spatial arrangements to be meaningful? Could
priests of one culture be the planners of another?
The early irrigation engineers of the Mesopotamia certainly
had experience with the layout and usage of land and resources,
yet very likely had religious ties that gave them authority to
implement their plans. The result was a system based in
religious belief having practical, functional and productive
results. Scargill points out that "the importance of symbolism
in town design can be observed in the plan of early cities in
east and south Asia..." and that "[s]ymbolic meaning can be the design of Etruscan cities, and in the royal
capitals of India built 'after the mythical model of the
celestial city'" (Scargill, 146-7). The priests of ancient
Mexico had such authority and due to their station, their
religious beliefs carried very important practical spatial
These religious spatial arrangements had direct ties to the
measurement of time. Planting and harvesting of crops,
scheduling of festivals and other important life sustaining
events required accurate measurements of time. At the very least
it is likely that the city's plan functioned as an enormous
calendar that helped track movements of celestial bodies. That a
plan existed seems unquestionable, even if that plan was obscured
by centuries of beliefs and symbolic habits that shrouded and
mystified a very practical arrangement.

Like the Greek and Roman colonist of centuries before, and a
world away, the priests of Tenochtitlan were planners, yet their
purpose was different. The Greek and Roman colonial city had
been designed for rapid deployment of an occupying force whose
purpose was to extract the resources of a region; if later that
city turned into a permanent addition to the landscape, that was
icing. The colonies of Rome left their deteriorating cities when
the empire collapsed as no tradition demanded they remain. The
Aztec city planners had nowhere else to go but more importantly
they had taken on a great responsibility. They were not
colonists but the inheritors of an urban and agricultural
tradition that existed in the Basin of Mexico for millennia. The
Aztec were determined to live up to the reputations of their
ancestors and to make their city the best expression of Nahuatl
culture in the Basin of Mexicoand beyond. The colonial cities
of the old world and the city of the Aztecs are two different
types from two different cultures and two different worlds and
had different functions.
The plan of the classical colonial cities were designed to
achieve a goal of long-term proportions. The Aztec city had been
planned to achieve a goal based upon concepts of time and
agricultural cycles and ritual/ceremonial needs. The planners
were the priests of Huitzilopochtli who, on the day of the city's
founding, with preconceived notions of how the city should be
laid out, went to work building it. Like many modern planners
they had no idea how rapidly their humble city would grow. The

few initial settlers could not have imagined that a city of some
200,000 or more people would occupy their chosen site only a
little less than two centuries laterwhat planner could make
such a prediction of his own community even today with computer
models and other forecasting devices? Yet their simple
quadripartite design of core and periphery left room for growth,
their choice of location permitted chinampa settlements to spring
up in all directions, their transportation network of canals
expanded with the city, and land actually was created. These and
many more accomplishments would be the envy of any planner of
modern day Mexico City. That the early planners did not foresee
the growth yet their design accommodated it should be to their
credit. The deliberateness of the growth and design cannot be
viewed as a whole, as if the city encountered by the Spaniards
had always been that way and that it had been planned in its
entirety. No city is planned in its entirety for the duration of
its history and Tenochtitlan was no different.

From the outset of colonization, the Spanish Crown
actively promoted urban planning. It urged the royal
administrators and conquistadors to avoid swampy or
insect-ridden terrain and admonished them to ensure the
availability of adequate water and arable land before
settlement (Burkholder, 175) .
Ironically Tenochtitlan met none of the above mentioned
conditions. Surrounded by swampy terrain, prone to flood and
having precarious access to potable water (via aqueduct) and
arable land the location would seem to have been an unlikely
candidate for a European colonial capital. However, the status
of the location, established long before the Spanish ever
arrived, became the basis upon which Cortes would choose this
questionable site.
Cortes recognized the problems that an island city would
present but he also appreciated the power of the location. As
the center of the world and as a center of power he understood
the benefits of not disrupting the existing networks of trade,
tribute and homage.
In his third letter to the King, Cortes explains his
decision to locate his new capital atop the old: "considering
that Timixtitan [Tenochtitlan] itself had once been so renowned

and of such importance, we decided to settle in it and also
rebuild it..." (Cortes, 270). The conquerors pushed aside the
existing rulers and sat in their chairs thus assuming control of
an existing empire. Alan Riding puts it plainly,
"The Aztecs...[forced] a vast area of Meso-America to
recognize [Tenochtitlan] as its military, political,
religious and commercial capital, and after the
Conquest in 1521 this fact alone convinced the Spanish
to build Mexico City on the same site. With all
business operations conducted in Tenochtitlan and all
pilgrimages and, literally, all roads passing through,
the conquistadors...inherited an entire system of
control." (Riding, 370-1).
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Nahuatl city builders of
Tenochtitlan was that the city existed at all after conquest.
The power of the location survived all manner of destruction by
siege as well as the inconvenient, unpredictable and unpleasant
conditions that would have caused the abandonment of any other
site of lesser status.
The pre-Hispanic city certainly influenced the regional
scale, as illustrated by Mexico City's location, but did the
Aztec metropolis have a further influence at the urban scale?
The Aztecs had not only built their capital on the isle of
Tenochtitlan but on the backs of many thousands of vassals.
Over-confidence in their own power and cruel manipulation of
their subjects fostered considerable discontent throughout the

empire; which proved to be a devastating weakness when the
unimaginable happened.
Upon his arrival on the Gulf coast in April 1519 Cortes
worked to gain favor with everyone he metrequiring only their
loyalty and loose lips. A keen manipulator wishing to keep all
of his options open, he endeavored to remain friends with
everyone; maintaining constant contact with Moctezuma while at
the same time courting his enemies. Moctezuma's repeated failure
to rout the Spaniards by force, trickery, excuses and bribery
only heightened Cortes' desire to visit Tenochtitlan. Determined
not to return to Cuba empty handed he scuttled his ships and
moved inland toward Mexico. By means of war and peace he
subjugated all those in his path and fully exploited the
discontent and awe of the native population in order to determine
Moctezuma's weaknesses. Cortes did not squander a single
opportunity to gain the fear and respect of the people of New
The excesses of the Aztec rulers would come to haunt them
when ancient enemies, like the citizens of Tlaxcala, suddenly
found a seemingly indestructible ally in the Spanish
conquistadors. Aside from political misjudgment the Aztecs had a
second weakness: their capital's island location proved a prime
target for the siege that Cortes had organized.
In April of 1521 Cortes had assembled his forces for the
capture of the city. In addition to the thousands of allies he
had acquired en route to Mexico "his force...numbered 86

horsemen, 118 musketeers and crossbowmen, and 700 soldiers armed
with swords and shields, together with 15 guns. Nearly 300 of his
force was required to man the brigantines" (Davies, 273) The
siege would last a little more than three months ending on August
13, 1521 with the fall of Tlateloloco leaving in its wake a
shattered city.
Cortes, seeing the Mexicans so stubbornly resolved to
defend themselves to the death, realized two things:
one, that he would recover few or none of the treasures
he had seen...two, that they were forcing him to
destroy them utterly. ...he demolished many houses and
burned their idols; he also burned the big houses near
at hand where he had been lodged the first time [the
palaces surrounding the ceremonial precinct]... Great
was the slaughter that day, but greater was the burning
of the houses, for besides those mentioned, the
brigantines burned many others along the canals
(Gomara, 274).
In addition to burning houses Cortes had many more dismantled in
order to fill the canals and breaches in the causeway to
facilitate movement by men and horses.
The destruction of Tenochtitlan during the siege by the
Spanish was so complete that the city is described as having been
wiped clean from the earth. The skeleton survived in the grid
network of streets and remaining canals which flowed into the
colonial era, providing a framework for the rise of yet another
great capital.

Cortes planned to rebuild Mexico, not so much because of the
majestic situation of the city, as because of its fame and renown;
also because he wanted to repair the damage he had done. Thus he
strove to make it greater and more populous than it had been.
...He drew up a plan of the city, distributed lots to the
conquerors, and reserved sites for churches, squares, arsenals and
other public and community buildings. He ordered that the Spanish
quarter should be separate from that of the Indians, and divided
the water supply between them (Gomara, 323).
The Spaniards wasted little time and spared no one, but
themselves, the expense of rebuilding Tenochtitlan. Many native
craftsman and workers were conscripted for the purpose of
expediting the work at hand.
The labor of building it began in the early days of
1522, and shortly afterward Alonso Garcia Bravo drew up
the plan for the new city. The pattern was tentative,
a mere sketch on paper, which started with various
fixed sites in Tenochtitlan as points of reference. On
the spot near where the temple of Huitzilopochtli had
stood, a cross was drawn to indicate the site of the
cathedral; the square followed the old sacred
perimeter; and the causeway of Tacuba...became, like
the other old-time arteries, a main street, a wall, and
a bridge (Benitez, 2).
The epic scale of the reconstruction prompted one observer to
claim that "'more people were engaged during the early years than
in the erection of the Temple of Jerusalem'" (Benitez, 2-3).
Essentially leaving the reconstruction of Mexico to the
Mexicans themselves Cortes appointed natives to form work crews
in the tradition of the deposed Aztec rulers.

He released Cihuacoatl, that is, the captain-general,
put him in charge of the people and the construction,
and gave him command of a district. He gave command of
another district to Don Pedro Moctezuma, son of
Moctezumathis to win the good will of the Mexicans.
He appointed other gentlemen as lords of the islands
and streets of the city, (with the duty of) bringing in
people (Gomara, 323).
Cortes used the same skills
him victory over the Aztecs
of mass organization
and put them to work
that had brought
building his new
The Spanish Quarter or Traza: Mexico-Tenochtitlan had somewhat
of a split personality with its Spanish Quarter "designed
exclusively for the white men" while "[c]ommunities for the
Indians were established outside its boundaries, with their own
temples, laws, and authorities" (Benitez, 3).
The center of Tenochtitlanincluding the citadel of
the Aztec ruling class and its adjoining religious
precinctwas set aside as an exclusive preserve for
the conguistadors. The symbolism of Spanish replacing
Aztec sovereignty appealed to Cortes. And there were
practical reasons as well: the toppled Indian palaces,
temples, and pyramids became convenient guarries for
Spanish churches, government buildings, and residences
(Kandell, 128).
The Traza occupied an area of thirteen blocks in each direction.
The conquistadors used the existing labor networks and city
layout to their own advantage. In many ways the Spanish worked
within the existing system while making themselves comfortable
within the available framework.

Buildings: Gomara reports that "little by little, they rebuilt
Mexico, with 100,000 houses better than the old ones" (Gomara,
324) and of these many houses, few were occupied by Spanish
residents. Benitez estimates a population of "fewer than four
thousand white residents" (Benitez, 18) for Mexico City in 1580
and while this differs substantially from Gibson's 158124
estimate of 8,000 men the fact remains that the Spaniards were
greatly outnumbered. This demographic imbalance led not only to
the establishment of the Spanish Quarter (Traza) but it also
influenced the construction of the buildings within it.
The city had been split into two ethnic enclaves; one
native, and one Spanish. Inside the Traza the "Spaniards erected
many good houses after [their] fashion" (Gomara,324) often on the
sites of pre-Hispanic palaces25. Familiarity and security
provided the comfort the conquerors were looking for, thus many
of the new structures had a European flair but a fortress-like
atmosphere. "The monasteries, the churches, and the houses had
battlements and buttresses, heavily grilled windows, and nail-
studded doors" while "[t]he old Indian canals served as natural
moats...(Benitez, 3). The size and strength of the new homes and
palaces rivaled any found in Spain.
Work began on the cathedral in 1560 replacing one built in
1522. It occupied a site adjacent to the demolished Templo Mayor
(Temple of Huitzilopochtli) at the heart of the former ceremonial
precinct. The area in front of the cathedral surrounded by the
palaces and administrative buildings of the colonial governors

remained an open plaza for use as a market and promenade. The
Spanish core had an arrangement reminiscent of the pre-Hispanic
core but with streets of a European design.
Canals and Streets: During the reconstruction "[t]he old canals
were not restored, but new ones were dug through the dry ground.
In this respect Mexico is not what it was" (Gomara, 324) The
siege had created ample fill and many canals were packed with the
"rubble of shattered create more paths and streets
for Spanish cavalry and foot soldiers" (Kandell, 128). The
canals functioned as thoroughfares, sewers and as a means of
flood control and required considerable maintenance.
Canal labor involved not only the filling of canals to
make streets but the regular maintenance of those
canals that were permitted to remain. When rainy
seasons came late the muddy canal bottoms were
malodorously exposed, and canoes were unable to
navigate. Even in periods free from drought or flood
the accumulated sewage and other fill of the canals
required removal...The main canal of the colonial
period entered the city from Mexicalzingo and
approached the traza on its eastern side, where a spur
led directly to the Plaza del Volador and the Plaza
Mayor (Gibson, 385).
Canals and canoe traffic remained an important part of the
colonial city. Cervantes de Salazar reports that in 1554 "[t]he
number of boats, of freight canoes excellent for carrying
merchandise, [was] so great that no one need feel homesick for
Venice" (Benitez, 11). In fact the last of the canals were not

filled until the early part of this century (Calnek, Personal
Despite their importance most canals were filled during the
colonial period as "the balance was sharply changed in favor of
streets" (Gibson, 385). The avenues of the burgeoning capital
began to take shape within the confines of the Traza and
ultimately the "paving of streets...with globular stones from the
Rio de Tacubaya... overcame the dust and mud of the central
portions of the city" (Gibson, 385).
The Traza was systematically laid out with streets
flanking rectangular blocks. Though some modifications
in its size and internal form were made, its orderly
plan always contrasted with the irregular disposition
of streets in the Indian wards, and its monumental
public and private buildings stood in equally sharp
contrast to the Indian's adobe houses (Gibson, 370).
In 1580 Alonso Ponce describes "very fine houses and beautiful
streets so regular they seem cast 'from a single mold'" (Benitez,
17) .
All of the causeways of the pre-Hispanic period "remained
the principal causeways of the colonial period" (Gibson, 385) but
the route to Tacuba became part of the Traza. In addition to
constructing a city of fortresses the greatly outnumbered
Spaniards reserved the western causeway as a means of rapid

Aqueducts: Initially the western causeway supported the
Chapultapec aqueduct in its native form but later it began to
resemble those of Roman times.
The original Aztec aqueduct of the mid-fifteenth
century from Chapultapec springs had been broken by the
Spaniards during the conquest and required rebuilding
for Spanish and Indian use. This was accomplished with
Indian labor in the 1520's and 1530's, but when
Chapultapec water proved insufficient in the 1560's and
1570's efforts were undertaken to supplement it with
water from much more distant sources... A provisional
aqueduct from Santa Fe was built in the 1570's, but
work on a more durable construction continued into the
seventeenth century. In its completed form this was a
magnificent aqueduct, consisting of approximately a
thousand arches from Chapultapec to the center of the
city...and in constant need of cleaning, maintenance
and repair...Chapultapec water entered the city by a
second aqueduct, under fairly continuous construction
from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries (Gibson,
386) .
The continually increasing demand for water often resulted in
shortages which left "Tlatelolco cut off from the Chapultapec
supply, and the inhabitants of the northern part of the city had
to depend on drinking water from the wells and canals (Gibson,
387). This prompted the construction of another aqueduct from
Atzcapotzalco in the 1590's which also failed, leaving Tlatelolco
without a source of water.
The Dike and the Desagiie: In the colonial city water still
played a major role not only in transportation but in devastation
as well. Maintenance of the canals during the early colonial

period provided some protection from flood waters but still the
mainstay of flood control revolved around pre-Hispanic methods.
The chief measure of earlier [flood] control had been
the preconquest dike (albarrodon), constructed in the
late 1440's under Moctezuma I and Nezahualcoyotl, and
enlarged at the end of the fifteenth century under
Ahuitzotl (Gibson, 236).
However, the dike proved inadequate by the early seventeenth
century when more serious flooding occurred.
Flooding had always been a problem in Mexico-Tenochtitlan,
but the frequency and severity of floods increased with time and
by the early 1600's officials began to consider other measures.
The rapid growth of the city in the preceding century may have
contributed to the problem. Gibson speculates that:
It is probable that the city's vulnerability to flood
waters had been steadily increasing during the late
sixteenth century as a result of the cutting of
surrounding forest and the progressive silting of the
lake. City life had also changed in ways that made
flood waters far more injurious: canals had been
filled, boat traffic had declined...and the city ways
had became increasingly farther removed from the
amphibious living of the late Aztec and early colonial
period (Gibson, 237).
The flood of 1607 left little doubt in anyone's mind that drastic
measures were required.
The most ambitious flood control plan called for the
construction of a tunnel in the "northwestern corner of the
Valley...and [to] direct the excess water to it by a series of

canals" (Gibson, 237) The Desagiie would drain the lakes of the
Basin thus reducing the threat of flood while reclaiming
After prodigious labor by thousands of Indians during
eleven months in 1607 and 1608, the subterranean
channel and its approaches were completed. The mouth
of the tunnel was about thirteen feet across and
thirteen feet high, and the whole tunnel was about four
miles long (Gibson, 237).
The Desagiie was a miserable failure. It could "drain only Lakes
Zumpango and Xaltocan" [and at its best it could only prevent
increased water levels.] "It could not drain Lake Texcoco, the
surface of which was lower than the tunnel's mouth" (Gibson,
238). Flooding continued to plague the city peaking in 1629 with
the most devastating flood in colonial history.
Experts called for abandonment of the Desagiie and to "revert
to the Indian and sixteenth-century principle of protection by
dike" (Gibson, 238). However, by 1637 work began to convert the
tunnel into a trencha job that took nearly a century. The
trench would eventually succeed in draining the lakes of the
The two years of war, and three months of siege, left
Tenochtitlan in a shambles and the conquistadors in command of an
empire. The siege had devastated the city but not killed it
leaving the Spaniards in a position to displace the Aztec ruling

class without destroying the power base they held. The Spaniards
were a small minority among the multitudes of civilized natives.
Recognizing their precarious situation they quickly took steps to
protect themselves by reconstructing the recognized center of
power. The Spaniards divided the city, built fortresses for
homes, and converted canals to streets. However, despite these
changes, the Conquistadors depended upon a consistency of form
recognizable to the native inhabitants they controlled. They
wished that the city should once again grow and become populous
and so, though they were themselves alien to the land they now
ruled, they dared not alienate their subjects.

Chapter IV
In his third letter to the King dated May 1522 Cortes
writes: "In the four or five months that we have been rebuilding
the city it is already most beautiful..." (Cortes, 270). His
letter of October 1524 boasts "that in five years this city will
be the most noble and populous in the known world, and it will
have the finest buildings" (Cortes, 323). Such statements may
very well represent an optimistic conqueror's dreams, or an
exaggeration of the progress made in the new colony, but in any
event it indicates that little or no time was wasted in
rebuilding the city.
Cortes had gained a valuable momentum in his conquest of the
Aztecs and rebuilding the city could break his stride if not done
properly. The "gravitational pull" of Tenochtitlan drew him
rapidly toward conquest and he could not abandon so precious an
asset. The city plan had to materialize quickly yet impress the
native element with its grandeur and power at least as much as
the Templo Mayor and the great causeways.
A totally alien environment would have isolated the Spanish
from those they wished to rule and possibly create instability.
Still, physical isolation would also provide protection for a

greatly out-numbered Spanish population. The Spanish needed to
replace the Aztec power structure quickly, remain unquestionably
politically and socially dominant, and also retain a degree of
familiarity for both natives and conquerors. In short, the
transition had to be as smooth as possible under the
Tenochtitlan had the advantage of a layout quite amenable to
the Spaniards' needs. The prominent causeways stabbing into the
heart of the city from the cardinal directions, the alternating
canals and streets already aligned to the causeways and the
sacred ceremonial precinct as a center for the power elite all
fit nicely into a workable, quickly implementable plan for
reconstruction. The outline of the plan existed on the ground;
it was a matter of rebuilding the structures.
James Johnson writes that in a colonial city "building [must
commence] from scratch and the original settlement tends to
possess an over-all plan, rather than be the result of a gradual
process of accretion" (Johnson, 23). Though Mexico-Tenochtitlan
did not spring from virgin soil the new capital did rise from the
ashes of its predecessor with great rapidity. The overall plan
existed as a core and causeway system established by the Aztec
planners based upon omens and astronomical observations. The
resulting grid network of streets would provide a life-size map
for colonial reconstruction.

Two Cities in One: The insecurity of a relatively small
contingent of Spanish conquerors provided incentive to create
essentially two cities in one. The Spanish Quarter afforded the
symbolism, security and practical elements Cortes required while
at the same time allowing firm control over the city as a whole.
This interior city, the colonial element, needed to be built
quickly in order to establish control. Despite the large native
labor force required to build the colonial element of the city
the Indian quarter could grow at a slower, less organized pace
and not disrupt the power base that Cortes wished to retain.
The history of Mexico-Tenochtitlan's conquest created the
necessary conditions for a colonial center and a native
periphery. The relatively few Spaniards required less space but
needed to take command of the city. The Spanish Quarter
occupied, and to some degree re-organized, the area of the
skeleton while the periphery retained its pre-Hispanic urban
characterthe conquerors would have little reason to expect the
native population to suddenly adopt European-style architecture
and lifeways. The power of the core drew the Spaniards in and
the shape of the core fit within their conceptions of how it
should be arranged. The aesthetics of architecture seem
insignificant relative to the overall result. The skeleton
became the colonial element, the Flesh remained essentially
indigenous and the Water slowly bled away.

The Influence Debate:
The degree to which the towns of Hispanic America owed anything to
earlier urban civilizations like those of the Aztecs is a
debatable point (Scargill, 204).
Mexico City's colonial status brought with it a complicated
history, yet the capital of New Spain was not an ordinary
colonial city. Mexico-Tenochtitlan usurped an existing
metropolis and even the conquistadors considered it a
continuation of the Aztec city. Still a continuation of kind is
not necessarily a continuation of form.
Many scholars acknowledge that a number of Tenochtitlan's
characteristics persisted into the colonial period. The
causeways and the central square, for example, existed before and
after conquest but the origins of other elements like the grid
and their influence upon city form remains less clear.
In general scholars are confused as to the origin of certain
elements of Spanish colonial urban form. Many seek links to
Greek and Roman colonial urban concepts left behind with the fall
of the Roman Empire. Others look to the seven hundred years of
Moslem occupation of Spain which ended in 1492. Still other
scholars find links to latent, or modified, medievalism, that
spread with the Christian reconquest of Spain. Americanists feel
that native influence cannot be ignored and that cities like
Mexico have definite pre-Hispanic influences.
The argument over influence centers around the grid layout.

The simplicity of design complicates matters, for if Mexico City
had developed as a classic radial-concentric style then the lines
of influence would be clear. The grid has a long history of use
as the main feature of colonial cities but one can also discern a
grid layout within the form of pre-Hispanic Tenochtitlan. In
areas where no towns, or only small villages, existed the laying
out of a grid by the Spanish colonists would have definite
European origins but in the case of Mexico-Tenochtitlan the pre-
Hispanic city clouds an already complex issue. The problem of
origins clearly lies in the prior existence of a city upon the
site of the Spanish colonial capital whose native arrangement
mirrored certain key elements common to European colonial urban
Dan Stanislawski refuses to acknowledge the existence of a
grid in the New World prior to the rebuilding of Tenochtitlan.
He states that "[t]here is no convincing evidence of any grid-
pattern town in the New World before Cortes rebuilt Mexico City".
He further points out the conquerors' "failure to mention what
would certainly have been a striking sight... [which would]
strongly indicate the absence of the grid" (Stanislawski, 99). He
acknowledges the straight and regular causeways but believes that
two or three straight streets do not make a grid, nor
does a rectangular compound or building necessarily
induce people to think in terms of a grid plan for the
rest of the city...That the great temple square of the
Aztec city and the fine straight causeways fitted into
the plan is manifest. This, however, was coincidental
(Stanislawski, 99).

Tenochtitlan had more than just two or three straight streets and
though some meandered most conformed to the arrangement of the
causeways. The regularly spaced rectangular chinampa had forced
numerous canals into a grid network and by doing so it had also
forced the alternating streets and footpaths into a similar
arrangement. Finally Stanislawski ignores the cosmic and
religious origins of the City's layout.
The Aztecs' religious beliefs found meaning in the spatial
arrangement of the universe and they clearly translated many of
these beliefs into the arrangement of their capital citythis is
well documented. The causeways were not the only major north-
south or east-west streets. Weaver has pointed out that
Tenochtitlan was not a city of streets but of waterways and
"aerial photographs show a very carefully laid out grid network
of canals" (Weaver, 427). The canals are certainly mentioned in
the European accounts of their first encounters with the Aztec
capital city. The conquerors may not have recognized a grid
network within the arrangement of canals since the Spanish, a
dry-land people, were unaccustomed to watery urban
transportation. Additionally, Calnek points out that streets and
canals often alternatedone would certainly force the other into
a grid layout. The urban historian Dora Crouch calls Mexico City
the "first successful use of the grid [in the New World]...where
the existing foundations and street pattern from the Indian
period were already arranged in a grid" (Crouch, Garr and
Mundigo, 40).

Stanislawski feels that grid cities come about under a
specific set of conditions which he lists as follows:
(1) a completely new city to be built (this was
possible here because of the virtual effacement of the
native city structures by the Spanish in 1521); (2) the
city planned as a unit according to preconceived
specifications and patterns (here the often repeated
instructions of the king could be carried into effect);
(3) centralized control...(4) the desire for measured
apportionment of property; (5) knowledge of the grid.
(Stanislawski, 100).
Here he attempts to discredit arguments that support Tenochtitlan
as a grid city but all of these elements existed in Aztec capital
prior to contact.
The Spanish did in fact efface the structures of the city
but other elements of form like the causeways, many canals,
chinampas and core remained intact.
Regarding "preconceived specifications" one must bear in
mind the confusion of war, siege, reconstruction and the
awkward position of a greatly outnumbered European
contingent. This meant the rebuilding of the city needed to
be done quickly and with as little confusion as possible.
This would keep the tide of goods and other tribute flowing
into Tenochtitlan which extended delay would have disrupted.
To rebuild the city in a form completely foreign to the
majority of the inhabitants does not make sense, but to work
within the existing framework does seem reasonable and

The core changed its appearance architecturally but its
functions and general appearance remained the same. The
causeways still led to the center, the administrative
structures and palaces retained their central position and
the religious significance of the city center persisted with
the establishment of the cathedral adjacent to the former
Templo Mayor.
The "measured apportionment of property" had been
accomplished by means of canals and chinampa plots long
before the Spanish-built streets existed. Additionally the
Aztecs had a system of records whereby the occupants of
various parcels within the city, particularly on chinampa
plots, were recorded.
Certainly one of the easier concepts of urban planning is
the grid and knowledge of it shows up clearly in some of the
most ancient urban cultures. Mesoamerica displays a very
orderly culture from its earliest urban centers to the
culmination of the urban tradition seen at Tenochtitlan.
Teotihuacan, the cities of the Maya (Chichen-Itza,Uxmal and
Tikal), and other cities in the Basin of Mexico including
Tenochtitlan were a form of (religious) art and Mesoamerican
art was no sloppy affair. These were an organized and
intelligent people with a flair for cosmic and geometric
spatial order. The Mesoamerican city builders, particularly
the Aztecs, maintained an order of alignment and arrangement
reflected in thought, art and city. The north-south, east-

west axial arrangement of the Aztec capital, dictated by a
cosmic order, left an imprint of streets and canals that
formed the grid network used by the Spanish conquerors.
Renaissance Revival of the Greco-Roman Urban Tradition: Some
scholars believe that Colonial Mexico City's form had little or
no relationship to its Aztec predecessor and that the renaissance
revival of Greek and Roman urban theories provided the colonial
What were the sources that the Spanish government
looked to for ideas on how to lay out the settlement of
their new empire? First of all, they turned to the
ancient Roman traditions as known in their Spanish
examples and as described by the Roman writer
Vitruvius. ...The ideas of Vitruvius were very
influential in the development of sixteenth century
planning thought; the manuscripts of his Ten Books on
Architecture had been 'rediscovered' in the previous
century and published by Alberti. Some of Vitruvius's
prescriptions are found almost word for word in Alberti
and then a century later in the Laws of the Indies
(Crouch and Mundigo, 400-401).
The contention that the city plan of Mexico had its basis in
Greek and Roman design has some merit. Still, Spain had just
emerged from eight hundred (A.D. 711 to A.D. 1492) years of
Moslem cultural domination. Additionally, the narrow winding
roads of the medieval Christian towns of Spain seem a far cry
from the Roman colonial cities of nearly a thousand years
earlier. Overall, the urban history of the Iberian peninsula is
quite complex and to assume any one influence seems simplistic.

The Laws of the Indies that pertained to urban planning
closely resemble the prescriptions of Vitruvius.
"both Vitruvius and Alberti group the principal temple
(church), government buildings, granary, treasury, and
arsenal at the city center. These ideas of location
were followed exactly in the New World cities laid out
according to the Laws of the Indies" (Crouch and
Mundigo, 401).
Yet the Laws were not formalized until fifty years after the
rebuilding of Tenochtitlan26. Jorge Hardoy points out that "by
1556 the urban model which was to last for the whole colonial
period had already been developed in Spain's American
territories" (Schaedel, Hardoy and Kinzer, 227) and that "[b]oth
the 'Decrees' of 1573 and the 'Laws of the Indies' of 1681
reflect the influence of the practical experience already gained
in America" (Schaedel, Hardoy and Kinzer, 228) ,27
The Laws may not have been written down at the time of
conquest but the concepts upon which they were based had existed
for centuries. Despite the capital's location, which radically
differed from that prescribed by the Laws the city had very much
the same physical arrangement of buildings, institutions and
thoroughfares prior to conquest as it did afterward. It is
surely possible that native American urban planning may have had
as much influence in the formulation of the Laws of the Indies as
the Roman colonies of Spain a thousand years earlier.
The Spanish concepts of the colonial city fit nicely into
the existing structure of the Aztec capital in that the form

remained intact though the superficial elements of architecture
changedthe skeleton persisted. Dora Crouch points out that
"Italian Renaissance ideas of city layout, expressed as early as
1554 in the urban fabric of Mexico City, were imposed upon an
'Indian civic armature which was found to be highly suitable'
and, in fact, more easily adaptable to these ideas than
contemporary European urban models" (Crouch and Mundigo 404).
Finally there are scholars who suggest the distinct
possibility of a pre-Columbian influence upon Mexico City's plan
and form.
A number of historians have suggested that Cortes was
inspired by Italian Renaissance notions of urban design in
his reconstruction of Tenochtitlan. It is true that the
colonial capital bore no trace of the narrow, winding
streets and claustrophobic fortress walls of Spanish
medieval cities. But Cortes took advantage of what the
Aztecs already had put in place, including a grid pattern of
streets and canals, flat roofed villas and palaces... and
neighborhoods dominated by municipal and religious buildings
clustered around open sguares" (Kandell 129).
Edward Calnek, an archaeologist specializing in the urban
development of Tenochtitlan, believes that the city retained many
of its pre-Hispanic characteristics well into the colonial
period. The similarity of form between the pre- and post-
Conquest city is not a matter of coincidence; the earlier form
definitely influenced the latter.
The colonial period brought with it many things and took
away many more. The Spanish conquest brought disease,
pestilence, death and slavery, massive demographic changes and

power shifts, and change in environmental conditions within the
Basin. It took many lives and threatened an entire culture, yet
the city itself remained, and it remained "essentially an Aztec
city" in design (Edward Calnek, personal communication) well into
the colonial period. The basic elements of the city's layout fit
nicely into the Spanish concept of what a colonial city should
look like.
In 1573 Philip II promulgated ordinances that codified
the Crown's conception of how Spanish cities in the New
World should be built. The basic pattern was a grid: A
large plaza at the center of the city served as a
marketplace and hosted religious and secular
ceremonies. ...In major administrative centers
like...Mexico City...the cathedral, governors or
viceroy's palace, and city council building bounded the
plaza (Burkholder, 176).
Did the concepts finally laid out in the Laws of the Indies have
a basis solely in European ideas of the ideal colonial city or
did they find inspiration in extant Mesoamerican cities? The
Aztec period city also had a large central plaza containing the
temple, surrounded by palaces and civic structures within a grid
network of thoroughfares. In fact "[t]he Laws of the
Indies... include details concerning town layout but do not
actually prescribe street patterns" (Crouch, Garr and Mundigo
41). "Vitruvius actually recommended a radial city plan"(Crouch,
Garr and Mundigo 40).
The Laws of the Indies were not formally codified and
published until 140 years after the establishment of Mexico City.

One should also note the timing of the spread of Vitruvius's
ideas in Renaissance Europe, particularly Spain, as well as how
these ideas were viewed. Weckmann writes:
Almost all writers on the subject admit the direct
influence of Vitruvius's treatise De Architectura on
the ordinances of discovery and settlement by Philip II
in 1573, and which after that date were an almost
inflexible pattern for the foundation and construction
of cities in the Indies. However, Hardoy points out
that other edicts on the subject seem to respond to
ideas that had not been dealt with by the famous
architect of Augustus's time. However, it must be
remembered in this connection that by about 1575 not
many important cities were left to be founded in New
Spain, and they were the only ones that would be
directly influenced by the ordinances of 1573, those
which transmitted Vitruvian influence. On the other
hand everything demonstrates that the writings of
Vitruvius and the Italian architects of the Renaissance
did not circulate in Spain until the latter part of the
sixteenth century; but on the other had it can be
pointed out that even in Italy the influence of these
writers in the city-planning field was a purely
academic principle (Weckmann, 430).
Tenochtitlan was the first major city encountered by the Spanish
in the New World and it would have been an impressive sight with
its orderly streets and markets, straight causeways and
whitewashed buildings. Mexico City came into being in a strange
world at a strange time when trial and error surely played a part
in colonial management.
The origins of Spanish colonial city planning practice aside
Alonso Garcia Bravo, who laid out the streets of Mexico
"had no choice but to base his design on the urban
characteristics of the Aztec capital, whose basic plan

was in the shape of a cross, and to utilize as
referential axes the causeways that started from the
Great Temple; beginning with these, the quadrangular
shape was drawn which gradually filled up with Spanish
constructions and gave the city the appearance it had
in colonial times...Mexico City...and other rare
examples are exceptional because there was indigenous
influence on their plan...(Weckmann, 429-30).
The Spaniards worked with what they had on hand for a smooth and
rapid reconstruction and transition of power. That "the great
temple square of the Aztec city and the fine straight causeways
fitted into the plan..." (Stanislawski, 99) is anything but
coincidental. On the contrary it was quite deliberate as the
Spanish fitted their town within the confines of an Aztec layout.
Mission and Function
Sources indicate a change in the physical form of the city's
architecture but many functional aspects of the city remained
intact into the colonial era. The Spanish Cathedral built
adjacent to the pre-Hispanic Templo Mayor brought a different
form to a similar function. Many of the structures surrounding
the core changed in appearance but continued to function as the
administrative centers and homes to the power elite. While many
canals became streets they retained their transportation
function. In rebuilding the aqueduct the Spanish employed the
Roman arch but it followed the same route and persisted in its
original role. Certain components, like the three causeways and
the four principle avenues and many canals, did not change at
all. The native quarters and chinampa plots surrounding the

Spanish Traza changed little in both form and function. The city
was shaken but not obliterated and its pieces rapidly coalesced
into a functioning whole shortly after conquest.
The minor changes in physical form had little effect on the
functional continuity of the layout of Tenochtitlan. The city's
character was altered on a level of meaning and mission. The
pre-Hispanic city had a mission while the colonial city had a
function. As the universal center the Aztec city had a duty of
maintaining the Nahuatl universe through the a constant cycle of
ritual and sacrifice. The colonial Spanish city had the function
of converting the New World wealth into Old World power. Still
the most important city of New Spain, Tenochtitlan went from the
center of preservation and stability to one of weakness and
dependency. The causeways existed but with their meaning and
purpose obscured by the commerce of a colonial era. They no
longer reflected the image of the cosmos but simply led to the
center of a city now controlled by an alien monarchy. They
funneled the wealth of empire overseas. Canals still flowed and
nourished the chinampas but they function to sustain the flesh of
a mutating culturethe chinampas fed a city under Spanish rule.
In pre-Conquest times the island of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco
supported a city of some 200,000 people who followed the freshly
swept and sparkling clean grid-like streets and often foul
smelling canals over, and under, the removable wooden bridges
past chinampas and one and two story, whitewashed, flat roofed
stone and adobe houses, their inner sanctums securely hidden from

view, toward the core of monumental religious and governmental
structures linked to the mainland by the cosmically oriented
centuries old causeways. One hundred or so years after Conquest
that same island sustained a conquered city with a diminished
population of around 60,000 people who walked many of the same
streets and floated down many of the same canals. They drifted
through a landscape scarred and rebuilt with a core of similar
function but occupied by an alien race whose monumental
structures replaced those of earlier, more sovereign, days. The
loss of sovereignty redirected the flow of wealth to a far away
and unimaginable land across a sea that once upheld the heavens
but the general flow of goods to the old Center of the World
continuedand continues even today.
The post-Conquest city maintained the Aztec grid and many
other features of earlier times but it most certainly felt
different. Tenochtitlan had lost its prominence in a universe
only to end up a peripheral, though important, tributary of a
much larger world. The city did not die however and its
conquerors were determined to keep it alive. Unlike the Mayan
cities of the Yucatan that lay shrouded in jungle, having long
before lost their names and identities, Tenochtitlan was quite
alive at the time of conquest and decline seemed to be only a
distant possibility.
The Basin had been good to the city dwelling Native American
and a place of opportunity for the less refined elements
trickling in after the fall of Tula. The Aztecs had risen

swiftly and their strength continued to grow sapped only by the
unfortunate collision of worlds that drained the life from a
perception of being but not of the manner of being. The city
suffered, died and was buried and rose again stone by stone from
that which stood before. The bones refleshed themselves with
only a cosmetic difference in appearance but with a body of
similar stature and shape; its points of destination, of worship
and trade, now changed in appearance but not function. The core,
though, was now occupied by a new European personality that would
spread slowly like a cancer to reshape the whole of the city and
a nation.
The ancient cities of Mesoamerica rose and fell but the
urban concept clung tightly to the culture of the Basin of
Mexico. The humble and rocky islands that would make up the city
of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco also reflected the poor and rugged
Mexica people, whose power would grow along with their city. The
islands of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco would have seemed an
unlikely location for the capital of an empire and the Mexica
would have seemed unlikely rulers. Still, the Aztecs managed to
bring the center of the universe to their capital and, along with
it, all the highest and complex gualities of Mesoamerican
civilization. The Nahuatl universe was clearly reflected in the
city they built just as the stars of heaven reflected in the
waters of Lake Texcoco. Tenochtitlan was more than just a city

it was an expression of two millennia of urban development in the
The Aztecs rose from adversity to imperial status in less
than two centuries but their many conquests had not prepared them
for the intrusion of a whole other universe. The invaders from
Spain were few, but mighty, and in only two years would firmly
grip the reigns of power of what had been the Aztec Empire. What
remained of the old order lay wounded but with its authority
intact. Tenochtitlan provided the physical, political and
psychological framework within which the Spaniards would rule the
The most significant early influences of Spanish planning in
Tenochtitlan affected the city centeran area designated as a
zone of European occupation. Here the colonists filled canals
and built their homes, businesses, administrative offices,
central plaza and cathedral. After conquest the island continued
to grow toward the western lake shore mainland as part of the
policy that designated the core, the main avenue leading westward
out of the core and the western causeway as the Spanish Quarter.
The architecture of buildings in the core had changed
but their functions remained pretty much the same. The cathedral
replaced the Templo Mayor, Spanish palaces and administrative
buildings replaced Aztec palaces and administrative buildings,
and churches replaced smaller pre-conquest temples. The
causeways endured and as the lake receded they became dry-land
avenues. Outside of the core, canals and chinampas continued to

be the order of the day. In Tlatelolco the market and ceremonial
precinct continued to function essentially as it had before. In
fact Tlateloloco in general existed as an indigenous city unto
Significant changes were felt outside the city center as the
Spanish began draining the lakes and denuding the mountain slopes
of the Basin. Some of Cortes' retinue had perhaps seen Venice,
and indeed Tenochtitlan, with its canals, resembled this Italian
renaissance city. However, to the Spaniards the idea of water
travel within an urban setting seemed foreign and undesirable.
The Spanish were a dry-land people and the horse and the wheel
made water travel unnecessary. The Spaniards had resolved to
make Tenochtitlan a dry-land city and to strip the Aztec capital
of its most unique element, water. Their mode of transportation
aside, flooding had been a problem both in pre-Conquest and
colonial Mexico-Tenochtitlan and so the Spanish almost
immediately began the process of draining the lakes as a means of
flood control.
In the early stages of the colonial period the city retained
many of its pre-Conquest characteristics but the nucleus of
European influence reshaped the city within the framework of
roads and (remaining) canalslike a virus growing inside a
living cell, the Spanish quarter reorganized the city in its own
image; only loosely basing its form upon the host. Still, what
the Aztecs had begun the Spaniards would continue to build upon
to a degree undreamt of by the early Aztec priest/planners.


Maps of Pre-Conquest Tenochtitlan
When conducting an examination of Mexico-Tenochtitlan one
confronts a virtually complete absence of reliable maps for both
the pre-Conquest and the early colonial periods. Edward Calnek,
a scholar of Mexican urbanism, makes clear that "[n]o map of the
pre-conquest city has yet been located and that "the earliest
detailed map of the colonial city dates to 1628" (Calnek,
Settlement 104). The panoramic style of the 1628 map makes
identifying specific elements within the city almost impossible.
An accurate, detailed map of Tenochtitlan before and after
conquest would provide the best foundation upon which to base an
analysis of form. However, the limited nature of the available
cartographic representations of the city, during either period,
makes such an analysis exceedingly difficult. The existing maps
provide what amount to a view from 100 miles up; all detail is
lost leaving only the broadest outline of form.
Even if the 1628 map were a plan view type there is no
genuine pre-Conquest map available to compare it to. Though some
have ethnographic and archaeological support, maps of the pre-
conquest city often lack fixed reference points, beyond the
obvious Templo Mayor, causeways and market. The similarity

between maps of the pre-Hispanic period implies that they have a
common ancestor which may have originated in the colonial period
(or much later). It is almost impossible to follow the trail of
specific roads, canals or buildings through time.
Maps of the Pre-Hispanic City: The maps used in the course of
this analysis have been chosen to represent various stages in the
development of Mexico-Tenochtitlan. As graphic images, like a
pie chart or bar graph, they show a trend or simplistically
illustrate the shape of the city and were not intended as road or
canal maps. Maps 1 (See Figure 11) and 2 (See Figure 12) of the
pre-Hispanic city are based on hard archaeological and archival
evidence. Maps 3, 4 and 5 (See Figure 13, Figure 14 and
Figure 15 respectively) are intended more for their illustrative
qualities rather than their accuracy or detail.

Map 1 shows "[o]nly those streets, canals and architectural
features which can be accurately located on modern scale maps of
Mexico City" (Calnek, Settlement, 108). It displays a number of
important features as follows:
First and foremost Map 1 demonstrates that some elements of
the pre-Conquest city still exist in modern Mexico City.
Features beyond the ceremonial precincts, like roads and
canals, persisted well into the modern era and show up in
some form (perhaps altered somewhat) on a modern map.
It also indicates that Maps 2 and 3 accurately represent the
shape of the island and its general layout (or that these
maps are based on Calnek's representation).
Map 1 exhibits a grid arrangement of major streets showing a
north-south/east-west axis.
It also displays an grid-like arrangement of canals along
with a number of diagonal and irregular canals.
Finally, Map 1 illustrates what amounts to the Skeleton.

Kxaourr (estnatesi
Figure 11. Map 1 of Pre-Hispanic Tenochtitlan (Calnek,
Settlement, 108).

Map 2 illustrates canals and streets for which there exists
some evidence of their location. This map depicts a number of
features including the following:
A tighter grid network of streets than that of Map 1.
It shows several diagonal roads.
It illustrates a number of canals which parallel streets as
well as a number of diagonal canals.
The depiction of diagonal canals and streets seems to agree
with the Maguey Plan and related maps sixteenth-century
Map 2 displays an "enhanced" skeleton where more of the
major streets are shown.

azcapot :a^co
Figure 12. Hap 2 of Pre-Hispanic Tenochtitlan (After Sanders)

While Map 3 illustrates the following features the method
by which canals are illustrated may contribute to their irregular
Map 3 shows the relative location of a number of temples and
other structures.
It indicates a regular arrangement of straight streets and
bridges were used to cross canals.
It shows the locations of both the western and southern
It provides numerous place names and dates.
Finally, it indicates the relative locations of the original

Pimcipales Copsttuccwies y Pta/as 6 Palacio do 1? Mii;t:n,il'u ir 18 ll.ii la Ik .ikn (!x tilt'
i Palacto de Moclecuma II 7 Cutcacalco 13 XCuco lleocalli! 19 Af.)!iu3;tlan o A/agua/tia ilrnc^i"
2 Plan de El Voladoi 8 Plan Principal 14 lemplo dc loci (Itocalli 20 Alf-nanhiech o leleoamttl (leocalli)
3 Casa de las Axes 9 Palacio dpi ltlancanqui 15 Talaco dc Cuaulilemoc 21 y.'f ii.iia o Cihuaiecpan
4 lelpochcafli 10 Casa de las lifias 16 Ifaonlleniamyan (leocalli) 22 kinputt o metcado de llalelolco
5 lemplo Mayo1 11 Tianjws dc Mojotla 17 Palacio de Yacalulco 23 lemplo maw de llaleloko
Figure 13. Map 3 of Pre-Hispanic Tenochtitlan

The fact that islands of Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco are
still independent land masses in this illustration seem to
indicate that this map represents an earlier phase in the city's
development. Despite its conceptual nature Map 4 still provides
valuable information.
This map emphasizes the grid network of canals.
It shows the arrangement of the skeleton.
Since the bay just below the Tlatelolco market in Map 4
corresponds to the location of the contour lines on Map 2 it
would seem to indicate a low point in the topography of the

Figure 14. Map 4 of Pre-Hispanic Tenochtitlan

This map acts as a supplemental to Map 1 and illustrates the
following notable features:
It shows the approximate location of the Spanish Traza.
Its also shows the distribution of known chinampa and non-
chinampa sites and seems to indicate that chinampa were more
common in the peripherywhich makes sense.

Figure 15. Map 5 of Pre-Hispanic Tenochtitlan (Calnek,
Settlement, 113).

Maps of Colonial Mexico-Tenochtitlan
Maps of the early colonial city contain a greater amount of
detail but were often drafted much later than the time period
they represent. Once again, like the maps of the pre-Hispanic
period, Maps 1, 2 and 3 of the post-Conquest city are intended
for their illustrative value rather than their detail.
The continued use of the Tlatelolco marketplace is a by-
product of the Spanish policy which created in essence two cities
in one. The area outside of the Traza and in particular
Tlatelolco remained in its native state. The layout remained the
same even though many of the structures were destroyed during the
siegeparticularly those located along canals.
The perspective view of the 1628 map is not as much of a
hindrance as might first be thought. It reveals details that are
unavailable on plan view maps.
None of the maps gives too much or any detail about the
periphery. The detail spreads with the growth of European
developmentas the Traza grows.
The Spanish city grew along the same arteries as the
original Aztec city beneath it.
These maps show that the Spanish city accommodated certain
features of the Aztec city. Certain canals, the broad avenues and
causeways, became part of the new capital.

The development along the western causeway is a product of
the Spanish policy that retained the avenue as part of the Traza.

Drafted in 1929, Map 1 of the colonial period represents the
city around A.D. 1570.
It shows a very organized and unmistakable grid network of
streets within the Spanish Traza.
The core corresponds to Calnek's map of the pre-Hispanic
city (See Figure 15).
It shows the nature of development within the Traza.
While the areas outside the Spanish Quarter seem far less
This maps illustrates the continued use of the causeways and
certain canals.
The canal bordering the southern edge of the Zocalo existed
in pre-Hispanic times (See Figure 12).
This illustration also shows the western causeway now
flanked by dry land as Mexico-Tenochtitlan has become part
of the mainland.
The most outstanding feature of the northern half of the
city is the continued use of the Tlatelolco market and city

Map 2, taken from a collage that traces the development of
the city from its pre-Hispanic origins until 1922, represents
the appearance of Mexico-Tenochtitlan around A.D. 1600.
It shows an expanded Spanish Traza with increased
development along the western causeway.
It also indicates increased growth toward Tlatelolco along
the northern avenue and
the continued existence of the Tlatelolco market.
The map shows continued use of canals but in a
less organized fashion.
It shows an increasingly densely packed skeleton.

Figure 17. Mexico City A.D. 1600 (Benitez)

The A.D. 1628 map mentioned earlier...
provides a view of the vertical element of the city's
The a perspective view of the Chapultapec aqueduct clearly
shows the style of constructionthe arches.
The island has become completely and solidly a part of the
It shows a canal along the former western causewaynow a
dry land avenue.
Canal still in existence along the southern periphery of the
Shows continued use of canals.
Shows the island has met up with the Dike of Nezahualcoyotl.
Shows continued growth toward Tlatelolco.
Does not show the same degree of development along the
western causeway as the 1600 map.
Shows possible chinampa sites, or at least farm sites, north
of the western causeway and near the southern periphery.

Figure 18. Mexico City A.D. 1628 (Gibson, 370).