Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 1, 2017
Logan Wagner, Hal Box, and Susan Kline Morehead Ancient Origins of the Mexican Plaza: From Primordial Sea to Public Space Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013. 273 pp.; 332 color ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780292719163)

Mexican plazas are the “public living rooms” of urban centers large and small, and they have been shaped by social intercourse for over four thousand years, sometimes rhythmically and slowly, sometimes violently and suddenly. These communal spaces still resonate with Pre-Columbian symbolism, as Logan Wagner, Hal Box, and Susan Kline Morehead demonstrate in Ancient Origins of the Mexican Plaza: From Primordial Sea to Public Space. Whereas the pioneering studies of colonial Spanish architecture in the past century brought attention to architectural forms, Ancient Origins of the Mexican Plaza instead attends to the open volumes shaped by architecture, arguing that these spaces are critical to understand a cultural continuity in Mexico that ties its Pre-Columbian and colonial past to the present. The authors rely on recent advancements in archaeology, art history, epigraphy, and linguistics while contributing original measured plans of extant town centers—the fruits of twelve field seasons with Earthwatch volunteers and architecture studio students at the University of Texas at Austin—which are available at the Visual Resource Collection of the School of Architecture at UT Austin and online at The book tours Spanish missions and city centers, highlighting the reuses of caves and crevices, terraced mountains, sunken courts, ballcourts, and open-space ensembles, ending with gripping discussions of Vasco de Quiroga’s utopian “hospital towns” in Michoacan and the espadaña bell towers of Yucatán.

Chapter 1 examines how plazas intersect the natural and social worlds in Pre-Columbian cosmogonic narratives of the “primordial sea,” a concept the authors borrow from the Popol Vuh. This is especially observed at Classic Maya sites where triads of temple complexes replicate on a grand scale the three hearthstones that center every household. The authors propose that monumental triads later developed into U-shaped courts and more restricted architectural quadrangles, and that these enclosed spaces evoke a large body of water, which in Classic Maya texts is expressed as naab, “plaza” or “lake,” and represented in ancient times by a quatrefoil glyph. This four-part glyph at times merged with the quincunx, a cosmogram of four parts and a central axis mundi, that was linked to Maya rulership. In Postclassic Central Mexico, the Aztec idea for community, altepetl, literally means “water-mountain” and is represented by a mountain enclosing a water-filled cave. One of the defining traits across Mesoamerican cultures is that natural caves and cenotes were revered as “portals to the supernatural world” (62), and access to the beyond was applied to other kinds of terrestrial spaces, such as ballcourts. Plazas engendered narratives and performances with seasonal festivals, the seating of rulers, or the sacrifice of conquered victims. Such functions could have overlapped at a single site, which must have offered many possibilities for rulers and artists as much as they enable multivalent interpretations by scholars today. Without doubt the open spaces catalyzed with discrete communal notions of place.

Chapter 2 is concerned with the confluence of European ideas of the plaza with Mesoamerican sacred spaces discussed in chapter 1. Outlining the Spanish military and spiritual conquest as motivation for the creation of new kinds of Mesoamerican spaces, the authors offer background on the first settlers and friars, as well as the categories of towns that were established in New Spain and laws meant to regulate their foundation and growth. It offers a view of conversion through architecture in a brief discussion of quincunx patios, and surveys the Relaciones geográficas (a group of maps of cities and towns created mostly by indigenous artists in the late sixteenth century under a questionnaire sent by King Philip II) in order to demonstrate the resiliency of Mesoamerican concepts of communal open space. Chapter 3, the most extensive of the book, segues into a survey of colonial towns that were rededicated on indigenous settlements, including an occasional reducción (a new settlement into which dispersed indigenous peoples were forcibly concentrated) “for the sake of comparison” (46). Their plans and analyses include many understudied locations and focus on three spatial variables: the civic plaza and nexus of the city, where more secular activities such as markets took place; vaulted churches, reserved mostly for the friars and erudite Christians; and the open atrio before a church, usually enclosed by a wall and reserved for indigenous proselytization. There is quite a bit of variance in how each mission was carried out, due to diverse cultural, topographical, architectural, and environmental conditions, as well as the proclivities of Spanish “designers” and their execution by the hands of indigenous laborers. Three hundred years of social intervention on these spaces have also altered them, the most intrusive being the post-Revolutionary War of Reform on church lands. The colonial footprint nonetheless survives not only as a testament of the sixteenth-century Spanish conceit to Christianize and “civilize” indigenous peoples through structured settlements but also because of the resiliency of indigenous symbolism embedded within them.

Chapter 4 seems gratuitous at two pages, as it recapitulates the interdisciplinary scope of the project and reiterates the “happy coincidence” of the value of plazas to both European and Mesoamerican cultures. Yet the interdisciplinary scope of this project calls for critical evaluation of the historical processes of acculturation and, even more crucially, a critical review of scholarly methods. Most of the buildings and spaces studied in this book were created during an era of immeasurable destruction of indigenous lives through warfare, disease, and cultural upheaval from forced resettlement and religious conversion. The enslavement of indigenous peoples was officially outlawed in 1537, before most building programs began, yet the New Laws of 1542 did little to ameliorate Spanish exploitation of indigenous labor. Despite the authors’ appreciation for indigenous culture, their selective historical focus misses an opportunity to re-center the academic narrative toward a new understanding of indigenous agency. Indeed, the authors’ attitude toward Spanish colonialism shifts from idyllic reflections of the other (42) to the entrenched perspective of the colonizer (37). In a particularly problematic passage, the colonizers are glorified as designers with “free land . . . free material, free labor, excellent native craftsmanship, and the European building technology of stone arch and vault systems” (41), and the “superiority” of European technologies is repeatedly cited. While the authors relate the “three phases of acculturation” developed by J. Jorge Klor de Alva (50) to explain how Catholic doctrines were integrated and interiorized in Nahua (colonial Aztec) religiosity, the discussion would have also benefitted from even a brief examination of James Lockhart’s “double mistaken identity” (The Nahuas After the Conquest, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992) or Anthony Pagden’s “principle of attachment” (European Encounters with the New World, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

The authors employ many terms to describe the complex interactions between indigenous artists and Spanish patrons, but this selection does not present a concerted argument. “Syncretism,” a term used quite liberally, implies more or less even negotiation between natives and friars, though the authors’ adherence to the idea of a “spiritual conquest” (113) diminishes such indigenous agency. Their use of Samuel Edgerton’s idea of “expedient selection” (51) also denies negotiation by suggesting that friars accepted indigenous rituals and artistic forms solely in order to quickly carry out their mission. Still, if one follows the authors’ citation of Constantino Reyes-Valero, the friars were “unaware” of the symbolic importance of indigenous patterns or symbols, and that to them the resultant forms were “purely decorative . . . ornament” (111). Scholars have long been exploring the tensions between the friars’ acceptance of indigenous forms and their recognition of true intentions. This history need not take a positivist tone, but instead develop from methodologies that help to explain various colonial historical realities.

Likewise, the discussions of style and iconography demand a more critical stance on agency and authorship, as indigenous artists adapted to new environments and accommodated the intentions of the friars and planners with their own. Hybridity calls attention to an innate determination of formal purity and cultural progression, which unfortunately undergird much of this book without critical reflection. The authors offer three outcomes from the integration of Spanish and indigenous architectural styles—conjunto (juxtaposition), mestizo (“impure” hybrid), and anastilo (unidentifiable) (64)—all of which are exemplified by ritual spaces if not also pictorial representations. In terms of colonial sculptural style, they follow Elizabeth Wilder Weismann, who was reluctant to elevate the buildings and decoration of “amateur designers and builders” to one of the “great styles,” and instead preferred “hybrid or mongrel or ‘mestizo’” (66). They also employ the term tequitqui, coined in 1942 by José Morena Villa to refer to the style of the tribute-paying stone carvers under Spanish rule, later defined in more detail by John McAndrew. In terms of iconography, some of their examples are more readily accepted, such as the chalchihuitl (precious jade-bead symbol) employed to depict the bloody wounds of St. Francis at Huejotzingo and Calpan.

Their main thesis that walled and sometimes sunken atrio plazas connoted the “primordial sea” is convincing, for this was the space where Spanish friars performed mass and catechism to neophytes from second-story open chapels, where stages were established for plays performed by indigenous actors, and where congregations followed a quincunx to the four corner posa chapels and central atrio cross to see and learn the mysteries of the Passion. Yet some of the authors’ propositions are more difficult to accept, such as the portal of the church conceived to be the maw of the underworld (83), or the “magical” newly vaulted spaces as the interior of caves (45, 64). While the authors consider ballcourts as the prototypes of atrio plazas (31), ballcourts are also postulated as the prototypes of the bullrings (119–26). Such opposing interpretations may in fact be due to local historical factors, but such conjectures can appear fanciful without further contextual analysis.

Despite these critical shortcomings, Ancient Origins of the Mexican Plaza is a copiously illustrated resource and guidebook filled with historical facts, personal impressions, and original architectural drawings. The epilogue hopes to inspire “Plazas in the Twenty-First Century” to combat urban sprawl in the United States, yet one is still reminded of the interconnections of social processes and urban spaces that make Mexico unique.

Patrick Hajovsky
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Art History, Southwestern University

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