Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 9, 2016
Stella Nair At Home with the Sapa Inca: Architecture, Space, and Legacy at Chinchero Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015. 304 pp.; 28 color ills.; 136 b/w ills. Paper $45.00 (9781477302507)

Stella Nair’s excellent new study of the Inca royal estate at Chinchero, Peru, At Home with the Sapa Inca: Architecture, Space, and Legacy at Chinchero, examines the experiential aspects of this site in relation to indigenous ideologies of space and the built environment. The book is divided into chapters that consider Inca ideas of place and time; specific architectural features; the community that built Chinchero under the direction of the tenth Inca king, Topa Inca; and that same community in the shadow of conquest. The volume’s aim, as stated in the introduction, is the “philosophical and archaeological inquiry into Inca architecture . . . to understand the ways the built environment was used to try and construct distinct experiences and places at Topa Inca’s estate” (5). More specifically, it proposes to demonstrate the complexity of Inca ideas about space; to establish that a conceptual, ideographic approach to site analysis can reveal intractable clues about its planners; and, finally, to examine the legacy of conquest on Topa Inca’s site (6). As eloquent and sure-footed as it is insightful and practical, both generalists and specialists will appreciate the volume’s detailed analysis of Inca architecture and landscape rooted in close observation and measurement, archaeology, ethnohistoric sources, and the acuity of a phenomenological methodology, of which I will say more below.

Where interpretive certainty is often a beguiling absence in pre-Columbian scholarship, Nair’s authority rests on her careful and meticulous treading (really, re-treading, in the sense of walking through a route taken by others) of the literature, the spaces, and the architecture itself in order to understand the manner in which facture shaped the empire. The book borrows from and builds upon earlier architectural histories including Graziano Gasparini’s and Luise Margolies’s seminal Arquitectura Inka (Caracas: Centro de Investigaciones Históricas y Estéticas, 1977), Jean-Pierre Protzen’s Inca Architecture and Construction at Ollantaytambo (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), and Susan Niles’s The Shape of Inca History: Narrative and Architecture in an Andean Empire (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1999). Further, the book uses the metaphors of the journey and theater (and thus performance) to understand the experience of architecture, landscape, and space at Chinchero. The idea of the journey applies to research, writing, and discovery and underscores two controlling ideas raised in the introduction that determine the books aims. The first is that Nair’s philosophical journey began as one of reqsiy and became one of rikuy and yachay. All are Quechua terms that imply types of “knowing” (5). Reqsiy means “to know a place or person” (1) where yachay and rikuy both imply specialized knowing (6), something a bit deeper and sometimes associated with knowledge of the supernatural (204n12). Thus the journey is a movement from acquaintance to profound and direct experience, knowledge, and practice. Theater as a metaphor is deployed as a means to discuss the social contingencies of Inca space, how it was, in effect, a stage for the propagation of Inca power specific to the person of Topa Inca.

The second controlling idea is Nair’s dominant methodology, where phenomenology grounds an ideographic, or conceptual, approach to architecture. Journey, theater, and phenomenology dovetail easily enough, and the experience of orchestrated spaces is without question fundamental to understanding the Inca world, though, to quibble, there is room to expound phenomenology for the purpose of nuance, context, and specificity. Footnotes point the reader to Michel de Certeau, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Gaston Bachelard, Yi-Fu Tuan, and Henri Lefebvre, though a fuller elucidation is wanted. In this respect, the text does a better job demonstrating than explicating the consequence of phenomenology. For example, Nair refers to “spatial practice” throughout the volume without saying whether it is used in direct reference to Lefebvre’s The Production of Space (trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1991), which refers to spatial practice as the perception of produced and reproduced space and how it determines social understanding (33), or whether it is used in another, generic sense. One assumes the Lefebvre coincidence is concrete, though it is never explicitly stated.

What, then, is the experience of space at Chinchero? The short answer is power—that successive related features were intricately designed to manifest the nature of power embodied by Topa Inca himself and, by extension, the Inca empire. Chapter 1, “Pirca | Wall,” is largely Nair’s journey through the scholarship, uncovering and rectifying misconceptions. She discusses how Inca architecture reflects the prerogatives of the ruler, and how it substantiates his power through form, function, facture, material, and design. Of special note here is the discussion of the kallanka (18), a familiar yet problematic category of building type in the Inca milieu. Though it is a ubiquitous category in the literature (since the 1970s), it in fact never existed as a building type. Kallanka originates from the Quechua and is defined as an “ashlar block that is used as the foundation or for the threshold of a building” (19); thus its magnification to type is a misattribution that reflects the modern bias of form following function.

Chapter 2, “Pacha | Place and Time,” considers the experiential and ideological dynamics of the journey to and through Chinchero, complemented, as throughout the volume, by Nair’s own excellent architectural renderings and images. Here, she analyzes the long approach to the estate via roads from Cuzco and the sacred experience of lithic presence in four major spaces (terraces and three rock outcrops), demonstrating that place-making was a top-down social enterprise in the Inca empire, symbolically reinforcing the efficacious power of Topa Inca himself. Whereas chapters 1 and 2 are grounded in the thematic journey, chapter 3, “Pampa | Plaza,” somewhat literally rolls out the structure of theater as its controlling motif, engaging the plaza as a stage upon which state spectacle—that is, the state in the guise of the body of Topa Inca—is played out, defining its spatial quality (“a singular open space”; 68), suggesting why it is important (as a theater of communication), and indicating how it would have been used (rituals and/or performances involving singing and dancing, or taquis; 69). Nair stays close to the architectural imprint and reads it in terms of the aggrandizement of power: the potential for what the space allows and disallows, who is given or denied access, and what the sightlines offer in terms of seeing and being seen for the Sapa Inca himself, all of which, again, reflect ideas of power.

Chapter 4, “Puncu | Doorway,” examines Inca doorways as examples of “spatial spotlighting” (89), viewing platforms as exclusive stages, and two specific building types, the cuyusmanco and the carpa uasi, both of which Nair suggests have been widely misunderstood. Examining colonial sources, and focusing especially on Peruvian chronicler Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala, whose 1615 El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno is a key visual and literary resource on the Inca and the colonial Andes, Nair argues that the two structures, which differ mainly in the design of their doorway, reinforce the importance of seeing as a way of knowing and that, ultimately, what is known, or learned through the experience of space, is a reflection of rikuy, where “sight is a critical way in which one could learn, know, and remember” (110) the particular valence of Inca authority.

Chapter 5, “Uasi | House,” focuses on three impressive elite uasi, or buildings (labeled CP3, CP4, and CP5 in Nair’s plans), that express, more so through minute variations than in their overall form, that access and privilege are co-determinate. These buildings form a transition into the private spaces that Topa Inca’s family and finally only Topa Inca himself might enter. Chapter 6, “Pata | Platform,” examines these private spaces and considers various types of uasi, buildings speculatively thought to be storehouses, royal treasuries, houses of excrement, buildings for rest, and buildings for orphaned children, some of which allow for the important consideration of non-elite lifeways as well as activities that are equally delicate and mundane. One issue in this chapter, which is written largely in the conditional mood, is that little is certain; all the buildings are types that could have been present, and logical speculation grounded in Guaman Poma’s drawings, archaeological data, and similar architectural forms at comparable sites suggests that the private sphere at Chinchero was nonetheless part of a complicated and convoluted balance of familial and imperial tension.

Finally, chapter 7, “Llacta | Community,” examines the “unexpected entanglement” (185) of indigenous and European cultures, material forms, and spatial practices following Topa Inca’s death, subsequent succession conflict, and during conquest and colonization. Focusing on spatial practice, Nair argues that reshaping space is, equally, reconfiguring authority, one accomplished in part through architecture’s attendant signifiers of conquest—namely, the application of the urban grid, arches, crosses, and churches. The remaking of Chinchero into a Spanish-style town is an especially violent period in both social and spatial terms. The Inca urban footprint is significantly altered and the Inca way of life is dramatically reduced, literally, through its reorganization as a reduccíon (“reduced town”), a special type of town meant to consolidate urban settlements for purposes of control and evangelization (178). Significantly, however, the changes occurred with input from the local indigenous population, putting the lie to the long-held idea that Iberian-Andean relations were a unidirectional affair. This is where the journey ends, with the architecture and space of Chinchero continuing the legacy of Topa Inca, albeit in shifting and unstable forms. In sum, At Home with the Sapa Inca is a critical addition to Andean studies.

Jeremy George
Adjunct Assistant Professor, City College of New York