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CITY PLANNING: AZTEC CITY PLANNING
The Aztecs were the most urbanized of the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica.
The last in
a long line of urban societies, they selected principles of city planning from
Mesoamerican heritage and adapted these to their needs. Most Aztec urban centers
modest settlements best called towns, but the central capital Tenochtitlan was a
metropolis of a different order.
Most Aztec towns were founded between AD 1100 and 1350 when the Aztec peoples
immigrated into the central Mexican highlands. They established new settlements
dynasties leading to a system of autonomous city-states. The construction of a
marked the official founding of a new city or town, most of them city-state
capitals. In 1430,
three Aztec peoples—the Mexica, Acolhua, and Tepanecs—formed a tributary empire,
as the Triple Alliance or the Aztec Empire. Two of their capitals, Tenochtitlan
Texcoco (Acolhua), became the preeminent cities of the Valley of Mexico. By the
Spanish conquerors arrived in 1519 this empire had conquered much of Mesoamerica,
Tenochtitlan had grown into a city of 200,000.
One of the remarkable features of Aztec urban planning is the extent to which
buildings and planning principles were standardized among cities throughout
Mexico. This standardization long preceded the formation and expansion of the
empire, and its explanation probably lies in the common cultural origins of the
peoples, coupled with processes of interaction that kept the rulers and nobility
of the Aztec
city-states in constant contact with one another. This uniformity in urban
contrasts strongly with other Mesoamerican cultures, such as the Classic Maya,
or the Zapotec, whose individual cities show far greater variation in
architecture and urban
HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT OF PLANNING PRINCIPLES
The Aztecs drew upon several ancient historical traditions to select principles
planning for their cities and towns. Not surprisingly, the two major Aztec urban
capitals and Tenochtitlan—had somewhat different historical legacies. In this
outline seventeen principles of urban planning employed in central Mexico,
four historical categories based upon their historical origins: ancient
principles, Teotihuacan innovations, Tula innovations, and Aztec innovations.
Table 1 lists
these principles and their use in Aztec towns and in Tenochtitlan.
Ancient Mesoamerican Principles of Urban Planning
The Aztecs drew on ancient Mesoamerican principles of urban planning in the
their cities. Five such principles can be identified for the pre-Aztec cities of
including those of the Classic Maya lowlands, Oaxaca, and other regions (for
architecture and cities, see Hardoy 1968).
1. The Inventory of Public Architecture. A basic set of public buildings was
used in most
ancient Mesoamerican urban centers: large temple-pyramids, smaller temples,
ballcourts, and a suite of less-common special purpose buildings that included
sweatbaths, schools, and other structures.
2. The Urban Epicenter. Public architecture in
Mesoamerican cities tended to be
concentrated spatially in a central zone, called the urban epicenter. The
orientations of individual buildings often suggest coordination and planning,
formal patterns, such as orthogonal layouts,
3. The Central Public Plaza. The basic unit of urban planning was the public
plaza, an open
rectangular space whose sides were taken up with public buildings. Large cities
concentrations of public buildings often had multiple public plazas of different
4. Astronomical Orientations of Buildings. The ancient Mesoamerican peoples were
accomplished astronomers, and key public buildings were often aligned with
astronomical phenomena, such as the direction of sunrise on the solstice. There
is a general
tendency for urban epicenters to be aligned roughly to the cardinal directions (most
typically several degrees east of north), a pattern that may also have derived
astronomical considerations (Aveni 2001).
5. Unplanned Residential Zones. Most urban housing was located outside of the
epicenter. Individual houses typically show little or no evidence that their
or orientations were coordinated or planned by central authorities.
With a population of around 150,000 inhabitants, the huge metropolis Teotihuacan
the largest city in Mesoamerica (and one of the largest anywhere in the world)
Classic period (ca. AD 150-650). Teotihuacan dominated central Mexico
politically, and its
economic and cultural influence extended to all corners of Mesoamerica. In its
size, Teotihuacan was utterly unique in Mesoamerica, and only the later Aztec
capital Tenochtitlan can be said to resemble Teotihuacan at all (Cowgill 1997;
Six innovations in urban planning can be identified at Teotihuacan.
6. The Huge Size of the City. With an extent of over 20 sq. km and its huge
Teotihuacan was a city of a different scale from anything seen previously in
7. Massive Scale of the Main Temples. Although not the tallest pyramids in
Mesoamerica, Teotihuacan’s “Pyramid of the Sun” and “Pyramid of the Moon” are
the most massive in volume.
8. Orthogonal Planning of the Entire City. The
principle of orthogonal city planning was quite
rare in ancient Mesoamerica, found only at Teotihuacan, Tenochtitlan, and
Teotihuacan is remarkable for the consistency of orientation of its buildings.
9. Layout Dominated by a Central Avenue. The so-called “Street of the Dead” is a
avenue several km in length that forms the central axis for the layout of
1). This use of a dominant central avenue is not found elsewhere in Mesoamerica.
10. Lack of a Central Public Plaza. There is a moderately sized open plaza at
the north end of
the Street of the Dead, but this plaza differs from typical Mesoamerican central
in several key respects: it is small in relation to the size of the city; only a
few of the central
public buildings are adjacent to the plaza; and it is not centrally located
within the city.
Instead, the Street of the Dead at Teotihuacan can be considered a functional
the Mesoamerican central public plaza in terms of urban layout and planning. The
public buildings were arranged along this feature, which gave form to the entire
plan of the
11. Standardized Housing. One of the most remarkable urban features of
Teotihuacan was the
highly standardized form of commoner housing, the apartment compound. There were
than 2,000 apartment compounds in the city, all aligned to
its orthogonal grid.
Tula, the next large political capital in central Mexico after Teotihuacan, drew
layout of Teotihuacan for inspiration in urban planning. Although the rulers of
returned to the older Mesoamerican pattern of urban layout around a large public
they employed several of the Teotihuacan innovations (nos. 6, 7, and perhaps 8).
not as large as Teotihuacan, Tula was much larger than its central Mexican
and one of the largest cities in Mesoamerica during the Epiclassic and Early
periods, ca. AD 800-1200 (Mastache, Cobean and Healan 2002). Three urban
innovations can be identified for Tula.
12. Formalization of the Epicenter. The public plaza at Tula established an
was used for all of the buildings in the urban epicenter (Fig. 2). This shows a
higher level of
coordination and formalization than was typical of other Mesoamerican urban
The Aztecs later adopted this principle for their urban epicenters.
13. The Largest Temple on the East Side of the Plaza. At Tula, the largest
pyramid, Temple C, is
located on the east side of the central public plaza, a pattern also used by the
14. Circular Quetzalcoatl Temples. The cult of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered
throughout Mesoamerica in the Epiclassic and Early Postclassic periods. In
circular temples were dedicated to Quetzalcoatl’s avatar, the wind god Ehecatl
At Tula, a circular temple was built at the El Corral locality, a concentration
architecture outside of the main urban epicenter.
The rulers of Aztec city-states drew primarily upon general Mesoamerican
principles and Toltec innovations when they laid out their towns. The rulers of
Tenochtitlan, on the other hand, emphasized these principles to a lesser extent,
planning principles from Teotihuacan. Three innovations can be identified for
15. Twin-Temple Pyramids. Several of the earliest Aztec cities (e.g., Tenayuca
Teopanzolco) used a new form of pyramid with two temples on top and two
stairways (Fig. 3).
By the Late Aztec period, this form had fallen out of fashion except at the
central temples of
Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco.
16. Multiple Small Altars. One of the notable attributes of Aztec cities is the
small platforms or altars throughout the urban epicenter (Fig. 4). These were
within the public plazas, and some altars were adjacent to large pyramids.
17. Walled Ceremonial Precinct. The central religious architecture at
concentrated within a walled compound called the “Sacred Precinct” (Fig. 5).
authors have suggested that this was a regular feature of Aztec cities,
Tenochtitlan is in fact
the only example with a well-documented walled precinct.
These seventeen principles are listed in Table 1.
<<Insert Table 1 here>>
In addition to their use of ancient Mesoamerican traditions of urban planning,
also made use of Mesoamerican patterns of monumental architecture. The basic
structures were temple-pyramids, typically rebuilt and expanded by successive
archaeologists excavate into a Mesoamerican pyramid, they typically find the
remains of one or more earlier construction stages (Fig. 5). This continual
temples in the same location was related to notions of sacred space and the
continuity with the past. In addition to temple-pyramids, the Aztecs also used
Mesoamerican architectural inventory of palaces, ballcourts, altars, and
This innovative form of temple-pyramid is found at only five Aztec cities. Two
of the major
political capitals of the Early Aztec period—Tenayuca and Teopanzolco—employed
pyramids for their central state temples (Fig. 3). Excavation of the Tenayuca
revealed a series of enlargements and expansions (Fig. 5), all employing the
design. By the Late Aztec period, this style had fallen out of fashion at most
whose main pyramids had only a single temple. But the Mexica peoples at the twin
Tenochtitlan and Tlatelolco revived this form for their central pyramids. At the
Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan, the temples were dedicated to Tlaloc (an ancient
Mexican fertility god) and Huitzilopochtli (patron god of the Mexica with
warfare and sacrifice). This structure is known both from excavations (Matos
1988) and from pictorial sources (Fig. 6).
The single-temple pyramid was the standard form of temple throughout most of
Mesoamerican history. The extent of its use during the Early Aztec period is
hard to judge,
but by Late Aztec times this form dominated Aztec cities, serving as both their
temples and as subsidiary temples (Fig. 7).
Many Aztec cities and towns had circular pyramids dedicated to the wind god,
8). These temples were rarely if ever located in central positions in Aztec
cities. In some
cases (e.g., Tlatelolco and Tenochtitlan) these temples were located within the
epicenter but somewhat apart from the central twin-temple pyramid (Guilliem
In other cases (e.g., Huexotla, Zultepec, and perhaps Calixtlahuaca) the
were located far from the urban epicenter, as at the earlier city of Tula.
Only a few Aztec ballcourts have been located, but given the prominence of
the ballgame in Aztec codices (Nicholson and Quiñones Keber 1991) (Fig. 9), it
is likely that
these features were integral parts of most city layouts. The restored ballcourt
(Fig. 10) is probably typical of Aztec ballcourts; see also Matos Moctezuma
(2001). The Aztecs
played a version of the Mesoamerican ballgame, a public performance using a
that combined sport, ritual, and politics in poorly understood ways.
Aztec palaces, unlike those of the Classic Maya, were highly standardized in
contained a central courtyard with a single entrance. The courtyard was enclosed
platforms, on top of which were arranged a series of rooms, halls, altars, and
(Figs. 11 and 12). This standard plan was followed for a whole range of palaces,
sumptuous royal palaces of Tenochtitlan and Texcoco to the modest residences of
nobles (Smith T he A ztec s 2003:139-146; Evans 1991).
A variety of specialized buildings are known from archaeology and documentary
Written sources mention two types of schools, but none have been excavated.
buildings for elite warriors have been excavated adjacent to the Templo Mayor of
Tenochtitlan and in a rock-cut chamber at the hilltop ceremonial precinct of
Altars and Small Platforms
Among the more intriguing and poorly understood features of Aztec cities are
and platforms that typically occur in multiple groups (Fig. 4). There were
categories of such altars, dedicated to diverse deities and with a variety of
uses in ritual and
performance. Two specific functional types have been identified so far:
supported skull racks (for the display of the skulls of sacrificial victims),
and altars dedicated
to the curing principles of the tzitzimime deities (Fig. 14) (Klein 2000). The
journeyed to Tula to build a small altar in front of Temple C, perhaps
symbolically to convert
the ancient structure into an Aztec temple.
Two patterns of commoner housing have been identified at Aztec cities. At
and other cities in the Valley of Mexico, house compounds enclosed by low walls
norm (Evans 1988; Calnek 1974). These compounds contained a number of structures
rooms arranged around an open work area (Fig. 15). In the provinces, in contrast,
commoners lived in individual adobe houses (Smith, Heath-Smith and Montiel
Although often arranged into groups around a central patio, these house groups
enclosed with walls (Fig. 16). Commoner housing exhibited considerably more
within and between cities than was found in the palaces of the nobility.
CATEGORIES OF CITY
As noted above, the designers of Aztec cities and towns drew upon the principle
formalized urban epicenter as articulated at the ancient city of Tula (Fig. 17).
The city of
Coatetelco in Morelos (Arana Alvarez 1984) illustrates this pattern (Fig. 18).
pyramid lies on the east side of the plaza (as at Tula), with the ballcourt
opposite. Five small
altars or platforms, attached to the exterior wall of the ballcourt, extend into
the plaza. The
buildings on the north and south sides of the plaza were only partially
excavated and their
functions are not known. The formal, planned central plazas of Aztec towns are
in the overgrown mounds at unexcavated urban sites such as Coatlan Viejo (Fig.
Although it is possible that the planned layout of the epicenters and their
orientations just east of north related to cosmological principles, there is no
evidence to support this interpretation.
Outside of the epicenter, the residential zones of Aztec towns exhibited little
planning or coordination. Although only one Aztec town—Cuexcomate—has been
its entirely (Fig. 17, top), residential excavations in other cities and towns
with this interpretation of unplanned residential areas (Smith, Heath-Smith and
A related type of settlement was the hilltop ceremonial zone, found in a number
city-states. The rituals carried out at these locations were typically political
linked to both agricultural fertility and the religious legitimation of kings
and dynasties. The
best known examples are Cerro Tlaloc in the Valley of Mexico, Malinalco in the
Mexico (Fig. 13), and Tepozteco in Morelos.
When the Mexica peoples constructed Tenochtitlan on an island in Lake Texcoco in
early fourteenth century (the official date for the founding of the city is AD
1325), they drew
more inspiration from Teotihuacan and Tula than from the standard Aztec urban
already established at many towns in central Mexico (table 1).
The use of orthogonal
planning is one of the remarkable features of the imperial capital (Fig.
20). Although few
explicit articulations of urban planning concepts have survived, three factors
likely responsible for creating the form of Tenochtitlan: the city’s island
ideology, and cosmological principles. Most of Tenochtitlan’s 13.5 square
reclaimed from Lake Texcoco. Spanish observers were struck by the great number
in the city, which they likened to Venice. The canals were used as
and for agricultural purposes. Raised fields or chinampas, an extremely
productive method of
farming, were built to cultivate reclaimed swampy land in the outer
neighborhoods of the
city (Calnek 1972). Families living on their individual small plots worked these
fields (Fig. 15).
As the city expanded, many of these rectilinear chinampas
were converted into dry land,
contributing to the orthogonal plan of the city.
Tenochtitlan’s orthogonal layout is seen in the
major avenues radiating out from a central
ceremonial precinct in the cardinal directions (Fig. 20). The avenues divided
into four quarters, each with its own smaller ceremonial precinct. Outside of
areas, houses were packed tightly together. The city of Tlatelolco, with its own
epicenter (Fig. 8), was originally a separate town but was later incorporated
Tenochtitlan (González Rul 1998). By drawing on the orthogonal layout of
1), the Mexican rulers proclaimed Tenochtitlan’s continuity with the past and
as the imperial capital of central Mexico (Umberger 1987).
Cosmological principles also contributed to the form and
layout of the capital. The largest
structure, the Templo Mayor (Fig. 6), was viewed as the symbolic center of the
(Carrasco 1999; López Luján 1994), and it was the setting for elaborate state
including human sacrifices. The Templo Mayor was built in alignment with sunrise
on a key
holy day (Aveni 2001), and the entire layout of Tenochtitlan can be viewed as an
of the sacred orientation of the central temple.
In sum, the planners who laid out Tenochtitlan made radical breaks with past
Mesoamerican) norms in two ways. First, they filled the central plaza with
buildings. In place
of an open plaza is the sacred precinct, a large walled compound packed with
altars, priests’ residences, and other sacred buildings (Fig. 21). The palaces
Mexica kings were arranged around the outer walls of the precinct. The sacred
occupies the place of the public plaza in other Aztec (and Mesoamerican) cities.
imposition of a common grid over the entire city was a radical practice that
power of the rulers to shape their city and differentiate it from other Aztec
orthogonal layout also exemplified continuity with Teotihuacan and
resonated with ancient
Mesoamerican cosmological principles of the importance of the cardinal
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List of Figures
Fig. 1 The “Street of the Dead” at Teotihuacan. Photograph by Michael E. Smith.
Fig. 2 Reconstruction of the epicenter of Tula. Modified after Mastache et al.
Fig. 3 Aztec twin-temple pyramid at Teopanzolco. Photograph by Michael E. Smith.
Fig. 4 Row of small altars at Teopanzolco. Photograph by Michael E. Smith.
Fig. 5 Construction stages of the twin-temple pyramid at Tenayuca. From Smith (
T he A ztec s
2003: fig. 2.8); based upon (Marquina 1951: 169).
Fig. 6 Native drawings of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan. From Smith (“A
Century of Aztec Studies” 2003).
Fig. 7 Small single-temple pyramid at Calixtlahuaca. Photograph by Michael E.
Fig. 8 Circular temple at Tlatelolco. Photograph by Michael E. Smith.
Fig. 9 Depictions of ballcourts in the Aztec codices. Modified after Nicholson
Fig. 10 Ballcourt at Coatetelco. Photograph by Michael E. Smith.
Fig. 11 Reconstruction of the palace at Calixtlahuaca. Modified after (Smith T
he A ztec s
2003: fig. 8.7); based originally upon (García Payón 1981: fig. 8).
Fig. 12 Rooms in the royal palace of Yautepec. Photograph by Michael E. Smith.
Fig. 13 Map of the hilltop ceremonial zone of Malinalco. From Smith ( T he A
ztec s 2003: fig.
7.5); based originally upon Marquina (1951).
Fig. 14 Altar decorated with carvings of human skulls at Tenayuca used to
tzitzimime deities. Photograph by Michael E. Smith
Fig. 15 Commoner houses with chinampa (agricultural) fields. Modified after
Fig. 16 Commoner houses excavated by the author at Yautepec. Photograph by
Fig. 17 Definitions of urban epicenters of Cuexcomate and Teopanzolco. Modified
Smith (2004: fig. 2).
Fig. 18 Reconstruction of the plaza at Coatetelco. Modified after Smith ( T he A
ztec s 2003:
fig. 8.2); based originally upon Konieczna Z. (1992).
Fig. 19 Map of the epicenter of Coatlan Viejo, an unexcavated city-state capital
Modified after Mason (1980: 53).
Fig. 20 Map of Tenochtitlan. From (Smith T he A ztec s 2003: fig. 8.8); based
(Calnek 1972: 108).
Fig. 21 The walled “Sacred Precinct” at Tenochtitlan. After Marquina (1951: