Monday, May 11, 2009

Urbanista´s Reflections on Chan Chan

This post was originally written for, when I was a member of a Rotarian Group Study Exchange in Pery.  I added this post to One Great Dewdrop on December 26, 2012.

Show me any city, and I´ll be able to tell you about the people that live or lived within it. Urban form and human context are always intertwined. Look at Los Angeles, United States, and see how the six-lane freeways reflect the heroic mythology of the automobile of the 1950s. Look at Roma, Italia, and see how the Capitoline Hill reflects Roman and Renaissance ideas of governance and authority. Look at Chan Chan, Peru, and see how the ancient adobe city´s layout, design, and construction reflects the understandings of the Chimu people.

The District 7170 team and their Trujillian hosts visted Chan Chan on Saturday, 9 May. I enjoyed the visit and felt like I learned a lot about the Chimu people and their city... which I´d like to share with you!

Chimu Urban Design

The city itself is comprised of nine or ten citadels, mini-cities, each with cerimonial, commercial, and residential land uses, surrounded by a large wall, which could have been 50-60´tall. Only one of the citadels has been reconstructed to be available to the public: Tschudi Palace.

To enter Tschudi Palace, you walk through the only break in the outer wall. That´s right: one way in, one way out. The urban space is clearly defined and shows that the Chimu were serious about controlling who was in their city. The entrance in the outer wall does not line up with the entrance to the first public space; instead, the entrances are offset. These offset entrances were repeated throughout the city. This offers greater privacy and still more control, creating a defensible space (invaders can´t just run into the city).

Wandering through the citadel takes you from the most public to the most private spaces. The first public space is the Principal Ceremonial Patio, a grand space that could probably hold a thousand people. As you wander farther into the citadel, through offset entrances, the spaces become smaller and the passages more constricted to match the increasingly sacred and private functions of the spaces. At left, the top photo shows a passage near the main entrance to the citidel. The bottom photo shows a passage somewhere toward the back of the citidel.

There is a Second Ceremonial Patio, whose design matches the Principal Patio, except with a smaller, more intimate and private scale. The Huachaque, or ceremonial well, is actually located behind the Second Ceremonial Patio, indicating and even more important and higher function. I´m standing in front of the Huanchaque at left. This large, enclosed well has ramps leading down to the water and a large platform overlooking the water. Archaeologists have determined that the well had important religious and ceremonial functions for water and fertility cults. Finally, at back of the citadel is the Funerary Platform, the final resting place for Chimu leaders. Secondary tombs indicate all of the goods (and people) that were meant to accompany the leader through death. Overall, the ordering of the spaces within the citadel corresponds to the level of function of the space (public, semi-public, private, and sacred).

Chimu Construction

Chan Chan is touted as the largest adobe urban ruin in the world. Adobe is made of sand and mud (clay and water) with hay or straw mixed in. It´s shaped into blocks and dried in the sun to become one of the longest lasting building materials known to man. Chan Chan was constructed in approximately 850 AD and inhabited until approximately 1470 AD, when it was conquered by the Inca empire.

I was really impressed with the construction of Chan Chan. I am particularly impressed with the durability of the adobe structures. This city is built from the lowliest of building materials: literally that which you can find on the ground. Yet the Chimu knew how to turn these humble materials into something greater than the sum of them individually. I think that modern urbanists, architects, and builders could take a lot of inspiration from the use of natural, renewable materials in Chan Chan.

Not only did the Chimu know how to create adobe, they knew how to build with it. The great walls are constructed in a pyramidal shape (narrower at the top and wider at the bottom). See the photo to the far left. In addition, the adobe bricks were placed with spaces between them. See the photo at left. Why? This is the most flexible construction for an earthquake-prone zone. Very smart.

Chimu Art of Form

Chan Chan is famous for the web or net-like walls in the stores or audience halls. The net pattern looks nifty, but it also has an important form. The walls are rather thick--I´d say about two feet or so. The passage leading through this area is actually elevated above the rooms enclosed by the net-like walls. This means that people walking through the passages can´t actually see into any of the rooms because of the angle of their vision. The photo at right was taken from one of the passages, looking toward the rooms. In addition, people inside the rooms have plenty of air and light circulation, without sacrificing privacy. Very smart.

Chan Chan is also famous for its Corridor of Fish and Birds. These decorations actually have a hidden symbolism. The fish and the birds are facing in opposite directions. Archaeologists postulate that the fish facing one direction symbolize the Humboldt Current of the Pacific Ocean, while the birds facing in the other direction represent the jetstream and the movement of air and climate over Peru. The Chimu people were dependent on fish harvesting, which was dependent on the ocean currents, and on agriculture, which was dependent on weather. During the periodic El Niño weather phenomenon, the Chimu people were at risk for famine. Like all urban people, their urban art reflects what was on their mind: a higher symbolism and purpose.

Final Thoughts

I traveled 4,000 miles from home to see whether I could make a connection with another person through space. Does it matter if you´re born in Peru or the United States? If so, how much does it matter?

My visit to Chan Chan gave me the opportunity to travel not only 4,000 miles through space, but also 1,000 years in time. By reading the urban form, construction, and decoration of Chan Chan, I was able to learn a little about the Chimu people: their priorities, their hopes and fears, and their way of life.

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