Tuesday, July 26, 2011



This article has two parts: the first one discusses Machu Picchu's architecture and urban planning as well as its relationship with the landscape. The next post will review aspects of its engineering, agricultural and hydrological planning .

Machu (old) Picchu (hill), located 120 km from Cusco, Peru, is a classic icon of the Inca civilization. Nestled atop a ridge at an altitude of 2430 m above sea level and 400 m above the Urubamba River, the city of Machu Picchu has become famous worldwide because it is a sample of Inca urban planning that has survived almost intact the colonial destruction, and also because it combines exquisitely carved stone architecture, massive and meticulous construction techniques, a deep knowledge of the geological and environmental aspects of the site and, above all, an impressive integration to the landscape that surrounds it. This reputation has earned the Inca citadel to be designated as World Cultural and Natural Heritage site by UNESCO in 1983 and has been chosen as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World .

Photo courtesy of Michael Anderson

While Enrique Palma, Gabino Sánchez and Agustín Lizárraga reached the ruins of Machu Picchu already in 1906, it was the American professor Hiram Bingham who, along with a small expedition, discovered the Inca city to the world in 1911, thanks to the support of Yale University, and then through the National Geographic magazine. However Bingham also took nearly 5000 objects from the Inca city of Yale, whose have returned only recently to the Peruvian government after 99 years.

Photo of Machu Picchu to be discovered by H. Bingham.
Photo courtesy of National Geographic


The Urubamba river meanders and forms a turn before getting to Machu Picchu mountain, which, together with the Huayna (young) Picchu (mountain) comprises a "C", facing the Sachapata and Putucusi hills. These mountains, which have abrupt chasms, are surrounded by mountain ranges that form a majestic landscape and an insurmountable barrier at the same time. The beauty of this scenario coupled with religious significance impressed Inca Pachacuti , the architect of the empire, who ordered the construction of the urban complex in this very difficult site.

Geographical location of Machu Picchu in the Urubamba Valley.
Image courtesy of Oscar Charra based on data by Maria Rostorowski.


Map of Machu Picchu. Click on image to enlarge
Image courtesy of SA InterHabit

The Elorrieta brothers argue that, just as in the case of Cuzco's urban layout (the capital of the Inca Empire which was shaped like a puma), Machu Picchu's urban pattern symbolized a condor in flight. Fernando Cabieses, maintains that Machu Picchu expresses the conception of the three worlds of Inca cosmology: Hanan Pacha (upper world), Kay Pacha (world center) and Urin Pacha (underworld).

View from Machu Picchu from Huayna Picchu
Source: Wikipedia

According Eliorreta and others, when Machu Picchu is seen upside down, it takes the form of a condor in flight.
Photo C. Zeballos

There are discrepancies about the city's role. For some, like Luis E. Valcárcel, Machu Picchu was a fortress; Hiram Bingham thought it was an area of ​​retreat for the virgins of the sun, Kauffmann Doig supposed it to be a place for strategic control of the conquered lands, some considered it an Inca refuge in case of an invasion and others as a sacred place for the rest and worship of the monarch. However, most experts agree that it was a llacta or town consisting of two sectors: agricultural and urban areas, both separated by a 500 meters long wall and a dry moat, which would have been a water trap.

The urban area had a population between 300 and 1000 inhabitants. Chavez Ballon (1961) proposed the division of the urban area into two sectors: Hanan (high) and Urin (low), according to the Andean tradition, organized at the sides of a long plaza. Fine water fountain is located perpendicularly to the main direction of the town, to which we will refer in the next post.

Photo courtesy of Butch Osborne



F. Kauffman suggested that this structure, known as "the Tower", would have been a "curved religious construction, perhaps alluding to a shell (Strombus) that evoked water." However, as the architect Prof. Ricardo Cruz* noticed, most experts agree that this would have been an important temple in Machu Picchu, the temple of the sun.

The semi-circular building wraps around an emerging sacred stone or huaca. It has two windows, marked with lumps of stone in its external facade, facing the summer and winter solstices. During this time of the year the sun enters the windows, hitting on the sacred rock surface.

Temple of the sun during the winter solstice. Notice how the light is "divided" in half by the bulge in the rock. Photo courtesy of neilhinchley

Below the temple there is a tomb in which Hiram Bingham found the remains of a mummy facing the east, so it is associated with the winter solstice or Inti Raymi. Since this compound is finely carved and the stepped entrance is a symbol that represents the connection between the three worlds, the tomb can be seen as an entry into the underworld or Urin Pacha.

Detail of the entrance to the tomb and scatter symbols
Photo C. Zeballos


A set of fine masonry buildings dedicated to housing is located between the Temple of the Sun and the Sacred Square. It communicates with the Temple of the Sun by a staircase, perpendicular to the main square. It also has immediate access to the first water fountain, indicating the importance of this building.

Overview of Royal Residence
Photo courtesy of crossingstraits


Surrounded by the most important buildings of all, the Sacred Square was a place where special ceremonies took place and evidence suggests its use in various rituals. In this space three main buildings are found:

The Main Temple

It is a structure made ​​of large stone blocks, some of which are subsiding because of soil problems.The temple was under construction when Machu Picchu was abandoned. Inside, you can see a stone altar and a sculpture which, some say, they produce a shadow in the form of a drinking llama during the winter solstice.

The Temple of Three Windows

Its three large trapezoidal windows with magnificent views of the landscape gave Hiram Bingham the idea that they symbolized the mythical three windows of Pacaritambo, but there is evidence that the temple originally had five windows. One side is opened to the square (since it was not concluded), and it contains a stepped structure representing the three worlds of the Inca cosmology.

Temple of Three Windows. Photo courtesy of Amy Allcock

It is a minor fine masonry enclosure, behind the Main Temple. It includes large rocks, one of which features 32 corners.


This sector is composed by a series of terraces that form a polygon-based pyramid, which is accessed via two staircases. It was used for observing the stars and studying magical-religious agricultural calendars.

Intihuatana. Source Wikipedia

Intihuatana and Huayna Picchu in the background. Photo C. Zeballos

The most important element of this area is the Intihuatana, whose name (suggested by Bingham) means "to tie up the sun,". It is a polyhedral structure whose various angles and faces represent the goddess Mother Earth and it could be related to the surrounding mountains. The faces culminate in a granite block whose sides are oriented to the cardinal points.It was probably a major observatory during the summer solstice or Capac Raymi.

Intihuatana. Photo courtesy of slider5

Many people attributed to this energy and special magnetic properties.



In one of the most striking evidences of the close relationship of symbolic and religious Inca urban planning and its surrounding landscape. The 7 m long 3 m high rock's flat side facing the square mimics the profile of the mountain behind, the Yanantin Apu. A similar case can be found in the fountain at Ollantaytambo .

Sacred Rock at Machu Picchu.
Photo C. Zeballos


This area consists of rectangular fields or kanchas, accessed by three double-jambed doors. The finish of the masonry is not as fine as in other areas, so presumably it belonged to a lower social class.

Group of three gates and main square. Photo C. Zeballos

The Temple of the Condor blends an impressive Inca masonry with a rock formation that resembles the wings of a condor in flight. In front of them is the bird's head with his distinctive collar, carved in rock. It has been speculated whether it could have been a sacrificial altar. Under the wings of the condor there is a cave, where a mummy was found.

Temple of the Condor. The rocks represent the flying wings. Photo C. Zeballos

On the back of the temple the prison is located, which consisted of a group of niches with a maze of underground dungeons.

Arch R. Cruz getting out of prison (evil tongues say that he was put in jail for looting ... joke ...: P)


The central area is the hub of urban composition, closed on three sides and open to the north. Its oblong, elongated proportions divide the space into two areas: the Hanan to the west and Urin to the east.

Click here to see a reconstruction of Machu Picchu in 3D

Reconstruction by archaeologist Neil Stuart and Digital City


The basic module of the rectangular and gabled kancha is repeated as a basic element of composition, varying according to the topography or the required functions. The stone walls have a slight inclination that gives them earthquake-resistant properties. The typical doors, windows and niches are in trapezoidal shape. Huge blocks were carved from river rocks (without the use of steel and iron chisels) and perfectly assembled together. Sometimes the quality of the finishing varies between different parts of the same building.

Detail of the temple of the sun. Photo courtesy of Sean Duggam


Arch.Cruz explaining stone pools that might have served for observing the stars.

Gary Ziegler and J. McKim Malvilla have conducted research on the symbolic meaning of the landscape and the environment for the inhabitants of Machu Picchu. Their most important observations related to the landscape are:
a) Stone sculptures as the ones found at the top of the agricultural area and the sacred rock represent the Yanatin montain, since it passed through major access routes.
b) The sequence of approach to the complex through monumental gates, the framed views of the Putucusi and Huayna Picchu mountains and entrance to the Sacred Plaza suggest a studied visual relationship between the sacred elements of the landscape and the use of roads and trails for important processions.

Approach to the citadel.The Main Gate frames the Huayna Picchu mountain. Photo courtesy of catsun

c) Many buildings have an alignment that coincides with the orientation of the winter solstice azimuth (65 degrees), with the summer solstice azimuth (112 degrees) or the sunset at the summer solstice (245 degrees). These observations confirm that a number of astronomical calculations had taken place at the time of the city's urban planning, and therefore its sacred character.

Map of the archaeological site of Llactapata. Image courtesy Thompon-Ziegler

d) The Importance of the Llactapata sector on the Huayna Picchu mountain, to which many structures were oriented, such as the temple of three windows, for example.There are also representations of Machu Picchu at the Huayna Picchu mountain as in the temple of the moon, for example.
View Llactapatadesde the Temple of Three Windows

In this regard, see also the section on the Huacas, a communion between man and nature in the next post.

In the next post we will discuss

- The agricultural sector
- Geology
- The Temples
- Water fountains
- Engineering and construction processes


- Ellorrieta, F and E. The Great Pyramid of Pacaritambo.
- Rostorowski, M. Thematic Encyclopedia. Incas. 2004
- Kauffmann, D. History and Art of ancient Peru, Vol VI. 2002
- Williams, C. Architecture and Urbanism in Ancient Peru.
- Bingham, H. Lost City of the Incas: the story of Machu Picchu and Its Builders. 1948
- Gasparini, G. and Margolies, Inca Architecture L.. 1977
- Wikipedia

*Architect Ricardo Cruz C. senior lecturer at the Faculties of Architecture at the Alas Peruanas University and the San Agustin University in Arequipa, Peru. In the latter, completed a master's degree in Urban Planning and Environmental Management.

Architect Ricardo Cruz about to perform a sacrificial jump.



Friday, July 22, 2011


Façade of Curutchet. House. Photo by C. Zeballos..


The Curutchet House is the only work of Le Corbusier built in Argentina and the Americas (although Le Corbusier designed projects in the U.S. and Chile ). More importantly, this house is a masterpiece of Corbusian architecture, a superb example of the so-called “machine á habiter”, where the experienced Swiss architect superbly solved its form, function, space and lighting, using the elements and paraphernalia which are typical of its prolific theoretical and practical architectural background.. The Curutchet House is open to the public due to its preservation by the Institute of Architects of the Province of Buenos Aires, an institution that uses the house as its headquarters.


La Plata is a unique city in South America and one of the best examples of Hygienism of the late nineteenth century on the continent (in this blog were have reviewed other cases of Hygienism in South America: the Plaza de Armas and the Chili River in Arequipa, Peru) .
La Plata’s urban layout, based on a gridiron designed by Pedro Benoit in 1880, differs from a typical Latin American colonial checkerboard in its size, the inclusion of several diagonals that cross the urban space and several landscaped tree-lined paths, which in summer cover the streets like green tunnels and in autumn turn the sidewalks into colorful carpets. The beauty of its monumental axis and the imposing size of the Moreno Square dialogue with the stature of its neo-Gothic cathedral, made of brick and completed only in 1999.
View from the Plaza Moreno, showing the City Hall and the Cathedral. Photo by C. Zeballos .

The Curutchet House is located in a residential area of La Plata, in a lot across a small trapezoidal triangular green area, a prelude to a huge park called El Bosque (the Forest). This closeness to nature and the adjacent building volumetric proportions, influenced Le Corbusier, who would consider these aspects to integrate the house to its surroundings.

Location of the house facing the small park and close to El Bosque park
See location on Google Maps

Curutchet house across the street from El Bosque. Photo courtesy of Patricia Yarleque


The renowned Argentinian surgeon Pedro Domingo Curutchet wrote to Le Corbusier in 1948 requesting him to make a design for his new house. Curutchet never met Le Corbusier nor the latter visited the site, but the doctor kept a "close affinity” with the architect, whom he considered an innovative intellectual.

Sculpture inside the house. Photo courtesy of Patricia Yarleque

The program included an office, a house for the doctor, his wife and two daughters, a guest room and facilities.
For the construction of the house (1949-53) it was important to involve the renowned Argentinian architect Amancio Williams, who not only proposed changes to the draft of house (which Le Corbusier accepted) but also he was responsible for directing and executing the works. After the death of the doctor, the daughters gave their home in custody to the Colegio de Arquitectos de La Plata.

Le Corbusier with model of the Curutchet House. Photo courtesy of Patricia Yarleque


The building is organized around a central space that highlights the presence of a tree, which serves as a virtual boundary between public and private area of the house, differentiating two volumes that allow the function to be clearly distributed and the spaces to be organized under special characteristics.

The tree is integrated with the architecture and it also divides the public and private areas. Photo courtesy of Patricia Yarleque

First level

The visitor is welcomed by a small portico which, in addition to symbolically mark the entrance to the house, it provides a human scale suitable for the reception area. The interior space is separated from the street by a fine boundary defined by a thin fence. In addition to the pedestrian entrance there is also a vehicular access. The first floor is a forest of columns, which are organized in a grid layout, regardless of the location of the walls, allowing light to enter while giving a feeling of wide space. The services are locatedat the back of the house

In Argentina the first level is called Ground Floor. The first level is measured from the top to the ground floor. In this blog we have always called "first floor" to the street level, but differences can be found in the available literature.
First level. 3D image by C. Zeballos


The ramp (which is independent from the stairs leading to residential area) leads to the mezzanine, which is the office. This is basically formed by a waiting area and consultation (the one that has better visuals). The area of internship, located in the back of the consultation, has independent toilets.

Mezzanine. 3D image by C. Zeballos
The ramp leads to the office. Photo courtesy of Patricia Yarleque
Second Floor

This is the social area of the house, from which you can access to a wide terrace running the entire width of the lot and from which magnificent views to the park can be enjoyed . To avoid too much solar incidence on the terrace, which would be unbearable in the summer, Le Corbusier suggested the use of a parasol and bris soleil, which, coupled with the tree, provide shade to the space.

Integrated into the terrace there are a double-height lounge and a dining room. The functionality of the kitchen, equipped with a service entrance, is unusual for the time in which it was designed.

"In the level of the house (...) the hall opens to the lounge (library to the right of the door, after the piano). The lounge opens to a double height room, to the north continues with the "patio" or "hanging garden" designed to create the most important part of the house, where one lays under the sun, the shade and the green. "LeCorbusier in a letter to Dr. Peter Curutchet on May 24, 1949. Vía EMOL

Second Floor. 3D image by C. Zeballos

Third Floor

Consists of two bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, the first for the doctor and his wife and the other one for their daughters. Opposite to the master bedroom there is a spatially integrated double-height studio. In the daughters bedroom it is possible to use a system of wooden blinds that controls the entry of light and brings privacy to the room.

Third Floor. 3D image by C. Zeballos
Detail of the wooden blinds in the bedroom. Photo courtesy of Patricia Yarleque

An analysis of the section allows to appreciate the rich visual and spatial relationships in the house, the way the space is modeled and the use of transparency in order to maximize the feeling of spaciousness in a small plot.

Schematic section. 3D image by C. Zeballos


Since the publication of his book Towards an architecture and his writings in L'Esprit Nouveau, Le Corbusier had proposed 5 key principles, characteristic of the new architecture, which were reflected in his most famous house, the Villa Savoye .The Curutchet House is also a good example to understand these five principles of Corbusian architecture.

a) The pilotis.

The house is arranged in a grid of columns, independent of the location of the walls, which raise the building from the ground, allowing the use of gardens and patios.

The pilotis allow light to enter inside while enhancing the feeling of space. Photo courtesy of Patricia Yarleque

b) The free plan

While freeing the walls from the structure, it eliminates the typical bearing walls of old houses, providing great flexibility in layout and interconnection of the spaces.

The structural layout is independent of the building's walls. Photo courtesy of Patricia Yarleque

c) Free Facade

Also a consequence of the independence of the structure, the façade becomes transparent as it is not composed of walls.

The facade becomes transparent. The bris soleil are also used as aesthetic elements. Photo courtesy of Patricia Yarleque
d) Ribbon windows.

The use of large windows and ventilation provides natural light to the space.

The ribbon window allows magnificent views and generous natural light. Photo courtesy of Patricia Yarleque

e) Terrace garden

Utilization of the terraces for domestic purposes, among which may include garden areas.

Use of the terrace as an extension of space. Photo courtesy of Patricia Yarleque


The Modulor

As mentioned in previous post , the modulor is a proportional system created by Le Corbusier, based on anthropometric measures and the golden ratio , because he believed that the proportion of the buildings was necessary to express beauty. The architect used this system to design the house elements, distances and the height of the ceiling (Williams had to ask special permission in the city of La Plata to build rooms with a height lower than the regulation).

Promenade Architecturale

The visual sequence along the route is always offering a new experience of space. At each step, we appreciate the harmonious succession of spaces and the fine use of the light. This spatial arrangement can be perceived, for example, in the course of the ramp, an element created primarily for the exaltation of the internal space. In the words of Dr. Claudio Conenna, "with these elements, Le Corbusier creates dynamic spatial situations, varied perceptions of visuals and perspectives, aside of a consistent transition of scale and lighting in the whole space, with the intention to move (both kinetic and emotionally) to the man who lives the building. "

Click here to see a video tour of the house.

Bris SoleilBris Soleil
"The arrangement of the pots of plants and shrubs and some small stones (east) will help to maintain the necessary green. "(Ibid)

Not only the front facade, but the internal one use bris soleil. Photo courtesy of 86 partner

Le Corbusier has had enormous influence on twentieth-century architectural practice. Notable disciples who worked with him are Oscar Niemeyer and Mario Botta , and his ideas have exerted significant influence on the work of Richard Meier and Tadao Ando . In fact, many aspects of the Corbusian vocabulary are still being used nowadays. He is a master of whom we continue learning today.

*Special thanks to Architect Patricia Yarleque