As I write this post, I’m sitting in the airport in Mexico City, decompressing after a red-eye from Lima and trying to reconcile sheer exhaustion with the excitement, stimulation, new knowledge, and physical exertion I’ve accumulated and endured over the past two weeks while traveling through Peru (including hiking the Incan trail- a 30+ mile trek through the Andes that ends at one of the seven Wonders of the World, the glorious Machu Picchu.)
From an architecture perspective, visiting a country where ancient Incan ruins are more common than Starbucks and history remains alive and kicking through well-preserved tradition and culture, this journey has provided much food for thought in regards to how Peru has approached context, culture, history, and modernity in beautiful and complex ways.
While I’ll try to curb my elation and post-trip enthusiasm, I’d like to use this post as a Cliffs Notes opportunity to share three interesting, architecturally- relevant ideas from my very recent travels.
#1- America is a young country. Peru, on the other hand, is like a very fine, aged wine.
Wherever you go in Peru, the presence of the Incan empire (dating back to the 16th century) remains an integral aspect of the city’s architecture and urban landscape. For example, Cuzco (referred to as the “Belly Button of the world” in reference to its rich central location within a valley of mountains, and its dynamic cultural heritage) is a city that is literally built on the foundation of Incan walls.
Deemed an extremely advanced civilization in terms of construction practices, the Incans built extensive cities with locally-sourced stone that was then sculpted into Lego-like pieces that were fit together to create seamless constructions. Once glided in gold, bronze, or clay, the foundations and anti- seismic constructions of the Incan walls now serve as the integral organizational fabric that defines the continually evolving Peruvian city.
#2- You see more when you walk… and no, hiking is not “just walking.”
Given my love of hiking, mountains, and architecture, taking the 5 day trek on the Incan Trail to one of the built wonders of the world, Machu Picchu, proved to be one of the most awe-inspiring and challenging experiences of my life thus far. Four days of camping and hiking on the trail of granite stairs that snugly hug the passes, peaks, and perimeter of the Andes in the Valle Sagrada gave me the rare opportunity to retrace an ancient civilization’s steps while being able to deeply connect and contextualize the site-specific logic behind the Incans various military checkpoints, religious/ceremonial structures, residential and industrial constructions.
Sitting on top of a mountain at our campsite on the third day in Phuyupatamarka, watching the clouds pass at almost eye level with our 14000 ft elevation, I finally understood the Incans’ powerful connection culturally, spiritually, and as a resultant, architecturally to the natural world. When arriving through the Sun Gate to Machu Picchu on the final day, the aerial view of the city seamlessly emerging in the form of terraces and structures mimicking the natural topography of the mountain echoed an approach to building as a complement and integral aspect of existing context, rather than the addition of a foreign antibody to the immaculate natural topography and surrounding mountains.
This careful and intuitive integration of foundation, site, context, and structure reflects an important, sensitive approach to development and architectural design we might still learn from and emulate.
#3- If architecture doesn’t work out, I’m becoming an archaeoastronomer.
With that said, my favorite discovery is the profession of archaeoastronomy, in which people participate in the scientific study of archaeological artifacts, sites, etc. to determine the astronomical knowledge of ancient, esp. prehistoric, peoples and what they believed. Incan architecture is a hot-bed of information for archaeoastronomists, as their temples, sacrificial altars, and other religious constructions were often oriented in specific directions to create specific alignments to the sun on days such as the solstice, etc., once again utilizing nature as both content and a driver of design.
In conclusion, while there is still so much to process and digest (and some achey muscles to stretch), I am looking forward to sifting through my photos and seeing how my newly-acquired experiences and perspectives will continue to inform my work and in many ways, my continually changing perceptions of the amazing, thoughtful world we live in.