Inca architecture

Incan architecture is the most significant pre-Columbian architecture in South America. The Incas inherited an architectural legacy from Tiwanaku, founded in the 2nd century B.C.E. in present-day Bolivia. A core characteristic of the architectural style was to use the topography and existing materials of the land as part of the design. The capital of the Inca empire, Cuzco, still contains many fine examples of Inca architecture, although many walls of Inca masonry have been incorporated into Spanish Colonial structures. The famous royal estate of Machu Picchu (Machu Pikchu) is a surviving example of Inca architecture. Other significant sites include Sacsayhuamán and Ollantaytambo. The Incas also developed an extensive road system spanning most of the western length of the continent and placed their distinctive architecture along the way, thereby visually asserting their imperial rule along the frontier.

Inca buildings were made out of fieldstones or semi-worked stone blocks and dirt set in mortar; adobe walls were also quite common, usually laid over stone foundations. The material used in the Inca buildings depended on the region, for instance, in the coast they used large rectangular adobe blocks while in the Andes they used local stones. The most common shape in Inca architecture was the rectangular building without any internal walls and roofed with wooden beams and thatch. There were several variations of this basic design, including gabled roofs, rooms with one or two of the long sides opened and rooms that shared a long wall. Rectangular buildings were used for quite different functions in almost all Inca buildings, from humble houses to palaces and temples. Even so, there are some examples of curved walls on Inca buildings, mostly in regions outside the central area of the empire. Two-story buildings were infrequent; when they were built the second floor was accessed from the outside via a stairway or high terrain rather than from the first floor. Wall apertures, including doors, niches and windows, usually had a trapezoidal shape; they could be fitted with double or triple jambs as a form of ornamentation. Other kinds of decoration were scarce; some walls were painted or adorned with metal plaques, in rare cases walls were sculpted with small animals or geometric patterns.

The most common composite form in Inca architecture was the kancha, a rectangular enclosure housing three or more rectangular buildings placed symmetrically around a central courtyard. Kancha units served widely different purposes as they formed the basis of simple dwellings as well as of temples and palaces; furthermore, several kancha could be grouped together to form blocks in Inca settlements. A testimony of the importance of these compounds in Inca architecture is that the central part of the Inca capital of Cusco consisted of large kancha, including Qurikancha and the Inca palaces. The best preserved examples of kancha are found at Ollantaytambo, an Inca settlement located along the Urubamba River.

Inca architecture is widely known for its fine masonry, which features precisely cut and shaped stones closely fitted without mortar (“dry”). However, despite this fame, most Inca buildings were actually made out of fieldstone and adobe as described above. In the 1940s, American archaeologist John H. Rowe classified Inca fine masonry in two types: coursed, which features rectangular shaped stones, and polygonal, which features blocks of irregular shape. Forty years later, Peruvian architect Santiago Agurto established four subtypes by dividing the categories identified by Rowe:

Cellular polygonal masonry: with small blocks
Ashlar polygonal masonry: with very large stones
Encased coursed masonry: in which stone blocks are not aligned
Sedimentary coursed masonry: in which stones are laid out in horizontal rows (i.e., ashlars)
The first two types were used on important buildings or perimeter walls while the last two were employed mostly on terrace walls and river canalization.

According to Graziano Gasparini and Luise Margolies, Inca stonemasonry was inspired by the architecture of Tiwanaku, an archaeological site in modern Bolivia built several centuries before the Inca Empire. They argue that according to ethnohistorical accounts the Incas were impressed by these monuments and employed large numbers of stoneworkers from nearby regions in the construction of their own buildings. In addition to these references, they also identified some formal similarities between Tiwanaku and Inca architecture including the use of cut and polished stone blocks, as well as of double jambs. A problem with this hypothesis is the question of how was expertise preserved in the three hundred years between the collapse of Tiwanaku and the appearance of the Inca Empire and its architecture. As a solution, John Hyslop has argued that the Tiahuanaco stonemasonry tradition was preserved in the Lake Titicaca region in sites such as Tanka Tanka, which features walls resembling Inca polygonal masonry.

A second major influence on Inca architecture came from the Wari culture, a civilization contemporary to Tiwanaku. According to Ann Kendall, the Huari introduced their tradition of building rectangular enclosures in the Cusco region, which formed a model for the development of the Inca kancha. There is evidence that such traditions were preserved in the Cusco region after the decline of the Wari as is attested by the enclosures found at sites such as Choquequirao (Chuqi K’iraw), 28 kilometers southeast of the Inca capital.

Masonry and construction methods
Water engineer Ken Wright estimates that 60 percent of the Inca construction effort was underground. The Inca built their cities with locally available materials, usually including limestone or granite. To cut these hard rocks the Inca used stone, bronze or copper tools, usually splitting the stones along the natural fracture lines. Without the wheel the stones were rolled up wood beams on earth ramps. Extraordinary manpower would have been necessary. Hyslop comments that the ‘secret’ to the production of fine Inca masonry…was the social organization necessary to maintain the great numbers of people creating such energy-consuming monuments.” It is speculated that the stones were swung into place using friction to create perfectly convex and concave sides. Visible marks of facture like stone bosses were made using rope; these elements demonstrated the artistic value of labor and the power of Inca rule.

Usually the walls of Incan buildings were slightly inclined inside and the corners were rounded. This, in combination with masonry thoroughness, led Incan buildings to have a peerless seismic resistance thanks to high static and dynamic steadiness, absence of resonant frequencies and stress concentration points. During an earthquake with a small or moderate magnitude, masonry was stable, and during a strong earthquake stone blocks were “ dancing ” near their normal positions and lay down exactly in right order after an earthquake.

Another building method was called “pillow-faced” architecture. Pillow faced building was achieved by using fired adobe bricks. The Incas would then sand large, finely shaped stones, and then they would fit the bricks and stones together in jigsaw like patterns. Pillow-faced architecture was typically used for temples and royal places like Machu Picchu.

Ashlar masonry was used in the most sacred, elite Inca structure; for example, the Acllawasi (“House of the Chosen Woman”), the Coricancha (“Golden Enclosure”) in Cuzco, and the “Sun Temple at Machu Picchu. Thus it seems that ashlar may have been more greatly valued by the Inca, perhaps considered more difficult than polygonal (“pillow-faced”) masonry. Though polygonal masonry may be aesthetically more impressive, the facture of ashlar masonry tends to be far less unforgiving to mistakes; if a corner is broken in the process it can be reshaped to fit into the mosaic of polygonal masonry whereas you cannot recover a damaged rock in ashlar masonry.

Inca architectural forms
It was the most common unit of architectural composition, consisting of a rectangular fence that housed three or more rectangular structures arranged symmetrically around a central courtyard. 1 The kanchas usually housed different functions since they formed the basic unit of both houses as well as temples and palaces; additionally, several kanchas could be grouped to form the blocks of the Inca settlements. 2 A testimony of the importance of these units of composition in the Inca architecture is the city of Cuzco , whose central part consisted of large kanchas , including the tempo of the sun ( Coricancha ) and the palaces of the Inca. 3 The most preserved examples of kancha are found in Ollantaytambo , an Inca settlement located on the banks of the Urubamba River . 4

They were large rectangular enclosures, up to 70 meters long, associated with important state centers. These structures, mentioned as warehouses in the chronicles, usually had several doors, niches and windows and were covered with gabled roofs. The fact that they appear in the vicinity of large squares suggests that they were linked to ceremonial activities, as well as the lodging of numerous people; mainly administrators or officials in the field.

Truncated and stepped pyramid structure, configured from the superposition of several rectangular platforms. It is present in the state administrative centers. Access to the top of the ushnu was made through a central stairway. Its function was to serve as a stand. From his peak, the Inca, or his representative, ran religious ceremonies and family meetings.

Inns built along the main roads of Tahuantinsuyo, called mesones or sales by the chroniclers. They were simple buildings of one or several environments, which were occupied by travelers as places of rest. They contained spaces for the storage of the necessary supplies for the support of the walkers.

Identified by Garcilaso as the “Casa de las Escogidas”, it corresponds to the residential buildings of the acllas , which were groups of women specialized in productive activities, particularly in textiles and chicha preparation, and who were obliged to provide labor services to the State. These buildings, mistakenly compared by the chroniclers with the Christian convents, were distributed in all the provincial centers of Tahuantinsuyo.

Architectural constructions

City of Cuzco
efore the foundation of Cuzco a small village called Acamama was located in the place. It was formed by humble stone and straw constructions, and in it several ayllus were sheltered. It was divided into four sections, which had to do with the criteria above and below, left and right.

When Manco Cápac founds the city, it is located between the channels of the Tullumayo and Saphy rivers, from a hill to the confluence of both rivers. This city became the political and religious capital of the State and with time it was necessary to introduce new ways of subdividing the space.

Monumental Cuzco
For a long time the city was quite simple, but after the war with the Chancas it was very destroyed. Then Pachacútec decided to build the majestic capital that Spaniards met with amazement.

Cuzco was a city full of palaces and large courts surrounded by a wall with a single entrance, where the most important gentlemen had their residence. It looked very neat. Its streets were cobbled and had drainage systems. There were two main squares separated only by the Huatanay stream: Huacaypata and Cusipata. In the first, the most important rituals and parties were held.

The most magnificent buildings within Cuzco and its surroundings are: the Coricancha , the fortress of Sacsayhuamán , Ollantaytambo , Pisac , Quenqo and Machu Picchu , those that belonged to the imperial era.

The city achieved great prestige as a religious center, as well as constituting the political center of the empire. Each of the Incas who died there had a house that was kept for him, with all his belongings inside including the servants and their wives.

It is said that the Cuzco plane had the shape of a puma and that its head was represented by Sacsayhuamán, a fortress planned by Pachacútec . Between the legs of the animal would be the plaza Haucaypata.

Cuzco: Symbol of Tahuantinsuyo
The historian Franklin Pease said that the chroniclers emphasized the symbolic meaning of Cuzco as the center and origin of the Inca world. The city itself was revered and it is indicated that it was a symbol of all the Tahuantinsuyo. This would explain the symbolic repetition of the structure of the city in the Inca administrative centers. Some chronicler even said that whoever came from Cuzco should be revered by whoever came to him, since he had been in contact with the sacred city.

Provincial administrative centers
As the Tahuantinsuyo was expanding, provincial centers were built from which the different conquered regions were administered. State planning involved the use of clay models in which they were represented from entire valleys to a building, before starting to build it. On the coast , the stone was usually replaced by tapial or adobe .

Tambo Colorado
It was one of the most important centers established by the Incas on the coast. It is a set of constructions made with tapiales and adobes. Although in some areas it has an apparently previous decoration, the doors and niches have the typical trapezoidal shape of the Incas. It is known as Tambo Colorado because of the red paint, which can still be seen on its walls, although some walls with yellow and white paint are also preserved. Around a square of trapezoidal plant several structures are distributed among which are deposits, houses and a main building known as the Fortress.

Huánuco Pampa
Also known as Huánuco Viejo . It is a very important center of more than 2 km² located on an esplanade four thousand meters high. It was established there because it marked the middle point of the road between Cusco and Tomebamba . Around a large square that contains a ushnu or structure on which a kind of seat is located, four different sectors are distinguished: one of deposits to the south, one of fabric making to the north, one of common houses to the west, and another of residence of the Inca during his visits to the site. In total there would be about four thousand buildings dedicated to military, religious and administrative functions.

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Tupac Yupanqui initiated the construction of this administrative center, from which the conquest of the Cañaris was affirmed and the northern limit of the Tahuantinsuyo was controlled. Its importance was increasing rapidly so much that it became the second most important city of the empire.

Place of special importance, because there was captured the Inca Atahualpa marking the beginning of the decline of the empire. At that time it was a very large town, with a walled square in the center. The Temple of the Sun, the Palace of the Inca and the Acllawasi , reproduced the purest Cuzco architectural style. It is said that the founder of the city was Tupac Yupanqui .

Other Inca administrative and religious centers outside of Cusco were: Samaipata , Incallajta , Tilcara among others.

Constructions of a religious nature

It was an administrative and religious center established after the Incas conquered the Chancas and the Pocras . It is located in the province of Vilcashuamán , in the department of Ayacucho , at 3,490 meters above sea level. According to the chroniclers, Vilcashuamán had to house some 40,000 people. The city was conformed by a great square in which ceremonies with sacrifices were realized, around this are the two most important buildings: the Temple of the Sun and the Moon and the Ushnu . The Ushnu is a four-level terraced truncated pyramid which is entered through a double jamb door, characteristic of the most important enclosures. On its upper platform there is a large stone carved in a singular way known as the Seat of the Inca and it is said that it was formerly covered with gold plates.

It was the main temple of Cusco . After the war with the Chancas , Pachacútec was in charge of reconstructing it, placing in its interior great quantities of gold and silver, so much so that from Inti cancha (enclosure of the sun) it became known as Coricancha (gold enclosure). Pachacútec placed the sun ( Inti ), divinity of the Incas of Cuzco, in the main place. This temple is one of the best examples of fine Inca architecture. It highlights its curved wall made with an admirable perfection. On the remains of the Inca walls today stands the Convent of Santo Domingo .

Military and commemorative constructions

Inca Huasi
It is in the valley of Lunahuaná , near San Vicente de Cañete . In that area there was a curacazgo known as Guarco , which was conquered by the Incas after four years of tenacious resistance. According to tradition, Tupac Yupanqui decided to call this extensive administrative center Cusco , like the capital of the empire, and wanted its streets and squares to bear the same names as those that were in it. In Inca Huasi , the quadripartite distribution of space was reproduced. The Incahuasi Archaeological Complex, whose translation into Spanish is ” Casa del Inca “, is located at Km 29.5 of the Cañete – Lunahuaná highway. Corridors and pavilions inside the Temple of the Sun. It was also a center of worship, sacrifice and climatological observation. In the part of this complex dedicated to the Temple of the Sun, it can be seen that the rooms have columns of cylindrical shape, there is even an enclosure in which one of these columns forms part of the wall. Apparently these columns were part of an Intihuatana (Inca solar clock).

On a hill that dominates Cusco from the north side is the religious site of Saqsaywaman . It consists of three platforms made with huge retaining walls in a zigzag, on which three towers were located. The walls were made by joining stone blocks of surprising dimensions, some reaching 9 m by 5 m by 4 m.

The historian Maria Rostworowski speculates on whether Saqsaywaman was a military fortress used for the defense of Cusco , since the stories of Chanca invasion say that they easily entered the city without facing important military resistance. In addition, while the Tahuantinsuyo empire expanded, there was no danger of an attack on Cusco . Rostworowski believes that it was a monument to the victory over the Chancas , and that during the festivities ritual battles were performed there. This also served as a great help to the Incas to defend themselves against foreign military troops.

Elite architecture

Ollantaytambo or Ullantaytampu is another monumental work of Inca architecture. It is the only city of the Incas in Peru still inhabited. The descendants of the Cusco noble houses live in its palaces. The patios maintain their original architecture. This city constituted a military, religious, administrative and agricultural complex. The entry is made through the door called Punku-punku . Ollantaytambo is located in the district of the same name, province of Urubamba, approximately 60 km northwest of the city of Cuzco and has a height of 2,792 meters above sea level. Located 600m below Cuzco, it enjoys a warmer climate and a more fertile land, which the Incas took full advantage of to build towns and important agricultural centers. The valley is surrounded by steep mountains that make you acquire a feeling of being in a special place, but hey, that’s not a novelty, you can breathe as soon as you enter here.

Pisac (also Pisaq ) is located 33 kilometers from the city of Cuzco . Its archaeological site is one of the most important in the Sacred Valley of the Incas . The architecture of Pisac is mestizo, built on indigenous remains by the Viceroy Francisco de Toledo . The beauty of its walls, built with large stone blocks polished with extraordinary symmetry and unparalleled handling of the stone leave the visitor perplexed. “On the banks of Willkamayu, the sacred god river that runs by carved stone channels dominating its fury, begins the fringes of light and shadow of the famous platforms of P’isaq, the great city of the partridges. A city of legend that was built on a crest of blue rock, almost over the air to envision the most beautiful of the valleys of Cusco “.

Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu has long been one of the most disturbing enigmas of the Inca past. It is located a few hundred meters above the left bank of the Vilcanota or Urubamba River, at 2490 masl . The first aspect that stands out is its location, on the top of a hill covered with vegetation and difficult to access. This isolation made it possible for the site to remain intact for hundreds of years. At first it was thought that it could be Pacaritambo , the place of origin of the Incas. Then he thought it was Vilcabamba , refuge of the descendants of the Inca rulers. The fact is that, until then, there was no news of the existence of this site even through the chronicles.

For its study it was divided into different sectors, depending on the characteristics, little or very elaborated, of the architecture . These could be the urban sector, the agricultural sector, the religious sector, etc. The agricultural sector corresponds to a set of terraces or platforms perfectly adapted to the steep slopes of the hill, and which were complemented by canals. There is a main entrance guarded by surveillance posts, as well as a wall that separates the agricultural sector from the urban one. At the center of the site there is a main square with an elongated rock standing in the middle.

In the religious sector they emphasize the Temple of the Three Windows and the Intihuatana , or solar clock , block of stone with astronomical functions located on a truncated pyramid. Towards the east side, at the bottom of the terraces, there is a cemetery. The excavations have brought to light a series of burials, of which the vast majority were women. Perhaps there lived a small elite of priests surrounded by a group of women dedicated to the cult, the so-called Virgins of the Sun.

Agricultural architecture
Perhaps the most renowned aspect of Incan architecture is the use of terraces to increase the land available for farming. These steps provided flat ground surface for food production while protecting their city centers against erosion and landslides common in the Andes. The masons at Machu Picchu built these so well that they were still intact when Hiram Bingham re-discovered the site.

The Incas had an extensive road system. A high road crossed the higher regions of the Cordillera from north to south and another lower north-south road crossed the coastal plains. Shorter crossroads linked the two main highways together in several places. The terrain, according to Cieza de Leon, an early chronicler of Inca culture, was formidable. The road system ran through deep valleys and over mountains, through piles of snow, quagmires, living rock, along turbulent rivers; in some places it ran smooth and paved, carefully laid out; in others over sierras, cut through the rock, with walls skirting the rivers, and steps and rests through the snow; everywhere it was clean swept and kept free of rubbish, with lodgings, storehouses, temples to the sun, and posts along the way.

To help travelers on their way, rest houses (or tambos) were built. Here, they could spend a night, cook a meal, and feed their llamas.

Rope bridges
The Incas built suspension rope bridges using grass. These bridges, which were made from ropes ingeniously tied together, formed a narrow but effective structure. This was the only way to cross rivers on foot. If only one of their hundreds of bridges was damaged, a major road could not fully function. Fortunately, every time a bridge broke, the locals would repair it as quickly as possible.

Symbolism and Patronage

Aesthetics: Combining the Built and Natural Environments
Inca architecture is strongly characterized by its use of the natural environment. The Inca managed to seamlessly merge their architecture into the surrounding land and its specificities. At its peak, the Inca Empire spanned from Ecuador to Chile and Argentina. Yet despite geographic variances, Inca architecture remained consistent in its ability to visually blend the built and natural environment.

In particular, Inca walls practiced mortarless masonry and used partially worked, irregularly shaped rocks to complement the organic qualities and diversity of the natural environment. Through the dry fitted masonry techniques of caninacukpirca, the Incas shaped their stone to conceal natural outcrops, fit tight crevices, and ultimately incorporate the landscape into their infrastructure.

The Inca also used natural bedrock as their structural foundations. This pragmatically stabilized their structures built in the Andes mountain range of South America, while aesthetically disguising the boundaries between mountain and edifice. In combination, the diversity of stone shape, materiality, and facture all furthered the naturalistic illusion of the Inca’s built environment.

Politics: Expansionist and Subservient Ideologies
Inca employment and integration of the natural environment into their architecture played an essential role in their program of civilizational expansion and cultural imperialism. Patronage of powerful elites and rulers of the Inca empire was a major impetus behind the construction of Inca structures, and much of the remaining architecture we see today was most likely royal estates or mobile capitals for Sapa Inca to inhabit. The Sapa Inca naturalized and asserted their political rule through their palaces’ aesthetic appeal to a reciprocal relationship between their imperialism and the earth itself. The blended, architectural aesthetic colored their political expansion in a sense of inseparable, timeless, and spiritual authority.

For example, in the royal estate of Chinchero, the Incas adapted their large-scale earthwork and massive stone construction to the land’s dramatically steep valley in order to create intense, visual drama. Similarly to the architecture of other mountainous Inca citadels, such as Machu Picchu, the Chinchero estate’s dynamic construction into the severe landscape demonstrated the raw, physical power of the Incas, and projected an authoritative aura for those who approached.

The actual process of constructing the royal palaces served as an additional royal tactic of maintaining rule. Inca architecture demonstrates a commitment to the culturally pervasive, yet more physically difficult, process of mortarless, polygonal masonry and conscious accommodation of a land’s natural topography. The upholding of these non-utilitarian practices of construction can give insight into Inca values concerning the artistic integrity and cultural meaning embedded within the process of building estates, and how the building of royal palaces can be understood as a physical enactment of political loyalty and communal subservience to the Sapa Inca.

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