Deciphering the Urban Planning Ideas of Tenochtitlan


This paper explores the urban planning ideas based on Tenochtitlan’s construction during the pre- Hispanic era. Tenochtitlan was one of the largest cities that evolved from other Aztec city planning principles. Examining the urban planning of Tenochtitlan reveals many elements of Aztec culture and their religious beliefs. Spatial patterns and layouts provide insight into what it may have been like to live in these cities and the reason for planning it this way.

Based on the research of Tenochtitlan’s planning ideas, the paper concludes with its influences on contemporary city planning practices. An overview of the planning methods, proposed systems, and infrastructure would enrich the present-day environmental challenges.

1. The Origin of Tenochtitlan

Lake Texcoco, a water body part of the Mexico Basin, is surrounded by high mountain ranges with Tenochtitlan built on a shallow salty marsh island. The lake received water from the mountain ranges through the east, west, and south water basins. The peaks have a significant role in bringing the water to the basin through summer rainstorms and springs. The city's center is the focal point for the great temple enclosure with the royal palace and public spaces along its periphery. Tenochtitlan exhibited power as its empire became well known from Guatemala to the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Ocean. Tenochtitlan was also the wealthiest city in Meso-America. In 1521, the Spaniards waged war against the Aztec empire and conquered Tenochtitlan with their Tlaxcala allies. The Spanish-Aztec war is considered one of the significant events for colonizing Mesoamerica.

Fig 01: The founding of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan; first page of the Codex Mendoza, circa 1541 Image source:
Fig 01: The founding of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan; first page of the Codex Mendoza, circa 1541 Image source:

Tonacatecuhtli and Tonacacihuatl, first created fire, then the sun, and, subsequently, the first human couple. This pair is also depicted in the Codex Borbonicus; they are known as Ometecuhtli ("Two Lord") and Omecihuatl ("Two Lady"). The gods then set the calendar in motion by differentiating night from day. They then created Mictlantecuhtli and Mictlancihuatl, husband and wife, and these were gods of the underworld, and they placed them there; and then they created the heavens, farther than the thirteenth (level], and they created water, and in it, they raised a great fish called Cipactli, who is like a caiman, and from this fish, they created the earth. This myth expresses the division of the three major levels that form the cosmovision of the Aztec: the underworld, or realm of the dead, where the pair of gods presides; the thirteen heavens that include the celestial level; and, between these, the earth, the place occupied by humans. This vertical hierarchy is balanced by a horizontal view that encompasses the four cardinal directions of the universe, each of which was ruled by a different god and associated with a different color, symbol, and tree. The south was ruled by the blue Tezcatlipoca, better known as Huitzilopochtli, the Mexica-Aztec ancestral hero, and warrior god. One of his symbols was the rabbit; another was the hummingbird. He was also associated with the spines used to draw blood in ritual acts of auto sacrifice [1].

Fig. 02: The first symbols the Aztec are said to have seen were red and blue springs of water. Image source: literaturaprehispanica
Fig. 02: The first symbols the Aztec are said to have seen were red and blue springs of water. Image source: literaturaprehispanica

The principle of duality is understood as the mother and father of the gods. Subsequently, Ometeotl is always at its center in the three levels above. That is what the poem refers to in the line: he who is "spread out on the navel of the earth," meaning the fundamental center, surrounded by water. The god is in the celestial level, where he "dwells in the clouds," but they also occupy the underworld, the place of "shadows of the land of the dead." The description we analyzed is clear, but how was this vision of the universe given maternal symbolic form? This cosmovision was established in the city of Tenochtitlan, in its ceremonial precinct, and in the Templo Mayor, the Aztec Main Pyramid. The Mexica tribe, after a long period of wandering, finally settled in the center of Lake Texcoco in the Valley of Mexico. The lands they occupied were under the authority and of the Lords of Azcapotzalco, who permitted the Aztecs to settle there, if they paid tribute, thereby remaining under the Lords' economic and political dominion. The Aztec account of the settlement of their city is a mythical one. They tell us that, upon their arrival, they saw a series of symbols indicating that this was the place chosen by their ancestral god, the warrior Huitzilopochtli. The symbols are divided into two groups: those appropriated from the Toltec, the culture preceding, and closely related to the Aztec [2].

2. Aztec's validation for settling in Tenochtitlan

The origin of the Aztecs was not originally from the valley of Mexico but they migrated from the north due to the drought.

Tenochtitlan's unfortunate position of the city, in the middle of a marsh, facilitated economic connections and protected it from military attacks by restricting access to the site by canoe or boat traffic. Tenochtitlan witnessed rapid growth as a commercial and military center since Mexica were skillful and fierce soldiers.

The first symbols the Aztecs are said to have seen were red and blue springs of water, as well as fish, frogs, and white plants, all of which were sacred signs traditionally associated with a "Toltec" people when they arrived at their sacred city of Cholula. Aztecs searched for sacred signs by their god of war, Huitzilopochtli: the eagle perched on a cactus. Achieved two things through confirming the signs: the legitimization of their city and lineage in terms of the prestigious ancestral culture of the Toltec and terms of their ancestral tribal deity[3].

3. Tenochtitlan: Center of the World

When the Aztec had been in Aztlan, their place of origin, they were a tribute polity of the Toltec. The Aztec attempted to substantiate their claim that they were "descendants" of the Toltec, their principal paradigm of greatness. By emphasizing their relationship with the Toltec.

The Aztecs sanctified the place with the well-known Toltec symbols to legitimize their city and lineage. A historian of religions, Mircea Eliade, has described the following characteristics concerning the symbolism of the center, based on comparative studies of many places of worship and their symbolism in various religious traditions:

1. The Sacred Mountain -where heaven and earth meet at the center of the world.

2. Every temple or palace -and, by extension, every sacred city or royal residence -is a Sacred Mountain, thus becoming a Center.

3. As an axis Mundi, the sacred city or temple, meets heaven, earth, and hell[4].

4. The Cosmic belief

Tenochtitlan and its ceremonial precinct were two great centers, one contained inside the other in the city that embraced residential zones, palaces, and a host of temples and related buildings that were part of the administrative, economic, and ritual organization of the imperial state.

Tenochtitlan's idea of cosmic symbolism is always tied to the reality of a complex political, economic, and social order. Many Aztec historic monuments illustrate this point or example, with the "Stone of the Five Suns." [5]

A monument is described in the Aztec rites as an altar where blood offerings were made to the sky and the earth. When considered in the context of the central precinct and pyramid, these and other famous monuments served to remind the Aztec lords of the integration of their imperial state with the structures and powers of the world around them.

Many surviving sixteenth-century Spanish chronicles contain accounts of cosmogonic myths that detail the creation of the earth, the stars, and human beings. These accounts enable us to approach an indigenous view of humankind's place in the world and to begin to reconstruct pre-Columbian concepts of the universe. One such myth is in the manuscript known as the Historia de los mexicanos por sus pinturas. It relates how the creator gods, sons of the primordial pair, Tonacatecuhrli and Tonacacihuatl, first created fire, then the sun, and, subsequently, the first human couple[6].

People depend on nature, and, in their endeavors as productive beings, they actively transform the natural world. At the same time, they also construct a pantheon of gods to whom they ascribe the creative power of all that exists. These gods created the heavens, earth, and underworld, sun and moon (and, by inference, day and night), and fire and water- all of the elements that are indispensable in sustaining life and in the creation of man. The Aztec cosmovision is realized in the architecture of the sacred ceremonial precinct of Tenochtitlan, the imperial capital. The ruins of this city lie beneath the Spanish colonial buildings in downtown Mexico City.[7]

5. The Urban form of the city

When the Mexica peoples constructed Tenochtitlan on an island in Lake Texcoco in the early fourteenth century, they drew more inspiration from Teotihuacan and Tula than from the standard Aztec urban plan already established at many towns in central Mexico. The use of orthogonal planning is one of the remarkable features of the imperial capital. Although few explicit articulations of urban planning concepts have survived, three factors were most likely responsible for creating the form of Tenochtitlan: the city's island location, imperial ideology, and cosmological principles.

Most of Tenochtitlan's 13.5 sq. km were reclaimed from Lake Texcoco. Spanish observers were struck by the significant number of canals in the city, likening to Venice. The canals were used as transportation arteries and for agricultural purposes. Raised fields or chinampas, an extremely productive farming method, were built to cultivate reclaimed swampy land in the city's outer neighborhoods. Families living on their small plots worked these fields. 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 from a central ceremonial precinct in the cardinal directions. The avenues divided Tenochtitlan into four quarters, each smaller ceremonial precinct. Outside of the chinampa areas, houses were packed tightly together. The city of Tlatelolco, with its impressive epicenter, was originally a separate town but was later incorporated into Tenochtitlan. By drawing on the orthogonal layout of Teotihuacan, the Mexican rulers proclaimed Tenochtitlan's continuity with the past and its legitimacy as the imperial capital of central Mexico. Cosmological principles also contributed to the form and layout of the capital. The Templo mayor's most prominent structure was viewed as the symbolic center of the Aztec empire, and it was the setting for elaborate state ceremonies, including human sacrifices.[8]

The Templo Mayor was built in alignment with sunrise on a key holy day, and the entire layout of Tenochtitlan can be viewed as an extension of the sacred orientation of the central temple. In sum, the planners who laid out Tenochtitlan made radical breaks with past Aztec norms in two ways. First, they filled the central plaza with buildings. An open plaza is a sacred precinct, a large walled compound packed with temple-pyramids, altars, priests' residences, and other sacred buildings. The palaces of the Mexica kings were arranged around the outer walls of the precinct. The sacred precinct occupies the place of the public plaza in other Aztec (and Mesoamerican) cities. Second, the imposition of a typical grid over the entire city was a radical practice that expressed the power of the rulers to shape their city and differentiate it from other Aztec cities. The orthogonal layout also exemplified continuity with Teotihuacan and resonated with ancient Mesoamerican cosmological principles of the importance of the cardinal directions.[9]

6. Evolution trajectory of Tenochtitlan city

In the sixteenth century, the collapse of the Teotihuacan made the cities in central Mexico use the planning principles of the old Mesoamerican traditions. The cities developed in the Aztec period failed and denied the adaptation of Teotihuacan's planning ideas. It was in the Late Postclassic period, Tenochtitlan derived its planning ideas from Teotihuacan, breaking all the ancient Mesoamerican planning traditions followed in the central cities.

Tenochtitlan accommodated over a 200,000 population and it is the only city with a larger pyramid and much bigger than Teotihuacan in Mesoamerica.

After the collapse of Teotihuacan in the sixth century A.D., cities in central Mexico returned to the planning principles of the ancient mesoamerican tradition. They failed to adopt the new Teotihuacan traits, and this denial—or perhaps rejection—of Teotihuacan planning principles continued through the Aztec period. Then, in the Late Postclassic period, designers of the growing imperial capital Tenochtitlan broke with central Mexican tradition and reached back to the Teotihuacan past for architectural and planning inspiration, after a gap of many centuries.

Tenochtitlan employed the first three of the five Teotihuacan innovations shown. With over 200,000, Tenochtitlan was the only Mesoamerican city larger than Teotihuacan, and its pyramids were particularly large. It was also the only other central Mexican city with orthogonal planning of the entire city area. These three traits, by themselves, would be insufficient to identify a clear and deliberate use of principles from Teotihuacan by the Mexica urban designers. After all, Tenochtitlan did not employ two of the more distinctive Teotihuacan innovations: orientation around a central avenue and housing in apartment compounds. But there is abundant evidence from other sources that the Mexica rulers paid close attention to the city and material remains of Teotihuacan.

Teotihuacan (100-600 CE) began as a radical experiment to create a city, unlike Mesoamerica. It stood out for its extensive orthogonal planning, the great prosperity of its commoner population, and the rich offerings buried deep inside and under its pyramids. When the city fell, later urban builders rejected most of the distinctive features of Teotihuacan in favor of more ancient Mesoamerican patterns. On the other hand, Tenochtitlan (1325-1521 CE) started as a typical Aztec city-state capital. Two factors allowed it to grow into a vast metropolis of 200,000 people: its location on an island easily enlarged to accommodate a rising population and its status as the capital of a powerful and wealthy empire. When its rulers wanted to distinguish Tenochtitlan from other Aztec cities, they drew on principles from the ruins of Teotihuacan.

At its zenith, Teotihuacan encompassed an urban core of about 8 square miles with a population more than 100,000 people. Its influence was felt throughout central Mexico and as far south as Guatemala.[10]

7. Tenochtitlan and other medieval cities

At the time of the Spanish Conquest in 1521, the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan was among the largest cities in the world, with perhaps as many as 200,000 inhabitants. In less than 200 years, it evolved from a small settlement on an island in the western swamps of Lake Texcoco into the powerful political, economic, and religious center of the greatest empire of Pre-Columbian Mexico.[11]

8. Influence of the Tenochtitlan's planning principles over contemporary practices

Architect Alberto Kalach elaborates that, Mexico-Tenochtitlan was a magnificent city, located in a valley surrounded by five lakes. This location, at 2,200 m above sea level and its tropical latitude (19ºN), provided the perfect climatic features for its 500,000 inhabitants to live at the shores of the lakes surrounded by forests in an environment in harmony with nature. "The colonists destroyed the water balance and were not able to recover it afterwards. The water from the lakes started evaporating and becoming salty, and the aquatic mass started disappearing." [12]

Kalach and Gonzalez de Leon in their Ciudad de Mexico proposal tries to integrate the water network of the present day Mexico with the upcoming airport. The thought to imagine the airport on an island within the lake reminds the strategic positioning of Tenochtitlan. The idea of causeways from the other parts of the city to the airport and the reclamation of land through building Chinampas showcases the potential of fixing the issues of Mexico city with the planning and urban design principles of Tenochtitlan.

9. Conclusion

The return of lake water would allow what Kallach thinks is essential: reforestation. "The recovery of the plant cover is essential for the return of the water balance. We need to reforest in and outside the cities." [13] Tenochtitlan is a metropolis with planning ideas which were environmentally sustainable and accommodated a vast population. In this 21st century, we still live on the remains of Tenochtitlan and its best to understand the past of it to build for the future.


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