What can we learn from the genius stroke of Inca architects?

Terra Explorer
May 3, 2022

By happenstance —or mere colonization— current architectural ideals emanate from western schools of thought—namely, Bauhaus prophesying form and function as the “E=mc2” of all things design. It always bemused me how most architectural faculties leave other traditions, techniques, and images behind in favor of the purportedly superior values of the Gropius-founded school. And so, when traveling to Peru, this reexamination of the design academia rendered into a straightforward question: What could we learn from Inca architects?

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Where To Start? At A Museum

mali overview design history peru.

It pays to visit the Larco Museum or MALI (Museo de Arte de Lima) to mine an overview of the design history of Peru. There, one comes to find that the oldest city in the Americas was once a bustling metropolis on the coast of Peru (Caral, if you’re interested in further googling) five thousand years ago. With this much-accumulated knowledge, dozens of later civilizations developed their own aesthetic sensibilities, each with a different approach to materials, use of space, decor, and function. 

Thus, Inca architecture does not necessarily represent the summation of their predecessors; in a way, their style was one of the many expressions conceived in pre-Columbian Peru. 

The Axis Of Inca Architecture

But back to our initial query: What can we learn from the stroke of Inca architects? Well, we could probably talk endlessly about the hydraulics powering the “showers” in Machu Picchu, their immaculate mortar-free masonry work, or the complex road system tethering the largest empire in the Americas. Still, given the current green yearning from today’s architects, I want us to get into how Inca buildings intertwine with nature instead of parting away from it, and to do so, we need to understand their terraces.

If Romans perfected the arch, Incas perfected terraces. And contrary to popular belief, they were more than sole agricultural devices. They were a pivotal hallmark in the Inca architectural catalog, one in which landscaping and civil engineering interweave to provide buildings with sturdy foundations and leveled out terrains capable of withstanding landslides and one of the most ferocious rainy seasons. And the proof is in the pudding: even after five hundred years of abandonment, these structures have endured intact. 

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A Lesson On Green Design

reason behind ethereal eauty machu picchu

Engineering aside and back to design chatter, these andenes (Spanish for platforms) enthrall me for what can be narrowed down to two premises. The first is how the terraces served as vertical utilitarian gardens —I repeat, utilitarian gardens. And the second, how they were traced, seizing on the already present geological features. They did not engulf the environs; they mimicked and capitalized them. In a way, Inca architects didn’t consider nature to be the nemesis of the man-made but a partner in the design process. 

And so, citadels, temples, and monuments were carved in concordance with the already present scenery. Mountains were, by their very nature, mighty, aesthetically gratifying, and deserving of adoration. Their polytheistic religion was nothing but nature worship: The Sun (Inti), Moon (Quilla), Mother Earth (Pachamama), and Mother Ocean (Qochamama), were some of the deities in the Inca pantheon. Thus, by extension, architecture developed a harmonious relationship with the environs. And isn’t this the reason behind the ethereal beauty of Machu Picchu? 

We, in the West, are just unveiling the restorative powers of Mother Earth. Our psyche is not alien to nature; we’re one with nature. If anything, our architectural endeavors should reflect that. And if we’re diving into sustainable and foliage-abundant design, maybe we could take a lesson or two from the Inca civilization.

You might be interested in: ABC to a safer and more conscious trip to Peru 

Interest In Inca Architecture? Perhaps, Take A Cultural Trip With Us

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