Home to twelve UNESCO World Heritage Sites (plus eight more on its tentative list!) and 84 of our planet’s 117 life zones, Peru is the third-largest country in South America, with a population exceeding 31.5 million. It is a melting pot of diverse cultures. Although Spanish is the only official language, 47 indigenous languages are spoken in Peru.
Similar to its languages, Peru also hosts a varied set of architectural wonders; from Baroque Cathedrals and the San Marcos University in the capital city of Lima to the archaeological site of Chavín de Huantar and Machu Picchu. Owing to its long history of being inhabited by many ancient civilizations over the centuries, there are an upward of 5000 archaeological sites in the country.
With archaeological sites comprising entire cities unearthed, to inspire and amaze, Peru is truly a mountain (pun intended) of genius for architects to draw inspiration from. So, here is why architects must visit Peru.
1. Explore Lima
The capital city is the largest in the country and forms a modern oasis of sorts,
surrounded by the Peruvian coastal desert a short distance west of the Andes Mountains. It is the country’s commercial and industrial centre and is often listed as one of the most happening places in the continent of South America.
Littered with local shopping destinations and offering superb gastronomical experiences on every street, the city also boasts historical sites, cathedrals and museums showcasing its rich history and beautiful parks—Lima has something for everybody!
2. The emperor’s new groove, Cusco
Cusco is the former centre of the Incan empire, a city now famous for its nightlife and restaurants and cafes, the Plaza de Armas serving as the epicentre for it all. Architecture and history buffs alike might want to venture into the ginormous Cusco Cathedral (full name: Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of the Virgin) in the city, making sure to book a tour of the crypts running underneath it as well!
3. In with the old, Machu Picchu
We all know about this one; other than the infamous projectile spitting llamas, the grassy, hilly terrain that hosts the ancient structures of Machu Picchu is the visual most people might stereotypically associate with Peru. Translated to “Old mountain” (it is built upon a rocky ridge that connects the Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu mountains on the eastern slope of the Central Cordillera), Machu Picchu is a citadel that was constructed sometime around the mid-fifteenth century. The entire structure is divided into two distinct sectors—the agricultural sector with open fields and cleverly engineered terraces, and the urban sector with temples and warehouses (in the upper and lower town respectively).
With its narrow compounds, countless stairways and advanced irrigation channel work, this edifice consisting of 200 or so buildings built on the side of a mountain is an architectural feat. It was largely made possible by the use of the Ashlar technique which also gave the buildings a certain level of earthquake resistance. UNESCO rightly describes Machu Picchu as “an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization” when labelling it as a World Heritage Site in 1983.
4. The pre-Inca capital, Chan Chan
This is the largest adobe-built city in the continent of South America and the second-largest one in the world. The etymology of the name Chan Chan has several possibilities, though “Resplendent Sun” or “Great Sun” are the most commonly agreed upon translations. Chan Chan was composed of 9 ornate citadels (or Ciudadela) religious buildings and residence for the Chimu kings, along with courts (or audencias), small, irregular agglutinated rooms (SIARs), and mounds (or huacas).
This entire complex together formed the capital city of the empire of Chimor, and it was built around 850 AD. Its decline began after the Chimu were overthrown by the Incans in 1470 AD. The city had successfully developed an irrigation system for their fields but some of the canals were destroyed in a disastrous flood.
5. The fore-tress, Kuélap
This was a walled city built on a limestone ridge in around 6 AD by settlers of the Chachapoyas culture, on a limestone ridge overlooking the Utcubamba Valley in Northern Peru. Often also referred to as a fortress, this ancient city has walls as high as 20 metres and incredible masonry making use of the abundant limestone in the area. Many stones have been found here with anthropomorphic, geometric and zoomorphic reliefs.
The interior architecture is intricate, with more than 550 circular buildings (5 were quadrilateral), though now only foundations and some walls remain, some of which even have friezes of rhomboid and zig-zag shapes, that are protected from wear and tear caused by rain using cornices.
6. Unravel the Nazca lines
These are massive ancient geoglyphs located in the Jumana Pampas in the Nazca desert in Southern Peru. The geoglyphs range from simple designs to complex geometric, phytomorphic or zoomorphic designs. They have naturally preserved their designs due to the fairly dry and windless consistent climatic conditions in the plateau region.
7. The Amaze-on forest
There isn’t quite anything that can inspire and move you as nature does, is there? Take a tour of a part of the Amazon forest (we may just be one of the last generations to see it at all). It possesses a certain effortless brilliance seen only in the rarest of designers—a knowledge of patterns and shapes and colours that we humans don’t seem to be able to grasp so easily. Art imitates life, right?
At the northern edge of Cusco, lies this fortress temple complex. Sacsayhuamán (meaning Royal Eagle) is the largest structure built by the Incas. The stones used to build the walls and other constructions inside have marks showing the use of strong rock and copper tools, and the use of rope, ramps and manpower (nodes acting as handles or handholds still seen) to move the hefty blocks around.
It is a testament to the architectural advancement of the Incas that this and other structures built by them still stand strong after 500-ish years of earthquakes and general corrosion.
Literally “flea town”, this was a village of the Wari people and is believed to have been inhabited from 550 to 1100 AD. It acted as a very important place for administration and other decisions. The site covers a neighbourhood of roughly 50 hectares within the Lucre basin and along the course of the Vilcanota river. There are also remnants of the conchas, a typology that formed a whole modular system based on wari textiles.
10. Chavín de Huántar
This was a temple complex, serving as the political capital of the Chavin empire and as the religious centre for its people. The main temple is a massive flat-topped pyramid with flat structures around it. It is a convex plaza encompassing a sunken circular court. The inside of the temple walls is adorned with sculptures and intricate carvings.
Isaac Newton once said that “We stand upon the shoulders of those who came before us.” Peru’s drawn-out, colourful history with its numerous cultures surely lends to it a unique mixed bag of architectural styles and consequently a variety of sources of inspiration to draw upon for modern architects—a great set of shoulders for those who came after to stand upon indeed.
This variety says something about the intrinsic urge of the Anthropocene to beautify their living space, their places of worship and governance and feasting. And do it for the community, not for just one. The need to unify, for attaining safety of more than the obvious kind, and to do it with grace.
The stories that architecture tells never cease to amaze, let us hope that our shoulders are strong enough to hold ideas even braver, brighter and more beautiful than ours.