Back to top

Ancient Origins of the Mexican Plaza

Ancient Origins of the Mexican Plaza
From Primordial Sea to Public Space

Extensively illustrated with detailed site plans and photographs, this architectural history of the Mexican plaza reveals why this central public space has been the heart of the community from ancient Mesoamerican times until the present.

Series: Roger Fullington Endowment in Architecture

January 2013
Add to cart
273 pages | 8.5 x 11 | 332 color and b&w illus. |

The plaza has been a defining feature of Mexican urban architecture and culture for at least 4,000 years. Ancient Mesoamericans conducted most of their communal life in outdoor public spaces, and today the plaza is still the public living room in every Mexican neighborhood, town, and city—the place where friends meet, news is shared, and personal and communal rituals and celebrations happen. The site of a community’s most important architecture—church, government buildings, and marketplace—the plaza is both sacred and secular space and thus the very heart of the community.

This extensively illustrated book traces the evolution of the Mexican plaza from Mesoamerican sacred space to modern public gathering place. The authors led teams of volunteers who measured and documented nearly one hundred traditional Mexican town centers. The resulting plans reveal the layers of Mesoamerican and European history that underlie the contemporary plaza. The authors describe how Mesoamericans designed their ceremonial centers as embodiments of creation myths—the plaza as the primordial sea from which the earth emerged. They discuss how Europeans, even though they sought to eradicate native culture, actually preserved it as they overlaid the Mesoamerican sacred plaza with the Renaissance urban concept of an orthogonal grid with a central open space. The authors also show how the plaza’s historic, architectural, social, and economic qualities can contribute to mainstream urban design and architecture today.

  • Authors' Note
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One. The Primordial Sea: Forming Open Space in Mesoamerica
    • Mesoamerican Concept of Space
    • Mountains and Altepetls
    • Caves, Quatrefoils, and Sunken Courts
    • Types of Open Space in Mesoamerica
      • Triad Centering * U-shaped Courts * Quadrangles
    • Quincunx: Symbol of the Cosmos
    • Ballcourts
    • The Sunken Court of Teopantecuanitlán
    • The Dallas Plaque: A Cosmogram
  • Chapter Two. Forming Spanish Towns in Mesoamerican Culture
    • People and Ideas
    • The Invasion
    • The Europeans Making Contact
    • European Plazas in the Early Sixteenth Century
    • Origins of the Plaza
    • Building New World Towns
      • Types of Towns * First Acts and Encounters
    • Laws of the Indies
    • Conversion
    • Quincunx Patios
    • Relaciones Geográficas
  • Chapter Three. Sixteenth-Century Communal Open Spaces (Five Hundred Years Later)
    • Caves and Crevices
      • Amecameca, State of México * Zoquizoquipan, Hidalgo * Valladolid, Yucatán
    • Quincunxial Arrangements
      • Atlatlahuacan, Morelos * Huejotzingo, Puebla * Huaquechula, Puebla * Zacualpan de Amilpas, Morelos
    • Terraced Mountains
      • Molango, Hidalgo * Achiutla, Oaxaca * Yanhuitlán, Oaxaca
    • Sunken Courts
      • Tepoztlán, Morelos * Tochimilco, Puebla * Calpan, Puebla
    • Ballcourts and Bullrings
      • Villa Díaz Ordaz, Oaxaca * Tlanalapa, Hidalgo * Tepeapulco, Hidalgo
        Open Space Ensembles
        Tlaxiaco, Oaxaca * Tlacolula, Oaxaca * Otumba de Gómez Farías, State of México * Tlacochahuaya, Oaxaca * Tepeaca, Puebla * Etla, Oaxaca
    • Bishop Quiroga's Utopias in Michoacán
      • Tzintzuntzan, Michoacán * Pátzcuaro, Michoacán * Santa Fe de la Laguna, Michoacán * Erongarícuaro, Michoacán * Angahuan, Michoacán
    • Visible Overlays and Deliberate Alignments
      • Mitla, Oaxaca * Hacienda Xaaga, Oaxaca * Teposcolula, Oaxaca * Coixtlahuaca, Oaxaca * Epazoyucan, Hidalgo
    • The Yucatán Experience
      • Yotholín, Yucatán * Tibolón, Yucatán * Izamal, Yucatán
  • Chapter Four. Origins and Evolution
  • Epilogue: Plazas in the Twenty-first Century
    • The San Miguel Example
    • Qualities of Successful Plazas
    • Sprawl and the American Myth
  • Appendix. Measured Drawings: Plans of Towns
  • Notes
  • Glossary
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Logan Wagner, who grew up in Mexico, is an architect, author, and teacher of architectural design, architectural history, and vernacular building techniques. He coauthored Contemporary Mexican Design and Architecture.

The late Hal Box was Professor Emeritus and former Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. He was named Dean Emeritus before his passing in 2011. His fifty years’ experience in teaching and practicing architecture included work on schools, churches, office and commercial buildings, dormitories, and residences, as well as urban design projects. He was the author of Think Like an Architect.

Susan Kline Morehead holds an M.A. in architectural history and theory from the University of Texas at Austin, and she has spent nearly thirty years directing nonprofit arts organizations at the city, state, and national levels. She regularly lectures on sixteenth-century Mexican architecture and iconography.


“Generously illustrated with diagrams and measured drawings of the sites analyzed, this volume also offers information on the pre-Hispanic sites and form surrounding them. Summing Up: Highly recommended.”

““The development of the Mexican plaza in the early sixteenth century is a fascinating topic, and it has been adequately summarized and well illustrated by Logan Wagner, Hal Box, and Susan Kline Moorhead in Ancient Origins of the Mexican Plaza.””


Available for Kindle
Available on Google Play
Available on Kobo
Available for Nook
Available on the Apple Store

This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca
UPCC/Project Muse