The desert is an architect’s hell. We spend our professional lives imagining “space,” trying to claim the fragile weave of positive and negative space, to sculpt it and make it our own. It wasn’t until I was in the desert, on my second trip to Peru, that I realized that how ridiculously futile this can be. The desert is where an architect must truly confront space, a void so great that nothingness becomes something. The eye sees no edges but layered plains of sand curling into mountains of sand, and then suddenly all turns to rock–the color of concrete. In the radiant, bleached sunlight, land unknowingly becomes sky. It is enough to give even the most arrogant architect pause.
I was on my way to Nazqa, barreling down the single desert road in a strapped-together 1965 Ford Fairlane. Four locals (including the driver) were shoehorned into the front seat. My Peruvian partner and I were “tourists”–so we shared the back seat with only one other passenger. I wanted to see how the Nazqa people a thousand years ago carved from the desert floor lines and animal figures that many argue–with equal conviction–were either signals for alien vessels or the means of marking the movement of celestial gods.
Nazqa is poor and small, about a half-mile square in size. The mostly two and three story buildings are constructed of wood and stucco painted in hues of blues, yellows, whites and browns. The central square, crisscrossed with sidewalks and edged in small trees and bushes, is framed by the main church on one side and small hotels, restaurants and businesses around the other three. Nazqa is the contemporary manifestation of several indigenous peoples that have long inhabited the region. Partial ruins of a four-hundred year old Incan defensive structure and a few isolated burial spots lie a few miles from town. However, only the lines in the desert that successive Nazqa cultures had labored over for a period extending far before and far after the life of Christ were worth seeing.
Man-made and natural promontories in the desert, supplemented by my guide book, gave me a glimpse of what my fear of small planes could not. Etched into the desert floor were enormously long straight lines, seemingly placed at random at such angles as to deny the possibility of perspective. Overlapping these lines were creatures carefully constructed of continuous spirals and curves, visible as a whole form only from several hundred feet in the air. What seemed to resemble a spider and a monkey actually had no earthly model; perhaps they were examples of mythological creatures or ancient art. Strangely enough, in the discordant desert landscape, these drawings didn’t seem out of place.
Nazqa was a jarring two-day adventure in a country I had not visited in more than five years. The remaining three days of the trip would be spent as had the first four–in the capital of Lima, an ungainly city that somehow seemed to encapsulate all of Peru.
Lima sprawls above high cliffs that edge the Pacific along a gentle bay, more than eight million people in an area larger than New York City. Like most of coastal Peru, Lima sits in a desert, trapped between the ocean to the west and the Andes mountains to the east. Some rainfall and an extensive piping system that brings water from the mountains have transformed the city into an oasis, yet the towering, scorched hills of sand and packed dirt that punctuate the city rim are a visible reminder of what lies underneath.
The concept of “edge city” has no meaning here. There is no ruptured city center ringed with exurban developments of would-be suburbanites. Lima is a thriving amoebae-like mass of urban muddle that quickly encircles and swallows up new spurts of growth along pulsating edges that are never constant. Clearly, the city had grown in five years–on the sides of large hills south of the city, clumps of crude wooden shacks thrown together with discarded building materials now dotted the barren surface. If not uprooted by the local government, this would become a new neighborhood, pushing the city boundary even further from downtown. Out by the airport, what had been a shantytown–no more substantial than the hillside shacks–had grown into a haphazard maze of one- and two-story roughly hewn brick houses, some painted with stucco, lining blocks of unpaved streets.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t just poor farmers from the countryside building on the city’s edge. New middle and upper-middle class single family houses and small apartment buildings were springing up alongside new strip shopping centers often filled with designer boutiques and American brand chain stores. It was reassuring–and at the same time disturbingly uncomfortable–to find unexpected symbols of American commerce. A few years of guerrilla eradication and economic stabilization had brought changes to Lima faster than any urban planner could hope for.
In Central Lima, the historic center of Colonial Peru and the seat of power for the local and national governments, the absence of tanks and soldiers was a welcome change. Along the southern bank of the Rica river, laid out by the conqueror Pizarro in the 1530s, the 18th century Main Cathedral, Government Palace and City Hall (built anew after a 1746 earthquake) stand about the ceremonial Plaza de Armas on three sides like sentries guarding Church and State. All three buildings are of similar style. Intimidating sheer walls of beige stone coursing rise up to 80 feet in the air. Entrances, windows, cornices and corners are articulated with fussy, Baroque carved stone moldings. The two octagonal towers of the cathedral each end in a roof neither dome nor mansard, and sharp, pylon-shaped spires edge all parapets as if to ward off devilish birds of prey. Projecting, enclosed, wooden balconies that embellish the government buildings are repeated in the smaller 18th century commercial and domestic architecture of adjacent narrow streets–transitional elements that visually weave the monumental into the everyday.
Central Lima is fascinating to walk through but the surrounding band of downtown Lima is not. Bad examples of modern architecture from the 50s, 60s and 70s abound, a sad demonstration that the language of modernism is often understood only as guttural slang. Avoiding downtown was easy–no garbage collection had taken place in weeks because President Fujimori was withholding $20 million from the mayor over a political squabble.
Miraflores is the tourist mecca of Lima. Five years ago, it was a wealthy enclave of failed expectations. Luxury high rise apartment buildings and hotels under construction were abandoned midway when the Peruvian currency collapsed, and the expected upper class inhabitants left for safer places with dollars in hand. Miraflores has again become the envy of Lima: clean; lushly planted; modern; expensive; full of new hotels, apartment buildings, stores and restaurants. Clusters of buildings representative of this century’s architectural styles still exist; several 1940s “Miami Beach” Art Deco houses stand out like small jewels. The wide avenues that intersect the now immaculately maintained central park were planted with medians of a thousand waist-high yellow and red orchids. New ugly glass and concrete towers loom over renovated shops, cafes and clubs lining the streets crowded with people. It was nice to stroll through the neighborhood this time and not have to worry about the lights going off or noises that sound like bombs. Miraflores is mostly glitter and only some charm, but that was okay.
On any trip to a foreign city, an architect tries to divine the city’s soul. New Yorkers think of old, established neighborhoods, like Grammercy Par, Greenwich Village or the Upper West Side as the “real” New York City. The soul of Lima lies in the adjacent neighborhoods of Barranco and Chorillos–they embody the same kind of richness, complexity, ambiguity and contradiction as the writings of the renowned Peruvian expatriate, Mario Vargas Llosa.
Barranco is a great, green slash in the brown desert earth, centered around a treed ravine that runs hundreds of feet to the ocean below, and lined with fanciful wooden houses fronted with precarious looking balconies, porches and railings. Large houses–gently decaying–hover above, linked by crooked walkways and winding steps crisscrossing small plazas and narrow streets somehow devoid of cars. Barranco feels old, and yet it thrives as the intellectual and artists quarter of Lima (Vargas Llosa still maintains a house here). It is where the city residents come to hear crillo, the Peruvian version of cabaret. Branching off form the main plaza, tree-lined streets hide the few great, turn-of-the-century mansions of Spanish Classical architecture not destroyed by a 1940s devastating earthquake. Just beyond is the residential neighborhood of Chorillos.
If I lived in Lima, I’d want to live in Chorillos. The neighborhood is flat and not as green as Barranco, the but views across the bay to Miraflores and downtown Lima are spectacular. Chorillos is one of the older middle class neighborhoods in Lima–most buildings are 30 or 40 years old–seedy but stable. Ruins of great terraces and monumental staircases leading to the beaches below are all that remain of several grand houses destroyed by the same 1940s earthquake. This is a neighborhood of individual architectural wonders. Houses may be one-, two- or three-story; painted stucco or painted wood; sitting side by side or centered on well-landscaped small plots; local variations of modern and traditional styes; and everything in between. Missing is the bland uniformity or the fear of crime manifested architecturally that characterize many newer, wealthier areas like Monterico. No street upon street of stuccoed fortresses sitting in the middle of walled courtyards topped with steel spikes, barbed wire or electric fences (sometimes all three).
What does the architectural tourist take back from a place like Peru? From the desert, he leaves with a sense of powerlessness. From the city, he comes away with a sense that in the midst of chaos, there may be tremendous opportunity.
Written in 1995. Photo: Martin Bernetti /AFP/Getty Images