From the Incan stonework of Machu Picchu to the colonial white-washed streets of Arequipa, Peru architecture has a rich history. The Pre-Incan civilizations survive to this day, providing evidence of the religious beliefs and natural considerations of its architects, while their contemporary counterparts are making their mark on the world stage.
Peru’s architectural traditions can be roughly divided into three categories – pre-Columbian, colonial and contemporary – with magnificent illustrations of each visible for those who visit this captivating South American destination.
Pre-Columbian Peru Architecture
Peruvian architecture has its origins in pre-Incan cultures, including the Moche, Chimu and Chavin sites in the country’s north. The Chavin de Huantar archaeological site which lies around 250 kilometers north of Lima contains ruins dating back to around 1200 BC, although it was during 500-400 BC that the Chavín people occupied the settlement. It features a massive, flat-topped pyramid and a U-shaped plaza with a sunken circular court in the center and is believed to have been used as a ceremonial center, with the inside of the temple walls decorated with sculptures and carvings.
Further north lies the city of Chan Chan at the mouth of the Moche River which is believed to have been the largest pre-Columbian city in South America. It served as the capital of the historic Chimor Empire from 900 to 1470 AD, before being defeated by the Inca and incorporated into their empire. It featured ten walled ciudadelas, each of which had ceremonial rooms, burial chambers, temples, reservoirs and residences for the Chimu kings, with funerary ceramics indicating their significance. The adobe brick walls are intricately carved with animals, including sea creatures due to its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean.
Also of note are the Huaca del Sol and smaller Huaca de la Luna temples which were built by the Moche civilization (100-800 AD) in northern Peru. Constructed from adobe bricks, Huaca del Sol was designed over four main levels and expanded by successive rulers over time. It is believed to have been used for ceremonial activities, as a royal residence and as burial chambers.
The Inca civilization originated in the Peruvian highlands during the early 13th century, with many of its structures remaining intact even today. From the desert landscapes along the Pacific coast to the mountainous highlands and even in Peru’s Amazonian jungles, these massive creations have withstood countless earthquakes, colonial conquests and natural elements.
Incan architecture is renowned for the sheer size of the stones used in its buildings, as well as the precise stonemasonry and the lack of mortar. Incan craftsmen used interlocking features on the tops, bases and sides of the stones to build their structures, with some evidence that they were cemented together with traces of silver. Many also exhibit an awareness of the destructive force of earthquakes, with gravel and small stone foundations built beneath walls to give them flexibility.
The time-consuming nature of this fine masonry and the creation of smooth stones was reserved for important buildings, such as temples and public structures, while houses and agricultural buildings tend to be more rustic, with the use of mortar and often thatched roofs. Without a doubt, the most impressive example of Incan architecture is the world-famous city of Machu Picchu which boasts a spectacular setting in the Sacred Valley.
Colonial Peru Architecture
The Spanish colonized Peru during the 16th century, conquering the last Inca stronghold in 1572 and establishing their own cities in a style that became known as Spanish colonial or Viceroyal architecture. It fused popular European styles, such as Baroque and Renaissance, while retaining elements of traditional Incan architecture.
In Cusco, for example, they retained the existing grid-like streets which were established by the Inca empire, together with the open plazas. Many of the existing religious buildings were replaced by those of the Roman Catholic church, while residences for the elite were replaced with those for the Spanish colonial authorities. Lavishly decorated baroque facades were a feature of this period, together with white stucco walls, beautifully carved wooden balconies and stonework around doors and windows. However, if you look closely, the perfectly-fitted Incan stone foundations are still visible beneath.
Lima’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed historic center provides many outstanding examples of Viceroyal architecture, including the Archbishop’s Palace, the House of Aliaga and the House of Pilatos which was built in 1590 and is one of the oldest surviving buildings in the city. Of particular importance are the more than 1,600 balconies which were built during the era and are of distinct architectural significance in Lima.
Lima’s historic center was only declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988 following a period of rapid construction and modernization in the city which paid little interest to the conservation of existing structures. Today the awareness of Lima’s architectural legacy is evident in individuals and business adopting balconies to ensure their preservation well into the future.
Peru’s Spanish colonial architecture is also beautifully illustrated in the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city of Arequipa. It’s renowned for its white-washed buildings constructed using sillar stone sourced from the surrounding volcanoes, with magnificent Catholic churches and monasteries interspersed with grand mansions in its atmospheric streets. The charming city of Ayacucho in Peru’s south also features impressive colonial-era structures, including the Templo de Santo Domingo and the 17th-century Cathedral on the Plaza de Armas.
Contemporary Architecture in Peru
While Peru is predominantly known for its pre-Incan, Incan and Spanish colonial architecture, Lima’s growing modern skyline draws on international influences. Following the opening of the Panama Canal and World War I, the city saw a period of prosperity, with a number of grand Art Nouveau houses built and the construction of Plaza San Martin. The surrounding haciendas were gradually urbanized, with mock Tudor and Art Deco both popular styles, although an influx of migrants following the Agrarian Reform of 1968 saw many villages transformed into shanty towns.
In most rural regions of Peru, architectural traditions have remained largely unchanged for centuries. Whitewashed adobe bricks are still used in dwellings today, combined with roofs constructed from wood, straw or hand-made clay tiles.
In the 21st century, contemporary architects of Peruvian descent are making their mark in cities around the world. Names such as Mario Lara, Enrique Ciriani and Bernardo Fort-Brescia are drawing on their cultural heritage and Peruvian architectural roots to create impressive modern landmarks.