Inca architecture

Inca architecture

Inca architecture is the most significant pre-Columbian architecture in South America. The Incas inherited an architectural legacy from Tiwanaku, founded in the second century B.C. in present day Bolivia. Much of present day architecture at the former Inca capital Cusco shows both Incan and Spanish influences. The famous lost city Machu Picchu is the best surviving example of Incan architecture. Some other significant sites include Sacsayhuaman and Ollantaytambo. The Incas also developed an extensive road system spanning most of the western length of the continent.


Inca buildings were made out of fieldstones or semi-worked stone blocks set in mortar; adobe walls were also quite common, usually laid over stone foundations. [Hyslop, "Inka settlement", pp. 11–12.] The most common shape in Inca architecture was the rectangular building without any internal walls and roofed with wooden beams and thatch. [Hyslop, "Inka settlement", pp. 5–6.] There were several variations of this basic design, including gabled roofs, rooms with one or two of the long sides opened and rooms that shared a long wall. [Hyslop, "Inka settlement", p. 6.] Rectangular buildings were used for quite different functions in almost all Inca buildings, from humble houses to palaces and temples. [Gasparini and Margolies, "Inca architecture", p. 134.] Even so, there are some examples of curved walls on Inca buildings, mostly in regions outside the central area of the empire. [Hyslop, "Inka settlement", pp. 7–8.] Two story buildings were infrequent; when they were built the second floor was accessed from the outside via a stairway or high terrain rather than from the first floor. [Hyslop, "Inka settlement", p. 8.] Wall apertures, including doors, niches and windows, usually had a trapezoidal shape; they could be fitted with double or triple jambs as a form of ornamentation. [Hyslop, "Inka settlement", pp. 9–10.] Other kinds of decoration were scarce; some walls were painted or adorned with metal plaques, in rare cases walls were sculpted with small animals or geometric patterns. [Hyslop, "Inka settlement", pp. 10–11.]

The most common composite form in Inca architecture was the "kancha", a rectangular enclosure housing three or more rectangular buildings placed symmetrically around a central courtyard. [Hyslop, "Inka settlement", pp. 16–17.] "Kancha" units served widely different purposes as they formed the basis of simple dwellings as well as of temples and palaces; furthermore, several "kancha" could be grouped together to form blocks in Inca settlements. [Hyslop, "Inka settlement", p. 17.] A testimony of the importance of these compounds in Inca architecture is that the central part of the Inca capital of Cusco consisted of large "kancha", including the Temple of the Sun ("Qorikancha") and the Inca palaces. [Gasparini and Margolies, "Inca architecture", pp. 181, 185.] The best preserved examples of "kancha" are found at Ollantaytambo, an Inca settlement located along the Urubamba River. [Gasparini and Margolies, "Inca architecture", p. 187.]

Inca architecture is widely known for its fine masonry, which features precisely cut and shaped stones closely fitted without mortar. [Hyslop, "Inka settlement", p. 12.] However, despite this fame, most Inca buildings were actually made out of fieldstone and adobe as described above. [Protzen, "Inca architecture", p. 211.] In the 1940s, American archaeologist John H. Rowe classified Inca fine masonry in two types: coursed, which features rectangular shaped stones, and polygonal, which features blocks of irregular shape. [Rowe, "An introduction", pp. 24–26.] Forty years later, Peruvian architect Santiago Agurto established four subtypes by dividing the categories identified by Rowe: [Agurto, "Estudios acerca", pp. 144–175.]
* Encased coursed masonry: in which features stone blocks are not aligned
* Sedimentary coursed masonry: in which stones are laid out in horizontal rows
* Cellular polygonal masonry: with small blocks
* Cyclopean polygonal masonry: with very large stonesThe first two types were used on important buildings or perimeter walls while the last two were employed mostly on terrace walls and river canalization. [Hyslop, "Inka settlement", p. 15.]

According to Graziano Gasparini and Luise Margolies, Inca stonemasonry was inspired by the architecture of Tiahuanaco, an archaeological site in modern Bolivia built several centuries before the Inca Empire. [Gasparini and Margolies, "Inca architecture", p. 25.] They argue that according to ethnohistorical accounts the Incas were impressed by these monuments and employed large numbers of stoneworkers from nearby regions in the construction of their own buildings. [Gasparini and Margolies, "Inca architecture", pp. 7–8.] In addition to this references, they also identified some formal similarities between Tiahuanaco and Inca architecture including the use of cut and polished stone blocks, as well as of double jambs. [Gasparini and Margolies, "Inca architecture", pp. 12–13.] A problem with this hypothesis is the question of how was expertise preserved in the three hundred years between the collapse of Tiahuanaco and the appearance of the Inca Empire and its architecture. As a solution, John Hyslop has argued that the Tiahuanaco stonemasonry tradition was preserved in the Lake Titicaca region in sites such as Tanka Tanka, which features walls resembling Inca polygonal masonry. [Hyslop, "Inka settlement", p. 23.]

A second major influence on Inca architecture came from the Huari culture, a civilization contemporary to Tiahuanaco. According to Ann Kendall, the Huari introduced their tradition of building rectangular enclosures in the Cusco region, which formed a model for the development of the Inca "kancha". [Kendall, "Aspects of Inca architecture", p. 352.] There is evidence that such traditions were preserved in the Cusco region after the decline of the Huari as is attested by the enclosures found at sites such as Choquepuquio, 28 kilometers southeast of the Inca capital. [Hyslop, "Inka settlement", p. 20.]

Masonry and Construction Methods

Water engineer Ken Wright estimates that 60 percent of the Inca construction effort was underground. The Inca built their cities with locally available materials, usually including limestone or granite. To cut these hard rocks the Inca used stone, bronze or copper tools, usually splitting the stones along the natural fracture lines. Without the wheel the stones were rolled up wood beams on earth ramps. Extraordinary manpower would have been necessary. Hyslop comments that the “ ‘secret’ to the production of fine Inca masonry…was the social organization necessary to maintain the great numbers of people creating such energy-consuming monuments.”

Usually the walls of Incan buildings were slightly inclined inside and the corners were rounded. This, in combination with masonry thoroughness, led Incan buildings to have a peerless seismic resistance thanks to high static and dynamic steadiness, absence of resonant frequencies and stress concentration points. During an earthquake with a small or moderate magnitude, masonry was stable, and during a strong earthquake stone blocks were “ dancing ” near their normal positions and lay down exactly in right order after an earthquake.

Agricultural Architecture

Perhaps the most renowned aspect of Incan architecture is the use of terraces to increase the land available for farming. These steps provided flat ground surface for food production while protecting their city centers against erosion and landslides common in the Andes. Modern engineers copy this agriculture architecture method, such as Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. The civil engineers at Machu Picchu built these so well that they were still intact in 1912 when Hiram Bingham discovered the lost city.


The Incas had an extensive road system. A high road crossed the higher regions of the Cordillera from north to south and another lower north-south road crossed the coastal plains. Shorter crossroads linked the two main highways together in several places. The terrain, according to Ciezo de Leon, an early chronicler of Inca culture, was formidable. The road system ran through deep valleys and over mountains, through piles of snow, quagmires, living rock, along turbulent rivers; in some places it ran smooth and paved, carefully laid out; in others over sierras, cut through the rock, with walls skirting the rivers, and steps and rests through the snow; everywhere it was clean swept and kept free of rubbish, with lodgings, storehouses, temples to the sun, and posts along the way.

The Incas did not have the wheel, as they had no draft animals, so all travel was done on foot. To help travelers on their way, rest houses were built every few kilometers. In these rest houses, they could spend a night, cook a meal and feed their llamas.

Their bridges, which were made from ropes ingeniously tied together to form a narrow but effective structure, were the only way to cross rivers on foot. If only one of their hundreds of bridges was damaged, a major road could not fully function. Fortunately, every time a bridge broke, the locals would repair it as quickly as possible.

ee also

* Dry-stone wall
* Suspension bridge



* Agurto, Santiago. "Estudios acerca de la construcción, arquitectura y planeamiento incas". Lima: Cámara Peruana de la Construcción, 1987.
* Gasparini, Graziano and Margolies, Luize. "Inca architecture". Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. ISBN 0-253-30443-1
* Hyslop, John. "Inka settlement planning". Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. ISBN 0-292-73852-8
* Kendall, Ann. "Aspects of inca architecture: description, function and chronology". Oxford: British Archaeological Reports, 1985.
* Protzen, Jean-Pierre. "Inca architecture and construction at Ollantaytambo". New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
* Rowe, John. "An introduction to the archaeology of Cuzco". Cambridge: Harvard University, 1944.

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