- Álamos, Sonora. Architecture and Urbanism in the Dry Tropics
Geographers will find much to savor in John Messina's crisp, concise and skillfully presented townscape portrait of colonial Alamos, Mexico. This is a very readable architect's study of a lesser known, but well-preserved colonial Mexican mining town in the southeast corner of the state of Sonora.
The reader may wonder, as I did, why bother to write an entire book about colonial architecture for a small Mexican town (population approximately 10,000), when others have trod this path before on larger stages? The author's response: it's personal. He visited Alamos in the mid- 1980s and discovered not merely a town, but a cultural artifact worthy of a book. I decided to give Messina the benefit of the doubt, especially when, on page five, he promised he would offer "an attempt at fervor rather than pedantry." I thought: "órale!"
In a discipline that has rocketed forward with its embrace of flashy technology and hard science over its more humanistic past, cultural and urban geographers will appreciate a basic premise of Messina's townscape study—that the greatness of cities and towns lies in their deep connection to the land. The book emphasizes that Alamos' was literally built from the earth-- its structures derived largely from adobe crafted from the region's sand, clay, silt and water. Further, this town would never have risen up near the banks of the Río Mayo, had it not been for rich silver deposits on the slopes of the neighboring Sierra Madre Occidental mountains. This premise serves as a thread that weaves through the book, and resurfaces at its close, as one of the critical lessons of Alamos' urbanism.
Among its virtues is the book's compact presentation—six chapters that run logically from history (Chapter 1) and urban morphology (Chapter 2), to more micro-design issues like the plaza (Chapter 3), the Alameda and other elements of urban place (chapter 4), private residences (chapter 5) and finally, lessons learned (chapter 6). Chapter 1, "The Making of A Town in Northern New Spain, " traces the evolution of Alamos from its origins as a silver mining center in the late 17th century. We learn that the town lies on an important ecological frontier, at the cusp between the dry arid lands of the desert to the north, and the tropical latitudes that begin to the south. This unique ecological [End Page 237] zone ultimately defines the economic base for Alamos, and its building typologies and settlement pattern.
The above point is driven home in Chapter 2, "Urban Morphology." A key theme in this chapter is the connection between Alamos' urban form and its natural environment. Not only are adobe buildings born from the clay and sand they sit upon, but building forms and the larger urban pattern were shaped by local climate and topography. For example, the use of Islamic/Spanish patios creates an important air circulation system for homes and other buildings; narrow streets provided shade from the hot desert sun, and hilly terrain altered the flow of the rectangular street grid. Taken together, these elements, in the author's words, "all contribute to an extraordinary sense of one being in a very habitable place." (p. 29).
Using photographs, computer-generated figure-ground maps, floor plans, archival history and detailed description, the author walks the reader through Alamos, along its winding streets that lead to the plaza. Chapter 3 (The Plaza and the Bishop's Dream) and Chapter 4 (Urban Realities and Fantasies) cover history and contemporary public spaces, and other iconic design elements, including the government palace, church, 18th century casonas (mansions with interior patios), the market, and the town's true social center—the Alameda. Chapter 5 ("La Casa Alamense") describes the architecture of private homes in Alamos, which the author argues display a mix of influences, from Islamic and Spanish colonial designs to the architecture...