Indigenous Architecture: Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

Indigenous Architecture of Chaco Canyon

Indigenous architecture of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico captures our imagination because of its simplicity, order, and beauty.  The great house at Chaco canyon flourished between AD 850 and AD 1150. It is a significant archeological find that celebrates native American life and culture.

Pueblo Bonito

Chaco Canyon is known as Pueblo Bonito, which means “beautiful village” in Spanish.  It is indeed a beautiful place with large semi round structure and multitude of rooms and spaces.  It was built between AD 850 and AD 1150.  It was abandoned in the twelfth century possibly due to changing weather patterns until its rediscovery in 1849 by a US Army military expedition.  The federal government took possession of the area in 1904.

Interior walls with doorways.
Interior walls with doorways. 1

Indigenous architecture of Chaco canyon

The great house at Chaco Canyon covers 3 acres and has over 800 rooms of varying sizes.  The outer parts of the structure were four to five stories high with up to three feet thick masonry walls.  The central plaza on the ground floor consists of circular spaces with hearths. The plaza is surrounded by rectangular rooms, which were probably used for storage.  The circular spaces known as Kivas were ceremonial spaces for rituals and public meetings.

The artifacts of Chaco canyon

Many artifacts were found at Chaco Canyon which included wooden flutes, cylindrical vessels, human effigy vessels and ceramic incense burners.  Traces of cacao beans commonly found in Mexico were detected in pottery sherds in 2009.  In addition, 111 cylindrical pottery jars were found similar to those found in Central America. 

Seminar on Indigenous Architecture

When I had an opportunity to teach architecture at Iowa State University, I developed and taught a graduate level seminar on indigenous architecture. It was exciting for architecture students to learn about vernacular architecture.  Such architecture is developed through trial and error by local builders using locally available materials. 

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Human Settlements around the world

The students reviewed Chaco Canyon and other examples of vernacular architecture around the world such as Mexcaltitalan in Mexico, floating market in Thailand, wind towers of Yazd in Iran, an African Village compound and a traditional village in Egypt.  We learned that cores of urban centers in the fortified cities in India and elsewhere were also developed organically.  The biomorphic structures of these settlements were more comparable to a living tissue or cellular biology than the formal architecture designed by architects.

Mothering nature.  Dome built using silkworms by Neri Oxman
Mothering nature.  Dome built using silkworms by Neri Oxman 2

Mothering nature

Recent studies at MIT’s Media Lab under the leadership of Neri Oxman have shown that there is something extraordinary in the complexity and elegance of biomorphic structures found in nature.  Advancement in computing capabilities and experimental fields such as synthetic biology, robotics and 3D printing have opened new ways to design and build buildings that mimic nature.  She was able to build a dome using silkworms to demonstrate how “mothering nature” was possible using advanced technology.    

  • References
  • Title Image:  Bob Adams, Albuquerque, NMCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.  File:Pueblo bonito aerial.JPG. (n.d.). Retrieved September 16, 2022, from
  • Brian W. Schaller, FAL, via Wikimedia Commons.  File:A330, Chaco culture national historical park, New Mexico, USA, 2011.JPG. (n.d.). Retrieved September 16, 2022, from
  • Neri OxmanCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.  File:Silk Pavilion silkworms at work.jpg. (n.d.). Retrieved September 16, 2022, from

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