Chaco Canyon, and the seduction of the plan

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The compulsion to visit a place:  what triggers it?  Travel is often arduous, time-consuming and expensive, yet we feel ourselves irresistibly drawn to certain places, no matter the difficulties.  For many, it’s an image of the place: sunlight glinting on the peaks of the Himalayas, the clear blue water of the Caribbean, or the Vermeer painting (that you need to see larger than a postcard).  For others, it’s the map – that intriguing road over the ridge and down into the plain with the city in the distance.  Or perhaps the food:  you’ve had a taste of a cuisine, but know you’ll never understand it until you head to the source.  Or a movie: set in Paris is the 30s, or New York in the 40s.  It could be the history – Jesus lived there, or Napoleon, or your ancestors.  The music – where the legacy of Mozart or Louis Armstrong continues.  A cultural event:  running with the bulls, or Mardi Gras.  Or the stories – the England of Austen or the San Francisco of Hammett.

For architects, sometimes it is the plan.  it may seem strange to others, but the beauty and the order of a place is sometimes revealed in a plan, in a way that is different from a view.  A view shows you only a glimpse from one point, in one direction;  a plan shows the underlying logic and design of the whole.  Architects spend years of their lives studying plans, and we get pretty good at understanding the spatial reality of a building from looking at a two-dimensional plan view, something that you will never really see, even if you visit the place.   We can fall in love with the concept for the place through the plan, and then need to go there, to see how the experience grows out of that concept.

There are plans that everyone recognizes.  Versailles.  St.Peter’s.  The Darwin D. Martin House.  Chartres.  Then we all develop our personal obsessions;  I had the plans of Jørn Utzon’s Fredensborg and Kingo housing project hanging on my walls for a decade before getting to see them in person.  We had already hit a few plan-obsession destinations on this trip – mainly the Kahn buildings – but there was one more critical site waiting on the Colorado Plateau:  Chaco Canyon.


The plan to which I’m referring is the floor plan of Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the great houses at Chaco.  Before I knew anything about the the history of this place, I found this plan completely fascinating.  There’s the repetition of the small quadrilateral rooms which form a field for everything else, the irregular perimeter, the two almost symmetrical plazas, and the irregular distribution of round rooms.  The non-geometric qualities of this plan might have driven earlier architects nuts, but there’s a way in which the balance between order and random, regularity and exception, figure and ground, resonates with the way we see the world in the 21st-century.

If Chaco were not so compelling, we might not have bothered to go.  It is in the middle of nowhere – 400 miles from Phoenix, 200 from Albuquerque.  It’s 100 miles from Gallup, which is already in the middle of nowhere.  And then there’s the road in – 20 miles of the worst dirt road I’ve ever seen, much of of it washboard, on which we had to drive about 3 mph.  We had just heard from someone we met at Canyon de Chelly that when she drove in the week before, much of it was mud where the road crossed flash flood zones, and people had abandoned their trailers in the middle of the road.  96. Chaco002DSCF8895We were lucky it was dry when we arrived, but it still did some damage to our trailer – loosened every screw, broke the door off the refrigerator, and caused what is referred to in our family as the Nutella Incident.

The recompense for all this effort was getting to a place that is only visited by people who are engaged enough to make the trip.  There were no monster Rvs in sight, no services or food available – a pristine place where the quiet and darkness of the night sky were amazing.  It must be the only national park which has prehistoric stone houses right in the campground. DSCF9027

There is a lot of confusion in the general culture about the inhabitants and history of Chaco Canyon, or as it is technically now known, Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  The name emphasizes a critical aspect if its history:  Chaco was not one settlement area, it was the center for a culture that spread hundreds of miles out across the ancient Southwest.  This culture peaked in the era from the 800s to the 1100s, at which point Chaco went into decline, and other areas became more prominent.  The ruins at Chaco are the oldest and most important remnants of this ancient civilization, our Machu Picchu or Chichen Itza.

The canyon itself is rather wide and only a couple of hundred feet deep.  As a geographical feature, it is not as notable as such spectacular canyons as Zion or Canyon de Chelly, and it doesn’t seem to possess as many natural features that would single it out as being a great location for concentrated human settlement as they do.  We’re not sure what it meant in the culture a thousand years ago – there is no written record.  But the archaeological evidence at Chaco is clear that it was the center – hundreds of thousands of artifacts were found (most of which are now stored at museums in New York, Washington, etc.) that show the power and wealth concentrated here – cloaks made from the feathers of parrots, sea shells from the Pacific, human remains interred on beds of thousands of pieces of turquoise, rooms where exotic birds from Central America were raised.

What can be seen at Chaco now are the ruins of over a dozen “great houses” and smaller buildings.  The largest is Pueblo Bonito, which had over 600 rooms on four levels.   DSCF9061PuebloBonito103The function of great houses is not completely clear.  They could have been the residences of the most important people – not many people actually lived in them relative to their size;  they weren’t apartment houses. Each one might have been associated with a certain clan.   They might have been religious cultural or commercial buildings.  One of the theories about Chaco is that it was the ancient version of Las Vegas – the big city in the desert, to which people from other places travelled to congregate, have fun and spend money.

What is know in amazing detail is the physical history.  To someone who lives in the Northwest, the strangest thing about the desert is that wood doesn’t rot.  The beams in these ruins are original, and they are mostly over 1000 years old.  DSCF9202

The science of dendrochronology has now compiled such a complete database of the past millennia that the precise dating of any piece of wood is possible by looking at the sequence of growth rings.  They can tell to the year when a tree was cut down.  They also know where these trees came from, and it wasn’t from around Chaco – hundreds of thousands of trees were cut down in the mountains over fifty miles away and carried to Chaco (they didn’t have horses).  DSCF9180

While most of the ancient floor and roof construction has been destroyed over the past thousand years, some has not.  The ceiling construction in the this room is original.  DSCF9082PuebloBonito124

The masonry has been dated with precision too, with five different techniques identified, corresponding to different eras.  Here at the Chetro Ketl great house you can see how the openings in a colonnade from one era were filled in later with a different technique.  DSCF9098

Greta and I are both skeptical about overly-definite conclusions about the past drawn from scant archaeological findings;  David Macaulay’s Motel of the Mysteries is one of our touchstones.    So we were pleased to find that recent archaeology has become more careful about this.  The best example is how the understanding of the prominent round rooms in Southwestern architecture has evolved.  They are commonly called kivas, as that is the Hopi name for their own round, ceremonial rooms, which are obviously descended from earlier rooms in places such as Chaco.   96. Chaco006DSCF9101But that association of form with use was inappropriately applied to prehistoric structures – we don’t really know that all these rooms were ceremonial.  So now they are generally called “round rooms”, and while some, such as the one shown here at Chetro Ketl might be considered ceremonial due to their size and location, smaller ones embedded in the fabric of the building might have functioned simply as gathering rooms, or easily-heated rooms where people would congregate.  (I tend towards the theory is that it may have had a lot to do with the difficulties in roofing larger rectangular rooms in wood.)  DSCF9206

The largest round room is Casa Rinconada, essentially a big room with a few surrounding support spaces.  DSCF9218CasaRinconada002

Visitors are given great freedom to wander around the buildings in Chaco – entry is not allowed to various buildings or sequences of rooms, but there are many spaces which are completely open. We took a few excellent guided tours, and then returned to the same houses on our own, to spend time in and photograph the parts that most interested us.  DSCF9073




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Beyond the ruins, the experience of camping at Chaco is worth the trip alone.  It is astoundingly isolated and quiet, and the few other people around were remarkably inconspicuous.  Our campground was one of the most primitive and beautiful of our trip,DSCF9030

and it was extraordinary to sit there in the evening, looking across the canyon to Fajada Butte (seemingly a very important ritual site, based upon evidence of building and astronomical alignments), realizing that we were seeing essentially the same landscape as the original residents 1000 years before, sitting outside their house fifty yards away.  DSCF9034

Chaco is where we began to understand the complicated. but not so mysterious, fate of this civilization.  We used to call these people the Anasazi, but that term fell out of favor a while back, as it was a Navajo word, meaning roughly, alien ancestors.  As the Navajo got here fairly recently, why should their word be used?  It is now well-known that the People Formerly Know as Anasazi are in fact the ancestors of the Hopi, Zuni, and other modern Puebloan tribes.  We can’t use the word Hisatsinom, which is the preferred Hopi term, as there are other distinct language groups among the descendants, and no one word bridges these languages.  So Ancestral Puebloan is indeed the most accurate and respectful way to name them.

The mystery of why they left Chaco is still there, but there are many clues.  A drought probably contributed, and as this location became less viable, the centers of this civilization moved on to the later cliff dwellings, which had environmental as well as defensive advantages.  At a certain point, those cliff dwellings were abandoned too, and the modern Puebloan villages, such as the Hopi village of Walpi on First Mesa, were founded about 800 years ago.  When the Hopi have been asked to explain what happened in the past, they generally say, you know, it was just time to move on.

How did my fascination with the plan play out?  We learned that we could hike up the canyon wall to see Pueblo Alto, a great house located on the canyon rim.  From that trail, we would be able to look down upon Pueblo Bonito.  We started up what is actually one of the ancient pathways into the canyon, with narrow passages and stairs, some of them hewn out of the rock by the residents.  There was a view of Kin Kletso:96. Chaco00796. Chaco191DSCF9160

and then the path narrowed considerably, to a slot in the cliff, one which could easily be guarded against enemies.  DSCF9158

Shortly beyond where this photo was taken, Greta yelled “Snake!” and jumped back.  We watched the snake for a while, which was not moving very much, weaving back and forth at the narrowest part of the passage.  P1090240

After watching it for a few minutes, we couldn’t tell what species it was, and Greta, our family naturalist, noted that there were indeed poisonous snakes in the region that were not rattlesnakes.  (We showed this photo to a ranger the next day, who said it was probably a bull snake, not moving much because it was still cold.)  I halfheartedly ventured that we might chimney-climb above the snake, supporting ourselves on the rock faces above, but Greta was having none of it, so we turned back.

We took this as an omen.  Apparently many Hopi do not like to visit Chaco, feeling that there are   good reasons that their ancestors left, and that there is some bad juju there.  We felt that if you are venturing on an ancient path, made narrow and defensible by its builders to protect the settlement below, and if at the narrowest point a strangely-behaving snake plants itself in your way, you should pay attention.

I didn’t get the plan-view from above of Pueblo Bonito, so I don’t know if it would have caused a personal architectural epiphany.  Maybe I wasn’t ready to have it, so the guardian snake intervened.  But as I had been wandering around Chaco, the importance of the plan receded in my mind.  I have found that preconceptions about places often turn out to be inaccurate, or at least misleading, when the place is actually visited.  The experience of moving through a complex, three-dimensional place encompasses so much more information than can ever be adequately represented in two dimensions that this is necessarily so.  My earliest fascination with Chaco was with the pattern of the plan, and now I can add to that the very different experience of moving through those spaces that were inhabited one thousand years ago.  I went to Chaco with a limited understanding of  the underlying, abstract complexity of the physical structure; I left with a much deeper (but still rudimentary) understanding of the complexity of the history and culture that had produced the place.  Perhaps I can return when I have a better understanding of how that process of production happened.

2 thoughts on “Chaco Canyon, and the seduction of the plan

  1. Jerry Finrow

    Nice writing, you have a gift, should write more. Loved this exposition about Chaco. When we went there with two little kids in a VW camper bus there was just so much we could take in while minding the kids, getting food together and dealing with kid issues. Still, the experience was wonderful and the place is so compelling as an experience, you captured it very well. The one thing that stands out for me and still does is are the size of the stones – palm sized. You come to realize that someone shaped, and set each of the thousands and thousands of stones in a beautiful and caring way, hand built truly tells the story here. In my minds eye I can see people working together, one stone at a time and watching the whole grow and develop in a spirit of common toil and wonder at what they were making. It is such a beautiful place and the plan seems to be an out growth of these people working together for a common purpose to make a place for themselves. It is truly an amazing place….


  2. Pingback: mystery. | SouthwestDesertLover

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