Messina, John. Alamos, Sonora: Architecture and Urbanism in the Dry Tropics. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2008. 141 pages. Cloth $35.00.
The architectural and social concept of urban design has been re-discovered and is now largely championed by the new urbanists. Much of the intelligence of urbanity was actually originally crafted in pre-industrial times, and in what are now mostly abandoned and dilapidated agricultural era towns. Alamos, in Sonora, Mexico, is a rare example of a well-preserved pre-industrial urban community. As Messina suggests, "[w]ith our current need for compact and low-rise cities with greater density, especially in the arid American Southwest, a deeper understanding of Alamos will offer a substantive precedent and subtle polemic" (p. 4).
This volume affords a thorough and extensive historical treatment of Alamos. The natural, ethnographic, cultural, and political histories of this city are addressed, always with the architect's aim of illustrating the modern architectural adage "form follows function." The author also employs a useful historical, comparative method to reveal the far-flung effects of the sources of Western urbanism in ancient and classical cultures. The Isle of Hydra in Greece and the French Quarter in New Orleans are notable examples cited as exhibiting some of the universal attributes of planned urbanism including primarily order, but punctuated by occasional chaos.
The economic driver of the development of Alamos as an urban center was the Spanish discovery of relatively easily-mined silver in 1683. The town was located on El Camino Real, the major road linking the missions of California. In 1748, a Spanish crown inspector decreed that the town be organized in a grid, in the fashion of European cities of the day, and that the housing be contiguous, to discourage squatters and prevent the accumulation of garbage between buildings. By the 1750s, the population of Alamos exceeded 6,000, which would have made it about the sixth largest city in what was later to become the United States. In 1769, a Spanish royal treasury and mint were located in the city. Twelve families and forty-nine Indians from Alamos participated in the colonial expedition of Juan Bautista de Anza, who, in 1775, founded San Francisco, California.
For a century and a half, through the dramatic national political changes in Mexico and a devastating flood in 1869, the city of Alamos continued to experience periods of...