Cusco: Architecture, City Planning, and Social Structure Antonella Andrade, Mateo Arellano, Belén Begnini, Jose Jaramillo, Paula Ortiz, Isabella Perilla (Photo Credit: Isabella Perilla)


This project is based on information retrieved during the Colegio Menor Campus Quito’s tenth grade Academic Field Trip to Cusco and Machu Picchu in February, 2017. The chosen topics reveal how the architecture and city planning of Cusco depended on the city’s social structure. Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire, located in Peru, and founded in 1100 A.D. Before going to the capital of the Inca Empire, students researched on their chosen topics through online sources that provided evidence about the Incan architecture, city planning and social structure within Cusco. Furthermore, this research continued during the trip with primary sources, visual aids, and constant observations that helped students retrieve valuable evidence from the study of features that temples like the Sacsayhuaman Temple and the Coricancha Temple had. At the same time, interviews with the guides helped them further develop their information. Throughout this paper, information about the relationship within architecture, city planning, and social structure are constant and clear. The outcome of this research was architecture and city planning of Cusco reveal specific and important details of the Inca social hierarchy, depending on the conditions they lived in, the location, and their significant position in society.


Research Question

What does the architecture and city planning of Cusco reveal about the Inca civilization’s social structure?

The variables that will be analyzed through our research question are architecture, the city planning of Cusco, and social hierarchy within the Inca civilization. Architecture requires us to study some temples like Sacsayhuaman and Coricancha. The relative architectural complexity of various structures will likely depend on which social class was destined to use that place of worship. The city planning of Cusco, more specifically the location in which a structure was planned to be built, depended on what social hierarchy class was going to occupy that structure. As a result, by analyzing the city planning and architecture of Cusco, we can understand the inequalities among the social classes, and how they were affected or benefited in other aspects such as economics, politics, or religion.


The architecture and city planning of Cusco reveal that more architecturally complex structures were constructed for the higher classes within the city limits of Cusco, and less complex buildings were built for the lower classes outside the borders of Cusco.

This hypothesis directly and fully answers our research question by predicting that the relative architectural complexity of structures in Cusco depended on the social hierarchy of the Inca Empire. Specifically, this hypothesis states that more advanced structures were constructed for higher classes and less advanced structures were constructed for lower classes. We hypothesize that the city planning consisted of architecturally complex buildings inside the limits of Cusco, where the nobles would live and occupy them. Outside the borders of the city, we predict that lower classes lived in worse conditions. We can confirm or reject this hypothesis by researching about how these two variables, the architecture and the city planning of Cusco, relate to the Incan social hierarchy.

A view of the Cusco Cathedral (PHOTO CREDIT: PAULA ORTIZ)

Research Methods

By analyzing and researching academic websites, and using of primary sources, we could better understand what the architecture and city planning of Cusco reveal about Incan social structure.

In order to find useful evidence, we looked fonline encyclopedias and academic articles with keywords such as “Ancient Cusco” and “Inca Architecture,” which led us to the Ancient History Encyclopedia. For example, articles by historian Mark Cartwright helped us locate and evaluate the different aspects of our question to either confirm or reject our hypothesis. Furthermore, we searched for other online sources specifically related to research of the Inca Empire through keywords like “Inka Universe Engineering,” which took us to analyze articles such as those by some Smithsonian contributors and Peru Cultural Society members.

SAcsayhuaman (Photo credit: Paula Ortiz)

While visiting Cusco, we analyzed Incan architecture in terms of building materials to better understand the relationship between architecture, city planning, and social structure. We visited Coricancha, which was one of the most important temples in the Incan Empire. Some pictures that have been taken while in the temples are great evidence for the architectural claim, as they show physical and credible testimony of the buildings. The pictures are also great evidence for the city planning because they demonstrate where these buildings are located.

San Cristobal Cathedral Bell (PHOTO CREDIT: ANTONELLA ANDRADE)


The architecture and city planning of Cusco reveal that the civilization constructed different buildings for the higher and lower classes, and placed them in different places, therefore demonstrating power and wealth within Incan social structure.

We can confirm our hypothesis because architecture in Cusco does reveal that more sophisticated structures were constructed for the higher classes, and simpler buildings were directed to the lower classes. Inca constructions in Cusco differentiate from one another depending on the purpose they served. For example, one of the most complex temple in Cusco was Coricancha, and as explained in Discover Peru, a website created by the Peru Cultural Society, Coricancha “was the religious center of the empire and was reserved for the Sapa Inca, his immediate family, priests and the chosen women to worship. Although it was meant to be a center for pilgrimage, people were not allowed to go inside” (Inca Architecture, n.d., para. 10). Access to Incan buildings and primary sources prove that these constructions were used depending on the social class that was supposed to occupy it, therefore connecting architecture and social structure.

Our research reveals the relationship between social classes and the layout of Cusco. In fact, studies made by historian Mark Cartwright in the Ancient History Encyclopedia affirm that Cusco’s layout directly exhibits a connection to social class. Cartwright claims the city was built in the shape of a puma, relating the city to different constellations worshiped by the Incas. For example, the Sacsayhuaman Temple, believed to have been the head of the puma, protected the city, and as served as an important religious site for the Incas. Until today, Sacsayhuaman is a place of worship, where the Inti Raymi celebration is held. Similarly, Coricancha was a temple located in the center of Cusco, and was built with advanced architectural methods. The walls were perfectly built with rocks, tilted five degrees to support seismic movements; there was no use of cement or other pasting material to attach the rocks used on the walls, and the rocks were purposely used to support the high structures (Cartwright, 2015). The Coricancha Temple, a place where only nobles could worship Inti, was located in the center of the puma. Social classes, the layout and architecture of Cusco were deeply related, as the temples were strategically located in the city, and their purpose depended on these social classes.


Furthermore, outstanding differences existed in the way structures were constructed, depending on the social class that would occupy them. Cartwright’s article within Ancient History Encyclopedia clarifies how the architecture and layout highly depended on the social class, “the entire city was also divided into two distinct parts called the hanan and hurin; the former, in the north, was higher in elevation and more prestigious than its lower, southern, counterpart. Five noble families occupied each sector” (Cartwright, 2015, para. 6). Moreover, Cartwright’s articles reveal that the materials utilized in lower class buildings were much less complex than those for the upper class, “more humble structures used unworked field stones set with mud mortar or used bricks of dried mud” (Cartwright, 2014, para. 4). On the other hand, Cartwright explains that buildings designed for the higher classes would be made of either yucay limestone, green Sacsayhuaman diorite porphyry, or black andesite. These rocks were then polished and pounded into shape, for them to interlock perfectly with each other to create a smooth structure for the walls (Cartwright, 2014). With this information, we can conclude that the construction materials and methods depended on the social class, as well as the location of the buildings.

Beyond revealing the social hierarchy of the Inca Empire, both the Sacsayhuaman as well as the Coricancha Temple demonstrate features of Inca construction that are still present today. For example, Coricancha is a building with advanced architectural features, such as walls used to support seismic movements, that was used to worship Inti and to demonstrate the power Cusco had with its architectural buildings. Furthermore, Sacsayhuaman is a religious site at the head of Cusco, which was used both as a place of worship and was used for the Inti Raymi celebration. This information has a connection to the social hierarchy because the construction of the temples was based on the different social classes. Lower classes that lived in poor conditions worked and higher classes that lived in better conditions were the ones that occupied the buildings. People should care about this topic because there are still issues regarding the fact that people live based on the social class they belong to.

Windows in the Temple of the Moon, Coricancha (PHOTO CREDIT: ISABELLA PERILLA)

Works Cited

Andrade, A. (2017). San Cristobal Church Bell. [Photograph]. Self-Published

Architecture and Social Structure in Cusco [Personal Interview]. (17, February 09).

Cartwright, M. (2015). Cusco. Retrieved from

Cartwright, M. (March 13, 2014). Inca Architecture. Retrieved from

Heart of the Inca Universe. (June 26, 2015) Retrieved from

Inca Architecture. (n.d.). Discover Peru. Retrieved from

Ortiz, P. (2017). Sacsayhuaman. [Photograph]. Self-Published

Ortiz, P. (2017). A view of the Cusco Cathedral. [Photograph]. Self-Published

Perilla, I. (2017). Coricancha. [Photograph]. Self-Published

Perilla, I. (2017). Cusco Town Square. [Photograph]. Self-Published

Perilla, I. (2017). Windows in the Temple of the Moon, Coricancha. [Photograph]. Self-Published

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