Stitching Boundaries

By Sonja Vangjeli

Borders are often seen as political tools that divide and exclude, yet by defining limits and establishing collectively accepted boundaries they also have the potential to create spaces of exchange and interconnection between disparate conflicting adjacencies. Boundaries also define and strengthen individual identities, giving legibility, form, and unity to adjacent conditions, and creating diversity by clearly defining the limits of different parts in relation to one another. In “Towards the Archipelago: Defining the Political and the Formal in Architecture” Pier Vittorio Aureli introduces the idea of the limit as the key to the formal and political composition of the city, and appropriates the concept of the archipelago as a political city form in contrast to the endless growth of the contemporary urban condition.

The political is equated with the formal, and the formal is finally rendered as the idea of the limit…Inasmuch as the formal is defined in terms of limits rather than self-sufficiency, it is fundamentally relational...For this reason, the formal is against totality and generic conceptions of multiplicity...Two things make the concept of the archipelago a political form. First, the starting point for the project is not the urban infrastructure but the individuality of the islands seen as independent historical, social, and environmental formations. Second, the islands are not just scattered fragments but are “antithetically established, meaning they are bound as a whole precisely by the way they react dialectically to each other. In this sense they form the possibility of an agonistic place, where the architecture of the city manifests and frames limits, the possibilities of diversity. (1)

In the contemporary condition of rapid urbanization and landscape transformation, the notion of boundary becomes an important tool in discussions on conservation of inherited natural and cultural landscapes, and preservation of diversity in the relationships of contemporary cultures with the land. The site of the boundary also opens up potential for design interventions that create expanded living borders as places of connection and exchange rather than division and exclusion.

Relationship between River Valleys and Pre-Columbian Settlements (Archipelago model)

Modern Lima (Extended urbanization model)

Lima’s Urban Growth

The potential of the boundary is evident in the current urban condition of Lima, Peru, which is dominated by constant tension between basic housing needs of the people and the preservation of natural and cultural heritage. Peru was one of the early cradles of civilization and even within the city of Lima, there are hundreds of significant sites of Pre-Columbian heritage, some dating as far back as 3800 B.C. Rural to urban migration since the 1970s has dramatically increased the population of the urban poor in the city, while the provision of affordable housing has decreased substantially.  This has created a huge housing gap, resorting to informal housing becoming the only viable solution for low-income living in the city.

Lima’s urban landscape with Pre-Columbian sites as black holes in the urban fabric arranged in relation to river valleys and seasonally fertile hills.

The need for land by informal settlements and formal development directly threatens the hundreds of archeological sites within the city, which are deemed intangible by the ministry of culture and therefore perceived as black holes in the urban fabric. As sites of no percieved economic value or clear ownership, they become perfect places for occupation by informal settlements and incremental urbanization. Similarly, remaining agricultural valleys and seasonally fertile hills, which historically were the most valuable areas of the coastal desert landscape of Lima, and currently provide the only major green open spaces of the city, are severely undervalued and being increasingly urbanized and industrialized. Of the three major rivers of Lima, only the Lurin remains unpolluted and still supporting active agriculture, yet even its valley is being aggressively urbanized near the coast and along the central road. These distorted land value perceptions favoring privatization and construction of open common space, have resulted in the rapid encroachment of urbanization over the whole of Lima’s inherited natural and cultural landscape, creating a landscape of tension, ambiguous boundaries, shortage of green open space, and irreversible loss of valuable cultural heritage.

Ancient Peruvian cultures had very different relations between their settlements and the natural territory. To create and protect fertile agricultural land in the challenging climatic and geographic environment of the Andes and the Pacific coastal desert, sacred sites (huacas) and settlements were strategically sited at the edges of river valleys to protect fertile land. The fertile valleys were expanded through sophisticated agricultural irrigation techniques of canals, sunken gardens (chacras hundidas) and groundwater wells (huachaques), creating an intricate land settlement system based on the valley.

The concept of Chacra - the confluence of the human, the natural, and the sacred, embodied in agricultural cultivation - was a central concept to ancient Pre-Colombian cultures, defining a nurturing interdependent relationship with nature and implying constant reciprocity and balance between human interventions and natural landscapes. This balance was disrupted by colonization, and aggravated by the mass migrations of Andean people into the unfamiliar city, resulting in very rapid urbanization of inherited landscapes, the loss of meaning of the sites of huacas and their territorial relations to natural resources, and therefore the loss of the philosophies and traditions of land settlement of pre-Colombian cultures as guides for expanding the contemporary city’s territory.

Pachacamac is Lima’s most significant pre-Colombian site, yet it is perceived as a void at the edge of the growing city, between Villa El Salvador, a self-organized urban district and Lurin, the city’s last remaining agricultural valley. Pachacamac was the most important sanctuary for pilgrimage on the Andean coast for more than 1500 years, and lies at an important node of the Qhapaq Nan network of Inca trails at the intersection of the coastal route extending from Quito, Ecuador to Santiago de Chile, and the Pachacamac-Jauja mountain route connecting the coast to the mountains. It lies along an important symbolic axis from the holy mountain of Pariacaca to the Islands of Pachacamac, representing the full transect of the Peruvian landscape from the mountains to the coast.

Julio Cesar Tello informal settlement encroaching on the eastern edge of Pachacamac.

The site is a huge 465 ha of open dessert, most of which was used as campgrounds and markets for the thousands of pilgrims who would visit the complex of sanctuaries built by the Wari, Ychma, and Inca cultures devoted to the deity Pachacamac. The monumental area is a significant archeological site with active excavations and ongoing discoveries of artifacts and mummies, and a major touristic destination of Peru’s cultural heritage. The northern two thirds of the site are unexcavated open land awaiting future studies. The new National Museum of Archeology is also planned to be built at Pachacamac, making the site a new centrality in the city of Lima. Pachacamac is adjacent to the mouth of the Lurin river, the last remaining agricultural river valley, and a growing destination for countryside tourism and gastronomy. Yet despite all this, the site of Pachacamac is still perceived as a void waiting to be filled. Although it is recognized as an important active archeological site and protected by the government, its edges are constantly under threat of encroachment by informal developments like the Julio Cesar Tello neighborhood and land invasions as recent as May 2015.

Lurin River becoming urbanized by informal development near Pachacamac.

How can cultural heritage sites like Pachacamac be revalued and reintegrated in the collective imagination of the contemporary city, while still preserving them as open spaces within the urban fabric? How could the knowledge heritage of land settlement embedded in their territorial relations be restored to give meaning to these sites and transform the urban imaginary of Lima from an undifferentiated limitless urbanization rapidly sprawling across the landscape to an archipelago of urban, natural and cultural islands in fine balance?

Site adjacency to agricultural valley, river mouth, Pacific coast and Pachacamac Islands.

The concept of the boundary is a powerful design tool for establishing limits to the endless growth of Lima’s undifferentiated urbanization, for protecting its natural and cultural heritage sites as open spaces, and establishing strong identities for the sites of Pre-Columbian knowledge heritage. By interpreting and designing boundaries at three different scales – the site, the valley, and the metropolis – the project aims to not only stitch the site back into its local context but connect it to its city and region, creating a series of unified collective imaginaries of Pachacamac as archeological park, community linear park, and market district; Lurin as an agricultural and gastronomic tourism region; and Lima as a city within a vast metropolitan park system of natural and cultivated landscapes.

Pachacamac,Gastronomic Edge & Linear Park.

Lurin Valley Region & Edge Road.

Lima Green Belt & Metropolitan Park System.

By defining the edge of Pachacamac with a linear public park that connects the residential communities to the north with the river and coast, the huge desert site is preserved as public open space. The northern edge is reinforced with a new urban road flanked by infill housing to the north to complete the weak southern edge of Villa el Salvador, and a distributed market and gastronomic district on the south to activate the site with collective programs like urban agriculture, food markets, restaurants, and food festivals such as Mistura, connecting the agricultural production of the valley to the gastronomy of the city. By reimagining the current contested thin walled borders as thickened thresholds appropriated for collective uses that can stitch together the city, the site, and the valley and reveal the knowledge heritage embedded in them, cultural heritage sites like Pachacamac can be seen as valuable resources for the city’s communities and be protected as collectively treasured assets. The realignment of the historical axial entrance to Pachacamac though the northern gate re-establishes the site’s ancient relations to the vast territories of the Inca Qhapac Nan trail system, inspiring contemporary pilgrimages starting at Pachacamac and continuing up the valley and to the mountains through the UNESCO listed Pachacamac-Jauja Qhapaq Nan trail, revealing along the way Peru’s knowledge heritage of natural and cultural relations in fine balance.

Site Plan of Archaeological Park, Linear Park.

Pachacamac Northern Urban Edge.

Scale of Open Space

Scale of Linear Park

Scale of Urban Fabric

By extending the site’s boundaries to the regional and territorial scales,  and providing access to the natural landscapes they are situated within, these sites can reveal the territorial networks and land settlement patterns that preceded modern Lima. To achieve this, the strong edge established by the new urban road at the northern gate of Pachacamac is extended along the edge of the valley establishing a limit to the city’s expansion to protect the fertile agricultural land, while establishing a strong corridor for development to continue north without compromising the interior of the valley. The strategic interventions of displacing the main valley access road from the existing center to the edge follows the Pre-Columbian concept of settling the edge, creating a clear and direct relationship between the arid urban land and the natural resources of the river and fertile soil of the valley. The definition of the road as boundary allows the valley to be preserved as a unified cultural landscape with a clear agricultural identity and potentially an appellation of controlled origin, rooted in its tradition of Pre-Colombian agricultural heritage and crop diversity. The products cultivated in the Lurin valley could feed the thriving gastronomic boom of Lima, concentrated in the new culinary destination of the northern gate of Pachacamac. The cultural landscape of the valley would also become a touristic destination revealing the heritage of cultivation techniques and the natural landscape where the food is grown.

Lurin: scale plan 1 : 60k

Lima: scale plan 1 : 200k

Extended to the metropolitan scale the concept of the boundary is reinterpreted to reframe the network of seasonal fertile hills around the urbanized area of Lima as a green belt of protected landscapes that act as natural limits to urban growth, and the river valleys and coast as a metropolitan park system that provides the densely urbanized city access to vast green open spaces. Reinforced with a network of bike trails connecting the edges of the three river valleys and coast and as a result connecting the huacas sited along them, this composite metropolitan park system would reframe the image of the city of Lima from an arid landscape sprawling chaotically into its last remaining natural landscapes, into a vision of an urban archipelago balanced within a mosaic of natural landscapes and cultural heritage sites.

Overlay collage of chaotic urban expansion driven by tension between informal settlements and pre-Columbian cultural sites.

Overlay collage of Lima as urban archipelago within mosaic of natural landscapes.

In order to restore the balance between the urban, the natural, and cultural heritage in the city of Lima, the focus of conservation must shift from the mere preservation of physical archeological sites, which have lost their meaning and value, toward revealing and making legible the knowledge heritage embedded in them and their relation to the territory. The settlement patterns, nurturing relation with nature, the conservation of water and fertile land, the agricultural cultivation techniques, and practices of self-organization are all knowledge heritage implicit in the physical sites, but not easily legible by contemporary culture.Unveiling the knowledge heritage embedded in the networks of archeological sites arranged around the river valleys gives new value and meaning to the sites and makes them catalysts for more balanced patterns of urbanization integrated with the regional landscape. Rather than focusing merely on the sites themselves, the emphasis of conservation must be on the territorial relationships between them, and their boundaries with neighbouring contexts.

By redefining and inhabiting a porous boundary that connects rather than a border that divides, by recovering ancient agricultural knowledge and using gastronomy as a catalyst for its renewed identity, Pachacamac can become a cultural link that protects the archeological site and valley, and stitches the city to the Lurin valley region by making legible its inherent knowledge heritage of pre-Colombian cultures. Pachacamac and the many archeological sites of Lima can thus become valuable catalysts for the reinterpretation and reintegration of cultural heritage into daily life, creating a renewed collective imaginary of Lima as a city in balance with its natural and cultural landscape.


(1) Aureli, Pier Vittorio. “Toward the Archipelago.” Log, no. 11 (2008): 91-120, pp.109,    112, 117.

Image Credits

Urban design and landscape planning project by Sonja Vangjeli MLA 16’ and Dana Shaikh MAUD 16’, as part of the Urban Black Holes Option Studio at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Fall 2015, taught by Jean Pierre Crousse and Einat Rosenkrantz.

Sonja Vangjeli is a designer, urbanist, and researcher interested in the relationships of cultures and their settlements with their landscapes, and the potential of learning from regionally specific land settlement patterns to inform contemporary urban planning and landscape conservation. Sonja is a recent graduate of the Master of Landscape Architecture program at the GSD, and alumnus of the University of Waterloo School of Architecture.