Houses in Oaxaca

27 July 2019

A colonial era building I recently visited because it was the venue for a small crafts fair.

The city of Oaxaca was started by the Spanish is 1528  and still has many buildings of the colonial period even with its many earthquakes.  This lovely old architecture makes the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist destination.

All the writings I can find about Spanish Colonial architecture in Oaxaca are about the churches, missions and convents.  Masterpieces made by the Spanish crown and Catholic church, paid for by Oaxacan cochineal and built by the local indigenous people who were converted to Christianity.  What is interesting to me is what the Spanish colonial homes were like and how they influence the style of homes in Oaxaca today.

One can see some of the grand colonial homes today as many have been converted to museums and mini-malls. Typically these have a small entrance from the street that leads to an open courtyard surrounded by columned portico and behind that rooms.  They remind me of the Roman atrium style houses we studied in Latin class. Besides the open central courtyard these houses have few windows and a small secluded entrance, any opening to the street is likely to be covered by a massive door or iron grill (reja).  Some of these features continue in current Oaxacan homes.

A historic interior courtyard currently used to park cars. Convergence of Colonial Spanish influences and US car culture.


The climate and geography also influence the architecture.  The climate here in the Central Valley of Oaxaca, at 5000 ft in the tropics, is mild year round and no heating or cooling is required.  That is the benefit of being in the mountains, the catch is there are few level places to build.

A street next to a market connecting two principal thoroughfares. Obviously not open to motor vehicles.

Many places in Oaxaca are only accessible by foot as I found out while house hunting.   Floors often have a random step up or down, a constant falling hazard.  My small house, so called one story home, had 4 different floor levels when I bought it.


The windows of this historic building make you wonder what is the level/s of floor inside.

As the historic center of the city has gotten crowded the houses have gone up, two stories or more, on smaller pieces of land.  I saw a small house built on 6m x 6m piece of land, not even in the center of town.  It had 3 bedrooms, a balcony and everything needed for a family of 4, each room on its own level; not a tiny house but a new dimension on split level homes.


The  interior courtyards have either disappeared or been  transformed  into a smaller open space, but still paved.

The first thing that most Oaxaqueños do when they buy a piece of land  is build a wall around the perimeter of the property.  A wall with foundation and support columns.  This is an sizable expense for most people here. Once the wall is completed  you can live on the land; improvise a shelter, outhouse, have a barrel for water, cook in the open and plant corn, beans and squash on the land, ie., live.

Step 1. Build a wall around the perimeter. Sturdy gates to the street.

When more funds are available you can make a proper room in a corner, by just adding two more small walls and a roof. The roof and floor usually extend beyond the room to create a little sheltered area much like the portico.

Step2: Build a room in a corner.

This is what I saw at the humble home of my first weaving teacher.  The corner room has a window and door facing the porch which is where a floor loom and yarn were stored.  Later a second room was added right next to the first, also with a door and window facing the now extended porch.  When the kids graduated from college they build a weaving studio and a bathroom.

Stage 3: Adding a family weaving studio.

The studio has open walls on two sides and a large window like opening to the street, which closes with sturdy wooden shutters.  The columns inside the studio support the roof and the backstrap looms.  My weaving teacher was accumulating building materials to add two more rooms on top  of the two existing ones. Many buildings have rebar sticking out the roof so that additional stories can be added.

Most houses have been built piece meal, including the one I bought.  My house has a perimeter wall and  two different kinds of roofs, one made with bricks and arched (boveda) and other  a concrete slab.  The boveda is the older style so I think that that the first part of the house was built, in a corner of course.  The main street runs across the top of the house and a side street is to the left, a neighbor shares the wall on the right. The only existing door faces the back open area that was covered in gravel and used for parking, accessed through large metal gates on the side street.

This style of building limits the windows.  By ordinance windows are not allowed to face a neighbors property for privacy reasons.  Windows can face the street but increase the perceived vulnerability of the house.  Or windows can face your own open space, ie., the remnants of the courtyard. Because this house is on a corner and there is open space in back,  windows are possible on 3 sides.   The previous owner kept a 5 m strip of land at he back of the property and first built a wall of adobe and now has a two story building there.  No windows overlooking my place.

The grey adobe wall was built to define the new property line. The metal structure is an apartment over the workshop/garage. No windows overlooking my house.


One Response to “Houses in Oaxaca”

  1. […] task was to make the foundation for the addition. The addition goes from one perimeter wall (see previous post about perimeter walls) to the other about 3.5m out from the end of the house. Part of the space will become part of a […]


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