By Randy Jackson
One “best book” list I continually return to over the years is National Geographic’s 100 Best Adventure Books. A number of these true adventure epics have held me riveted from cover to cover. One of the books on this list is Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by an American lawyer turned archeologist John Lloyd Stephens (1805-52). The two volumes, published in 1843, contain the classic adventure tales of hardships, endurance, fascinating characters, and life in the Central American jungles of the 1800s. However, the tale’s mark on the world went far beyond a tale of adventure; it introduced a virtually unknown (and lost) civilization to the world, the Mayan civilization.
The Aztec civilization was well established in the historical records as a result of the Spanish Conquest. But right up until the beginning of the 20th century, very little was known of earlier ruins found in Mexico and Central America. The Eurocentric view, held by most scholars of the era, was that the Aztec civilization originated long before the Spanish conquest, with the arrival of some unknown peoples from Asia, Europe, or the Middle East (a foundational belief still held by the Mormon Church). Stephens’ book marked an important turning point away from this view, towards our understanding that the Mesoamerican civilizations originated independently. As a result of this book’s publication, the mystery of and fascination with an unknown civilization, the Maya, exploded in the popular imagination of the early 20th century. One aspect of this interest was the birth of Mayan Revivalist Architecture, which emerged in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Mayan influence on design and architecture came from the illustrations in Stephens’ book, which were made by a British artist, Frederick Catherwood, who accompanied Stephens on his Yucatan adventures. Catherwood’s illustrations not only conjured up romantic images of the discovery of a lost civilization in the jungle, they also inspired new concepts of design in architecture. As an indication of the importance of Catherwood’s illustrations, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of New York called his work in the Yucatan “a landmark of architectural illustration.”
Frank Lloyd Wright and Mayan Revival Architecture
One architect who first incorporated ideas from Mayan design was the famed American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright’s first exposure to Mayan architecture was in connection with some architectural work he did at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. One exhibit Wright would have seen at the fair contained full-scale models of four Mayan structures in the Yucatan, based on Catherwood’s illustrations. One was the Gateway at Labnah, southeast of Uxmal.
Any web searches of Mayan Revivalist Architecture will list a number of buildings designed by Wright. Wright’s renowned contribution to architecture, known as the Prairie School, has elements that can be seen as inspired by the ancient Mayans. Some observable architectural elements common to Wright’s Prairie School designs and extant Mayan ruins are horizontal lines, flat roof construction, use of natural materials, and Mayan motifs.
Later in Wright’s career, he drew most directly on the Mayan Architectural style for some commissions in Southern California. The first of the buildings he designed in this style was the Hollyhock House in Los Angeles (completed in 1922).
Beyond Frank Lloyd Wright, there were other architects whose designs are considered Mayan Revival; to name two, Manuel Amábilis designed the Monumento a la Patria in Mérida and Stiles Oliver Clements designed the Mayan Theatre in Los Angeles.
Of the many buildings designed using the concepts of Mayan Revival architecture, most of them are in the United states. Five alone – four residences (including the Hollyhock House) and the North Hollywood Masonic Lodge – are listed in the Los Angeles Conservancy, which protects historically important buildings in LA.
One building in the Mayan Revivalist style that caught my attention is in Mexico City: The Templo de la Ciudad de México. My attention was first arrested by the architecture, but I was quickly astounded by the fact that it is a Mormon Temple. Astounded because of the irony: this architectural style was chosen in part because of the Mormon belief that the indigenous peoples of the Americas originated from the lost tribes of Israel.
The long-held belief that outside influences established the Mesoamerican civilizations that preceded the Spanish conquest was the very theory discredited by John Lloyd Stephens in his book – the very book that started the Mayan Revivalist Architectural style in the first place. Nevertheless, the Templo de la Ciudad de Mexico is a beautiful building. There are many other impressive buildings designed under the influence of Mayan Revival architecture. They are well worth some of your Google time.