Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Frank Lloyd Wright and the Maya

Taliesen West facade
Taliesen West facade

Cindy and I visited the Frank Lloyd Wright workshop/school Taliesen West (in Scottsdale) over the Christmas holiday. Our nephew, Los Angeles architect James Diewald, was in town, as were Cindy's parents. I had heard that Wright was influenced by ancient Maya architecture, so we looked for evidence of this at Taliesen West. It didn't take long to find. Several of the buildings exhibit a sloping exterior wall in a form common in the architecture of ancient Mesoamerica. The outward-sloping panel is called a "talud" by Mesoamericanists. It is most famous at Teotihuacan, where the sloping panels alternate with vertical framed panels called "tableros." But Wright used the talud without the tablero.
Xochicalco, Feathered Serpent Temple

Contrary to various books about Wright's influences, the closest parallels of this talud form are not to the Maya, but to ancient central Mexican architecture, such as the Feathered Serpent Temple at Xochicalco. ((NOTE: I am not providing links for Xochicalco, since the readily available websites (e.g., the Wikipedia entry for Xochicalco) are pretty bad and filled with nonsense. Xochicalco was an urban center southwest of Cuernavaca that flourished from the sixth to ninth centuries AD; I worked at the site as a graduate student. Major recent fieldwork projects were directed by Kenneth Hirth and Norberto González; see references below)). A number of Maya cities did use the talud form, though.

At Taliesen West I asked our guide and some employees at the (very nice) bookstore about Mayan influence on Wright's architecture, but they didn't know much. One person said that this was one aspect of Wright's life that had not been researched yet. That didn't sound correct. I skimmed through various books on Wright's architecture in the bookstore, and they mentioned his explicit use of Maya models as a matter of course, mostly in reference to a set of houses he designed in the 1920s in Los Angeles.

Hollyhock House, Los Angeles
Hollyhock House, Los Angeles

The Hollyhock House was built for Aline Barnsdall between 1919 and 1921, and shows a general formal similarity to buildings and complexes (the so-called "Nunnery  Quadrange") at the Maya city of Uxmal. This is a distinctive and attractive house; see more photos and information at the Hollyhock House website.

Ennis House, Los Angeles

Ennis House, Los Angeles

The Ennis House (built in 1924) uses similar forms and techniques, but has a greater number of specific Maya items in its architecture and decoration.Wright's client evidently had an affinity for Mayan art. Like the Hollyhock House, this is a gorgeous and fascinating structure; see more at the Ennis House website.
This house was used as a set in a number of films and television shows, including  Blade Runner and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

What is Maya about these structures? Two features stand out to me; there are probably others. First, the overall form of the individual structures and their configuration resembles building in the so-called "Puuc Style" of the Yucatan Peninsula. Uxmal is the best-known city with predominantly Puuc architecture, and the well-visited site of Chichén Itzá has much architecture in the Puuc style:

Chichén Itzá

The second Mayan feature of Wright's Los Angeles houses is the use of individual blocks to produce walls with a rich textured surface. Wright called these "textile blocks." The Puuc Maya used varying kinds of blocks to produce textured walls, some depicting the rain god and others geometric in design.
One of Wright's "textile blocks"
Mosaic facade at Kabah (Puuc Maya)

Compare the Kabah facade to both interior and exterior walls at the Hollyhock and Ennis houses. There are other Maya parallels that turn up in Wright's work over a period of many years. They were not at all limited to the Los Angeles houses.

A bit of library research turned up much information about Frank Lloyd Wright's Mayan (and more general Mesoamerican) influences.  By far the best account is Barbara Braun's excellent book, Pre-Columbian Art and the Post-Columbian World: Ancient American Sources of Modern Art, which has a chapter called "Frank Lloyd Wright: A Vision of Maya Temples." In a 1930 lecture, Wright said, "I remember how, as a boy, primitive American architecture, Toltec, Aztec, Mayan, Inca, stirred my wonder, excited my wishful imagination" (quoted in Braun, p.138). Braun goes on to chronicle Wright's use of Mayan architecture. She does not seem to have a good grasp of non-Mayan Mesoamerican architecture, however, and Wright's use of elements from sites like Xochicalco, Tula, and other non-Mayan cities is a topic that could stand some additional research. Additional information can be found in Ingle (1984) and Tselos (1969), a semi-rigorous article. The 1920s and 1930s were a period when ancient Mesoamerican art and Mesoamerican traditional culture more generally were very popular in the U.S., and Wright was in the midst of this movement (see works by Braun, Delpar, and Park below).

I was particularly interested in the role of the Chicago fair of 1893, the Worlds Columbian Exposition, in the possible development of Wright's appreciation for Mayan architecture. Wright was working in the office of Chicago architect Louis Sullivan at the time, and participated in the design of several structures at the fair. The fair also included full-size replicas for several Puuc Maya structures (from Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, and Labná). When the fair was dismantled, these were later assembled at the Field Museum of Natural History (in Chicago). It was not clear from the sources I consulted (see below), however, how much of an impression these made on Wright, or the specific nature of their possible influence on his ideas.

Puuc Maya replicas at the Chicago Worlds Fair, 1893
I highly recommend this outstanding account of the Chicago fair, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness in the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson. I really enjoyed this book a few years ago (although I can't recall now whether Larson discusses the Maya buildings).

Sources on Maya influences on Frank Lloyd Wright:

Braun, Barbara  (1993)  Pre-Columbian Art and the Post-Columbian World: Ancient American Sources of Modern Art. Abrams, New York.

Delpar, Helen  (1992)  The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican: Cultural Relations between the United States and Mexico, 1920-1935. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

Heinz, Thomas  (1979)  Historic Architecture: Frank Lloyd Wright, Ennis-Brown House. Architectural Digest (October):104-111, 160.

Ingle, Marjorie  (1984)  Mayan Revival Style: Art Deco Fantasy. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Park, Stephen M.  (2011)  Mesoamerican Modernism: William Carlos Williams and the Archaeological Imagination. Journal of Modern Literature 34(4):21-47.

Steele, James  (1992)  Barnsdall House: Frank Lloyd Wright. Phaidon, London.

Tselos, Dimitri  (1969)  Frank Lloyd Wright and World Architecture. Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 28(1):58-72.

On Puuc Maya architecture:

Andrews, George F.  (1995)  Architecture of the Puuc Region and the Northern Plains Area. Labyrinthos, Lancaster, CA.

Gendrop, Paul  (1998)  Río Bec, Chenes, and Puuc Styles in Maya Architecture. Translated by Robert D. Wood. Edited and with a forward by George F. Andrews. Labyrinthos, Lancaster, CA.

Kowalski, Jeffrey K.  (1987)  The House of the Governor: A Maya Palace of Uxmal, Yucatan, Mexico. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Pollock, Harry E. D.  (1980)  The Puuc: An Architectural Survey of the Hill Country of Yucatan and Northern Campeche, Mexico. Memoirs vol. 19. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge.

Proskouriakoff, Tatiana  (1963)  An Album of Maya Architecture. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

On Xochicalco:

de la Fuente, Beatriz, Silvia Garza Tarazona, Norberto González Crespo, Arnold Leboef, Miguel León Portilla and Javier Wimer  (1995)  La Acrópolis de Xochicalco. Instituto de Cultura de Morelos, Cuernavaca.

González Crespo, Norberto, Silvia Garza Tarazona, Hortensia de Vega Nova, Pablo Mayer Guala and Giselle Canto Aguilar  (1995)  Archaeological Investigations at Xochicalco, Morelos: 1984 and 1986. Ancient Mesoamerica 6:223-236.

Hirth, Kenneth G. (editor)  (2000)  Archaeological Research at Xochicalco. Volume 1, Ancient Urbanism at Xochicalco: The Evolution and Organization of a Pre-Hispanic Society. Volume 2, The Xochicalco Mapping Project. 2 vols. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

Hirth, Kenneth G. (editor)  (2006)  Obsidian Craft Production in Ancient Central Mexico: Archaeological Research at Xochicalco. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.

López Luján, Leonardo, Robert H. Cobean and Alba Guadalupe Mastache  (2001)  Xochicalco y Tula. CONACULTA, Mexico City.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Deep History vs. the Urban Revolution: Which was more important?

Deep History
The deep history of our species — our origins and early development — has seen an explosion of research in the past decade. Knowledge of our hominid ancestors has increased greatly with new fossil finds and new models. A major strand of research right now is the development of modern human capabilities. When did our brains reach their modern size? When did our ancestors begin using modern-like language? What is the earliest evidence for the use of fire, for symbolic behavior, for trade? A hot topic now is the origins of cooperation. Humans engage is cooperative behavior much more frequently and intensively than any other species. How did this come about, and how did it relate to the biological and cultural innovations that made us human? (see Mithen 2006, Richerson & Boyd 2004, Bowles & Gintis 2011).

While I don't want to downplay the importance of this research on human deep history, some caution is required. Authors sometimes suggest that an understanding of deep history  and human biology can explain modern human society (e.g., Pinker 2002). But in tracing out the social development of human society, such authors often ignore a crucial middle territory — the Urban Revolution — that created many of the important features of recent and modern society. This is the conclusion of an outstanding book review by Colin Renfrew (the leading archaeologist today) in the latest issue of American Scientist. Renfrew reviews the book, Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present (Shryock and Smail, eds, 2011). I am a big fan of good academic book reviews. The best book reviews are gems: short essays that not only say what the book is about and whether it is good or bad, but also set the book into its intellectual context. Renfrew's review fits in this category.

I own the book, Deep History, which is an admirable attempt by historians to extend our understanding of "history" back into the distant human past. Most chapters are jointly written by various combinations of excellent scholars (archaeologists, anthropologists, historians). But in skimming and reading through it I thought the individual chapters are very good but the sum total is not satisfying. Renfrew's book review explains the basis for my dissatisfaction. Renfrew notes,

The Urban Revolution
"By stressing the very remote past of the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic era and then leaping to the modernity of today's world, without much emphasis on the intervening ancient world of Greece and Rome or the earlier civilization of Sumer and Egypt (or indeed of the Incas and the Aztecs), do the authors risk recreating the Noble Savage? By underplaying the ancient civilizations, from Shang China to the Olmec of Mesoamerica, are they perhaps jumping from savagery to modernity without having sufficiently considered the mediating effects of barbarism or of early civilization?" (p. 68).

In other words, the contributors to the book Deep History ignore the Urban Revolution. Starting with the first formulation of this concept by V. Gordon Childe in the 1930s archaeologists have shown how most of the key institutions of modern society (kingship, government, social classes, laws, urbanization, writing, complex economies) originated in the early states around the world, from Mesopotamia to Egypt to China to Mesoamerica. Granted, none of these innovations could have occurred without the development of human cognitive and cooperative abilities. And neither could they have occurred had societies not previously worked out crop domestication and agriculture (the so-called Neolithic Revolution, also a term that originated with Childe). But while the Neolithic Revolution led to some important changes in demography and settlement, the Urban Revolution brought about much more radical and far-reaching changes in the organization of human society.

For more information about the Urban Revolution, see my previous post on this. Better still check out Childe's highly influential article, "The Urban Revolution" (Childe 1950) and my recent commentary on the historical status of that paper (Smith 2009).

The opposition posed above— Deep History vs. the Urban Revolution — is artificial, of course. It is not possible to determine rationally which of these was "more important." But without the Urban Revolution, the innovations of Deep History would never have led to modern society, and we might still be living a tribal life in campsites and villages, rather than a socially complex life in cities and towns.


Bowles, Samuel and Herbert Gintis  (2011)  A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and its Evolution. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Childe, V. Gordon  (1950)  The Urban Revolution. Town Planning Review 21:3-17.

Mithen, Steven  (2006)  After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20000-5000 BC. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Pinker, Steven  (2002)  The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Viking, New York.

Richerson, Peter J. and Robert Boyd  (2004)  Not By Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Shryock, Andrew and Daniel Smail (editors)  (2011)  Deep History: The Architecture of Past and Present. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Smith, Michael E.  (2009)  V. Gordon Childe and the Urban Revolution: An Historical Perspective on a Revolution in Urban Studies. Town Planning Review 80:3-29.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The modern construction of an "ancient" monument

The Centro Ceremonial Otomi ("Otomi Ceremonial Center"), near Toluca, Mexico, was built by the State of Mexico in 1980 to honor the Otomi peoples and their culture. It is one of the strangest built environments I have ever been in. Read about my visit last year on the blog from the Calixtlahuaca Archaeological Project. And if you are in central Mexico, go see the place (especially if you are a fan of James Bond movies!).