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.


  1. Very interesting post.

  2. Fascinating post, I just visited Tulum and realized in the ruins there that my Walter Burley Griffin house in Sydney has a heavy Mayan influence. WBG was the only architectural partner of FLW, though they split on unamicable terms.

  3. @Jeanette - Griffin was involved in the Chicago exposition, where Wright had some exposure to Maya architecture. Interesting that he would use Maya style construction in Australia. Maybe Canberra was designed as a big Maya city!

  4. Mr. Smith,

    I was fascinated not only by this entry but your blog itself. Im a mexican veterinarian who happens to love art deco and modern streamline architecture. I have been amazed with the so called Mayan Revival architecture style, and I most say your information is one of the most helpful pieces I have ever read.

    I bet you have great experiences (and some not so great) working in archeological sites in Mexico. I will take a look to your blog.

    Best regards,

  5. Great post thank you! I think part of the problem in Wright's relatively unanalyzed Mayan influence is a sort of lack of overlapping expertise. I can't imagine there are many people who are well versed on Mayan architecture in general; and even fewer of those probably have time/desire to put serious study into Wright.

    I'm also interested to hear about Mayan structures at the World's Fair. Most of the stories about Wright and the Fair involve his appreciation for seeing the Japanese temples that were erected there. It's known that he had a deep love of traditional Japanese building and art. There are a number of parallels between his prairie style and traditional Japanese homes, and some people say his use of the hearth as a centerpiece of a home hearkens to the Japanese Tokonoma as the spiritual center of a home. (Not to mention his work in Japan like the Imperial Hotel) Larson in Devil In The White City makes reference to Wright's sight of the Japanese village but does not mention the Mayans that I recall.

    1. I only went into this issue briefly. I think Barbara Braun's book would be the place to start, or perhaps some of the biographies of Wright. My knowledge does not go very far beyond what is in ths original post.

    2. Hey, I just saw this paper right after writing the above comment. It does not deal with Wright or the Maya, but it can probably serve as a guide to current research about the exhibition:

      David Schuyler : Frederick Law Olmsted and the World’s Columbian Exposition
      Journal of Planning History February 2016 15: 3-28, first published on October 24, 2014 doi:10.1177/1538513214553396

  6. Great article and great sources mr. Smith. As you, I am an architect fromnMexico educated in the US. I am also amazed and impressed with the unique and magnificent work of the greatest and most prolific architect of all times iconic mr. Frank Lloyd Wright.
    A lot has been said about all Wrights Mayan influences. His influence is 109% mayan. The Imperial Hotel was one of his 1st big mayan style building. The Chicago World Fair definitelly was an influence on him. BUT THE BEST AND MOST IMPORTANT INFLUENCE FOR HIS EARLY MAYAN ARCHITECTURE PROJECTS WAS THE BEST SELLER BOOK PUBLISHID FOR THE 1ST TIME IN 1845: "INCIDENTS OF TRAVELS IN THE YUCATAN" by the archeologist John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood. They were brought to Merida when Merida was the capital of the entire Yucatan Peninsula. Wright had his own copy of this wonderful book when he was working for Sullivan in Chicago and he was totally fasinated by the about 60 colorful hand drawn lithographs drawn by mr. Carherwood.
    His impact was so big that his 1st 3d renderings look so much like the same mayan temples that Catherwood draw and saw with Stephens in their 15 years stayed in Yucatan discovering Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Sayil, Labna, Kabah and all the Ruta Puuc.
    I recommend you as an archeologist interested in architecture read the book "Incidents... It has been published about 5 times already since
    1845. This book is the biggest lost link between FLW and the Maya style.
    Not even archeologist or architects from Mexico or elsewhere ever wrote about it. But some old mexican and american architects know about the Link. It was told to me by my thesis professor mr. David Niland when I had my degree in architecture from the University of Cincinnati class 1991.
    Carlos de la Barrera Architect.

  7. @Carlos - I am very familiar with the work of JL Stephens. I would like to see a detailed comparison of Wright's Mesoamerican-influenced buildings against Mesoamerican architecture. Much of Taliesen West seemed to me to resemble Xochicalco more than any Maya buildings.

  8. Hello mr. Smith. The mayan influenced buildings of Wright were his very personal interpretations of the mayan style. For example the German Warehouse by Wright was his very own interpretation of Casa de las Muñecas in Dzibichaltun, Yucatan according with mr. Niland. I live in Xcanatun, Yucatan about 3 miles away from this amaizing small temple and studied very well its corner details. The corner flagpoles of the German Warehouse building are inserted in a corner detail very similar to the Doll House in Dzibilchaltun. The GW front facade could be a composition of Dzibilchaltun and the rich detailed Kabah building of Ruta Puuc.
    You are very correct mr. Smith. A very detailed comparison needs to be researched to read Wrights mayan influenced designs compared to the images from Catherwood's colorful and lush drawings of the abandoned ruins that they found in Yucatan and Mesoamerica. As you may know Stephens and Catherwood published 2 research books: Incidents of travels in Yucatan and Incidents of travels in Central America. Mr. Niland and me think that his obvious mayan influence came only from the lithographs of the famous Stephens and Catherwood 2 books that were Best Sellers in the middle and late 1800's. Even the Chicago World Fair Mayan Pavillion "Arco de Labna" was build exactly as drawn in Carherwood's Lithograph.
    About the Wright's famous Taliesen main Building, back then in the so called Wright's third period or eldery life, Wright had a way up more sophisticated own interpretation of the mayan precolumbian architecture, which may ressemble Xochicalco or some other Aztec or Toltec temples that were less detailed than the mayan sophisticated architecture details, but still with the talud angle flat detais as seen in Taliesen West.
    I went thru all the 12 wonderful Wright's monographs when I was in college and one building that called my atention a lot was his design process drawings for impressive Guggenheim museum all white and modern. It took for him about 6 to 7 years in designing this building. The only building that he struggled so much. The preliminary design was a chichen Itza temple Ziggurat that mr. and mrs. Guggenheim dislike it a lot because it did not fit in its NYC context. After many revisions and proposals very well documented in one of Wright' monograph book, he turned the pyramid upside down but still a square form. Then his last revision was an amaizing progressive upside down spiral that still shocks anybody who walks thru Wright' last amaizing building in his eldery years.
    I think like mr. David Niland that
    the only possible early mayan influence of Wright was located in the only written in english language mayan source available in late 1800's, which was the 2 books by Stephens and Catherwood and its amaizing hand drawn colorfull ilustrations. It is even said that Wright never ever came to the Yucatan and that he said so, but he was present and he was seen at the inauguration of the huge mayan aztec modern style complex of Ciudad Universitaria in middle 50's in Mexico City when he was in his late 80's. I wish that famous archeologist mayan erudits Linda Shelly and mr. Alfredo Barrera Vazquez were still alive so they and you can talk and publish some research about the influence of the lithographs of Catherwood in Frank Lloyd Wright's amaizing 19 and 20 Century architecture.
    Thank you so much mr. Smith for let me participate in your board commends. All of them by many people here are very interesting to read. Saludos cordiales.

  9. Check out Jesse Lerner's book "The Maya of Modernism: Art, Architecture, and Film"

  10. You might also want to look at the documentary that architectural critic Chris Hawthorne did about Wright's southern California houses:

  11. I just watched it - great film! The only think I missed was some discudssion of Taliesen West (and possible Mesoamerican influence there).