Food is my focus, and I’ve long believed that eating the food of another culture is one of the best ways to understand other cultures. I’ve traveled to Mexico several times this year, mostly to eat the foods of that country, but as I ate tacos and tlayudas, chochinta pibil and gorditas, I started to see how some aspects of ancient Mexican culture are reflected in the works of Frank Lloyd Wright.
For millennia, Mayan civilization flourished in what is now Mexico and surrounding areas. By the time the European invasion of the Americas kicked off big time, most major Mayan cities were abandoned and largely forgotten. For over thirty years in the late 19th century, John L. Stephens worked in conjunction with the Field Museum of Chicago to uncover and document the architectural treasures left behind by the Maya. Some of these ancient ruins, including the so-called Nunnery at Uxmal, a major Mayan archaeological zone in Yucatan, were cast in plaster by Stephens and presented at 1893’s World’s Columbian Exposition.
Frank Lloyd Wright arrived in Chicago shortly before the Exposition, to which he and his employer, architect Louis Sullivan, contributed a monumental “golden doorway” for the Transportation Building. During his many visits to the Exposition, Wright would have seen Stephen’s casts and photographs of Mayan buildings. These ancient structures appealed to him much more poignantly than the European Neoclassical style that dominated other buildings at the Exposition, and which he and Sullivan heartily disdained.
Seeing Mayan buildings at the Exposition powerfully influenced Wright’s future work. The following key elements of Wright’s best-known buildings had their genesis in Mayan architecture.
- Horizontal lines: It seems that after seeing the Uxmal exhibit at the Exposition, Wright was influenced to go more horizontal. Horizontality was characteristic of Uxmal structures, such as the Nunnery and the House of the Governor (plaster casts and photographs of the structures were on display at the Exposition). The horizontality of both Mayan and Wrightean structures is reinforced with banding, horizontal lines that run lengthwise across the building; these bands stop the eye from moving upward and persuade it to trace along the length of the building, parallel to the earth, very unlike the structures Wright was then being commissioned to design.
- Flat roofs: The Queen Anne and other Victorian styles, which Wright practiced early in his career, favor steeped roofs. Later works like the Laura Gale House have flat roofs that reflect the flat roofing of the Mayan structures on display at the Exposition: they push back against the vertical tendencies of above-ground buildings.
- Stucco: All that remains at Yucatan’s former Mayan cities are barren stone structures, stripped of the brilliantly colorful stucco exteriors they would have had during the Maya’s cultural climax. After the Exposition, Wright moved away from the wooden panels that were used on, for instance, the “bootleg” houses on Chicago Avenue and started using stucco on many of his buildings in Oak Park and elsewhere.
- Close, organic connection to the land: The Maya built their cities to last; a low building is solid, immovable, resistant to the vicissitudes of time. The flat feel of many Prairie School buildings mirrors the flat lands of the Midwest, and it reflects a connectedness to the land that was not present in most of the other architecture at the Exposition, but that was certainly a feature of Mayan constructions.
- Rectangular massing: Much Mayan architecture is based on the rectangle. There is perhaps no existing Wright-designed Oak Park building that’s better known than the massive, and recently restored, Unity Temple, a series of big rectangles upon big rectangles, with many horizontal lines and flat roofs. This rectangular massing gives so many Mayan and Wright structures their undeniable monumentality and distinct sense of space
In “The Future of Architecture,” Wright wrote that in Mayan architecture, “we see a grand simplicity and concept of form. Probably it is greater elemental architecture than anything remaining on record.”
Wright’s admiration for the architecture of an indigenous American people is evident in the evolution of his Prairie School of architecture.
Postscript: A complete (meaning much longer and detailed) account of my conclusions concerning the Mayan influence on Wright can be found here: https://design.newcity.com/2017/10/01/impact-of-the-indigenous-on-wrights-prairie-school-how-ancient-mayan-architecture-shaped-frank-lloyd-wright/