Mayan Classicism: Axial Symmetry in Uxmal (Part I of II)
by Nathaniel R. Walker
Graduate Student (Ph.D), History of Art & Architecture, Brown University
The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art welcomes new member and guest blogger, Nate Walker, to share his views on the Classicist Blog. This post is part one of two; please check back next month for the conclusion to Mayan Classicism. Your comments are welcome.
I believe that one of the most neglected fields of traditional architectural and urban design is that of the Ancient Maya. Even among those, such as myself, who harbor and profess a belief that Classical design offers timeless, elegant, functional solutions to many contemporary problems, it would occur to very few to engage with the rich and varied achievements of Mayan builders. This is regrettable for two reasons: first, having a family member such as the Maya in the big tent of traditional design helps to undermine the argument—tattered but still raised and flapping in many a gust of hot air—that Classicism is the coded language of European imperial hegemony. Secondly, the Maya offer a remarkable case study in the universal and timeless power of human cognitive functions and bodily scale to shape architecture and cities in ways that are remarkably consistent throughout the world. This is not least because the Mesoamericans had absolutely zero contact with any civilization in Europe, Africa, or Asia…alien visitations and other diffusionist nonsense notwithstanding.
The Ancient Maya were very diverse, spanning multiple geographical environments and conducting their business well over a thousand years. However, many cultural practices and attributes were enduringly consistent throughout what anthropologists refer to as their Classic period (c. 250 AD to 900 AD). Emphatically an agricultural people, they were also an urban people—unique among world civilizations, they mastered the production of huge quantities of food in the tropics, where seasonal shifts and rains were impossible to pin down without complex astronomic and calendrical observations. City-states were ruled by divinely invested warrior-kings vying for regional influence and eternal glory with enormous temple pyramids, hallowed ballcourts, and royal palaces erected in stone and concrete and clothed in textiles, stucco and paint. As a result, they turned royal and sacred precincts into monumental city centers.
Of all the Classic Maya cultural regions, it is arguably the foothills of the Puuc, in the northwest Yucatan, that offers the most finely tuned and detailed architecture, in the clearest and most articulate urban arrangements. These cities were assembled relatively late in the Maya world, mostly in the Late and Terminal Classic (ca. 700-900 AD). Perhaps the most powerful of the powerhouses of the Puuc was a city called Uxmal (meaning “thrice inhabited”) [FIG 1]. As was often the case in Maya cities, local limestone was quarried and formed into enormous platform retaining walls filled with rubble and concrete. When stacked next to one another, these platforms created nothing less than a town center of staggered man-made hills, their tops smooth and glistening white thanks to a stucco finish. Such elevated plazas formed the core of the Mayan public realm, acting as markets, gathering places, and ceremonial stages. Atop them, and often framing and enclosing them were the city’s most important structures.
At Uxmal one of the main temples, now known as the Magician’s Pyramid, was embedded like a cave into the high peak of a mountain [FIG 2]. In front of it, a small plaza was tightly defined, just big enough to afford a perfect view of the temple’s all-important top as one approaches through a ceremonial archway [FIG 3]. This archway acts as both a transitional threshold and a framing device, focusing the arriving visitor’s view on the temple while squeezing their perspective before releasing them into the plaza. The square itself was lined on three sides by walls punctuated by colonnades [FIG 4]. While the Maya had no true arches (only corbelled vaults), the cloister-like lining of the open space of the plaza with colonnaded porticoes is striking [FIG 5]. Inigo Jones would have agreed!
Image Credits: All photographs by Nathaniel Walker or Sally Caithness Walker, except for the map of Uxmal which is adapted from a Wikimedia file (credit to HJPD).
(Check back next month for Part II of Mayan Classicism: Axial Symmetry in Uxmal)