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Frank Lloyd Wright's Textile Block Houses and the Maya Revival

Ennis House still from Frank Lloyd Wright AB s9

Frank Lloyd Wright was not the first architect to flirt with a Mesoamerican revival style, but his Southern California textile block houses — the Storer House (1923), Pasadena’s La Miniatura (also called the Millard House, 1923), the Ennis House (1924) and the Freeman House (1924) — are among the most accomplished adaptations of ancient Maya forms to modern architecture, despite of their shortcomings.  Though it is very unlikely Wright was aware of it, the Yucatecan architect Manuel Amábilis Domínguez began designing and constructing Maya revival buildings, both in Mexico and Europe, nearly a decade before Wright.  Amábilis’ buildings in Mérida — especially the Park of the Americas — are the most ambitious expressions of the Maya revival, rendered in an emphatically regionalist take.  The same year that Wright completed the Ennis House, the English immigrant Robert Stacy-Judd inaugurated Monrovia’s Aztec Hotel (regrettably now shuttered), which, despite its name, owes more to the Maya than it does the pre-Conquest architecture of Central Mexico.  Also in Southern California during the early part of the last century, the Mexican immigrants Francisco Cornejo, Manuel Centurión and Roberto Montenegro promoted designs and decorative arts inspired by Mesoamerica.  The Mayan Theater, with Cornejo’s decorative motifs, opened in downtown Los Angeles in 1927.  And while the Southwest Museum never built the proposed replica of Tikal’s “Temple One” alongside the existing structure atop a hill in Mount Washington, the Museum did add a neo-Zapotec entrance (1919-1920) at the bottom of the hill.  So clearly Wright neo-Maya period was not an isolated case; there was much interest the ancient Mexican ruins fueling the architectural imagination in the early 20th century.  Though this interest manifests itself in diverse ways and expressed a wide range of ideological programs, Wright’s textile block houses cannot be understood independently of this wider phenomenon of cross-cultural appropriations. 

A part of the facade in front of the Aztec Hotel in Monrovia, California by Robert Stacy-Judd | Amanda Wray/Flickr FLW AB s9
A part of the facade in front of the Aztec Hotel in Monrovia, California by Robert Stacy-Judd | Amanda Wray/Flickr

The fascination with (and architectural citations of) ancient Mesoamerican owed much to the emergent discipline of Latin American archaeology, as advanced by Mexican, North American and European pioneers in the field.  In the 19th century, photographs, reproductions and plaster casts of Maya sculptures and ruins circulated widely for the first time.  Particularly influential were John Lloyd Stephens’ vividly written travel narratives, illustrated by Frederick Catherwood, “Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan” (1841) and “Incidents of Travel in Yucatan” (1843).  Wright stated that “as a boy, primitive American architecture, Toltec, Aztec, Mayan, Inca, stirred my wonder, excited my wishful admiration.”  No doubt Stephens and Catherwood were a key source here.  Following the publications of Catherwood and Stephens, more and more outsiders visited ancient Maya sites, photographed them, wrote descriptions of the ruins and speculated on the identity and origins of the builders.  By the end of the 19th century, the armchair speculations that had once dominated the emergent field began to give way to research based on fieldwork and excavations.  Under the dictator Porfirio Díaz, the Mexican state was the first to recycle motifs from these ruins in contemporary monuments and buildings.  Often distinct architectural styles of distant regions and time periods — the Maya, Zapotec, Toltec, Totonac, Teotihuacano and Aztec — were mixed promiscuously.  All were sources of usable ingredients from the distant past, to be blended and deployed as nationalist props.  To complicate matters further, the builders of these ancient prototypes had also borrowed, collected and quoted from the past, be it Aztecs fascinated with the abandoned city of Teotihuacan, built nearly a millennium before their capital or Maya lords captivated by Olmec artifacts.  In the 19th century Mexican context, as in early 20th century California, the appropriation of the indigenous past went hand in hand with the systematical exclusion of the builders’ living ancestors.  And needless to say, none of the ancient prototypes were built to serve as movie theaters, single-family dwellings or hotels, so these quotations were often little more than superficial adaptations of decorative elements to buildings with functions distant from the original models.

Scan of "Incidents of Travel in Yucatan" (1943) by John Lloyd Stephens | Gift of the Dept. of Twentieth Century Art, 1998, Metropolitan Museum FLW AB s9
Scan of "Incidents of Travel in Yucatan" (1943) by John Lloyd Stephens | Gift of the Dept. of Twentieth Century Art, 1998, Metropolitan Museum

In the United States, Maya artifacts (or their casts and replicas) were exhibited as scientific specimen, marvels exhibited at world’s fairs and international expositions, like Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, where Wright saw plaster casts from Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and the celebrated arch of Labná, all displayed on the fair’s Midway.  In the first decades of the 20th century, Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the Mexican government all began ambition projects of excavation, research and restoration of Maya ruins.  Each contributed to a greater knowledge of the Maya past, and through articles in popular magazines, scholarly publications and exhibitions of artifacts, to the growing understanding of the builders, their lives and their architecture.  Many of these scholars saw their audience as a popular as well as academic.  Sylvanus G. Morley, who led the Carnegie excavations at Chichén, wrote articles about the Maya for National Geographic and consulted on the design of the Maya revival Fisher Theater in Detroit (Graven and Mayger, 1928).  The wider awareness of the architectural accomplishments of the ancient Maya led to the beginnings of tourism at these archaeological sites.  Hoping to foster pride in the region’s rural poor, the socialist government of Felipe Carrillo Puerto opened a road between the state capital of Mérida and the ruins of Chichén Itzá.  In 1923, a Yucatecan entrepreneur opened the first hotel on a lot adjacent to the archaeological site, the Mayaland.  For Anglos, the monumental architecture of the ancient inhabitants of southern Mexico not only contrasted with the relatively modest and impermanent architecture indigenous to the Californias, it challenged the dominant Anglo racist assumption that Native Americans had few accomplishments as builders and provided architects with a monumental architectural past on which to draw, one that was both distinctly American (with all that word’s ambiguities) and aesthetically accomplished. 

For the Mexican architects like Amábalis, their North American contemporaries, like Wright and immigrants like Stacy-Judd and Cornejo, there was more at stake in appropriating ancient Maya forms than simply a source of novel or exotic decorative elements.  In the context of the Mexican Revolution, these buildings represented an emphatic statement of cultural affirmation.  Yucatan is a state that was long isolated from the rest of Mexico, and secessionist sentiments are not alien.  While in Mexico City the Maya Revival becomes part of a greater nationalist narrative, in Mérida these same quotations are inseparable from regional pride.  For European immigrants to North America and their descendants, these quotations of the indigenous, however superficial, were a way of cutting the umbilical cord.  What could be more indisputably “American” than to dress up in red face and stake claim to an indigenous identity?  Gringos have been doing this for centuries, from the participants in the Boston Tea Party wearing face paint to the cross-cultural transvestites of the Improved Order of Red Men.  Stacy-Judd followed this same path.  Donning a “Maya” headdress of his design, he positioned himself a swashbuckling archaeologist and an expert on all matters Maya.  He published many self-aggrandizing adventure stories of his travels in Yucatan.  His magnum opus, “Atlantis: Mother of Empires,” recycles hokum borrowed from Augustus and Alice Dixon Le Plongeon and Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg.  In contrast, Wright steered clear of all of this and was characteristically more reticent to articulate the connection between the ancient Maya ruins and his work.  In 1949, Wright warned that “resemblances are mistaken for influences.”  Even later, when Wright visited Mexico City in 1952, visited Diego Rivera’s work-in-progress, the Anahuacalli, and lectured at the National University, he remained reluctant to speak of a Mesoamerican influence on his work.  Insistent on his work’s originality, he states “there never was external influence on my work, either foreign or native,” and any similarities are but “splendid confirmation” of his works universality. 

In spite of these protestations, subsequent generations have been more lucid in connecting Wright’s Los Angeles buildings with their Maya inspiration.  The horror film “House on Haunted Hill” (1959), directed by the prolific William Castle, may at first glance seem a quickie B-movie destined for the drive-ins.  It imagines an infernal cenote filled with caustic acid in the basement of Wright’s Ennis House.  The film’s star, Vincent Price, was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable collector of Mesoamerican art, and the film itself easily loans itself to post-colonial readings, perhaps against the grain.  Clarissa Tossin’s recent video, Ch’u Mayaa (“Maya Blue,” 2018) places a leopard-skin clad dancer (a Maya deity) on the grounds of Wright’s Barnsdall (or Hollyhock) House (1921), making visible a haunting presence.  While Wright may have misconstrued influence as “resemblance,” these media artists see through the deception and make the connections explicit.

Maya Blue, 2017 (video still) Choreography / Performer: Crystal Sepúlveda | Courtesy of Clarissa Tossin Condemned to be Modern PST LALA FLW AB s9
Maya Blue, 2017 (video still) Choreography / Performer: Crystal Sepúlveda | Courtesy of Clarissa Tossin

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