Architecture can be regarded as a historical blueprint of society; it is through buildings that civilizations can be explored, especially as its development went through significant changes. Most parts of the world have gone through such critical transformations, but the most amazing cases are the societies that have been strongly influenced by the entry of foreign forces. In any case, these factors are contributory to the modern society, with these historical elements making up the essence of art and architecture in a certain civilization.
Latin America is an example of such societal shift that its ancient history has become a rare treasure as evidenced from art and architecture. The pre-Columbian era can be considered as the essential fabric of Latin American history, but in the modern times, the influence of Spanish colonial is undeniable as it has become inherent as to what Latin America is today. At a more specific scope, architectural development has been also noted for its regional patterns, as the case of Mesoamerica which is now covered by Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Mesoamerica has been distinctive based on the ancient civlizations that were established in this particular region, and ultimately, these civilizations have determined the architectural evolution of these societies. Mexican architecture is the result of many influences. The monumental and ceremonial architecture of the Pre-Colombian period and the imposition of Spanish Baroque that occurred during the colonial period, are the most central influences.
The unique architectural responses to conquest that occurred in the colonial period are a combination of those two traditions and have become an integral part of the present day architectural heritage of Mexico. Hence, by tradition and evolution, the architecture of Mexico is a unique combination of its ancient structures and Spanish influences that remain to currently reflect the country’s landscape. Pre-Columbian Mexico Overview Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, Mesoamerica contained several striving societies.
Although Mesoamerica refers to the region currently occupied by Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the civilizations that were established in these areas were different. In the area that covers modern Mexico, there are the distinctive civilizations as also determined by their chronological development. The most common chronological division labels these time periods as Pre-Classic or Formative, Classic and Post-Classic (History). Each of these periods illustrate the development and the diminishment of these pre-Columbian societies that were native to Mexico.
At the same time, these factors also contribute to the architectural developments as found in Mexico, from the early platforms built during the early valley civilizations in Mexico to the complex of pyramids built during the Mayan civilization. Before discussing the important features of pre-Columbian architecture as found in Mexico, it is important to understand how these societies and respective cultures are influential to the architecture of their structures.
First, it is important to note that Mesoamerican society is highly agricultural; although they are also hunters and gatherers, a significant portion of their livelihood relies on agriculture (Robertson). Maize or corn was a staple diet in the region as it grew abundantly in their soil. This now leads to the second important factor which is the role of religion in these ancient societies. As their sustenance relies on agriculture, there is the noted great regard towards nature in their architecture, particularly in the role of astronomy as the skies would pre-determine seasons and conditions (Robertson).
In addition, religion would also play an important role in the design of the society when it comes to the social structure which would also determine how these villages and towns would be planned. For instance, the configuration and arrangement of religious and administrative structures as the main features of urban design convey their central roles in the society, with the rest of people living in the suburban areas such as farm lands.
Religion would also play a role in the construction of certain buildings in these civilizations such as pyramids, and the use of ceremonial and sacrificial platforms that would accommodate the cultural and social practices of these civilizations (History). Pre-Classic or Formative The Pre-Classic or Formative period in Mesoamerica was marked from 1500-500 B. C. According to Kubler (23), the circular platform of Cuicuilco in Pedregal was the earliest dated monumental architecture as found in central Mexico.
The Olmec is the recognized as the first major civilization that developed in Mesoamerica, with the central coast of the Gulf of Mexico as their homebase. Architecturally, the pre-classic period would become an essential factor in the development of building design in the later periods in the region. At this point, it was observed that the distinctive elements of architecture during this time was the spiritual/religious influence.
Ceremonial centers were already established as important components of towns and cities, and orientation already played an important role in the positioning of the structures. The buildings that the Olmecs built were observed to have the north-south orientation, with doorways facing the west as a means to correspond to the passage of the sun (History). An important design philosophy implemented by the Olmecs was the influence of naturalism in its architecture; this can be seen in the dominance of the curvilinear instead of the rectangular, as reflective of the naturalist influences.
Although sculptures were found as part of the Olmec art, sculptures were not yet incorporated in Olmec architecture (History). Classic The Classic era can be considered as a period of significant maturation in architecture among the Mesoamerican cities; at this time, many civilizations and cultures flourished including the Teotihuacan, the Mayans, Zapotec and Vera Cruz, which would contribute to the architectural development of pre-Columbian Mexico. The important architectural features of the Teotihuacan were mostly on the construction aspect.
As Kubler (25) mentioned, one of the notable construction approaches by the Teotihuacan was “the use of burnt-lime plaster surfacing (never as a bond between stones) and the cantilevered panels jutting out from the inclined talus at the platform base”. In addition, there was also the noted utilization of straight lines and rectangular forms which were a drastic departure from the practices of the Olmecs during the pre-Classical or Formative era. According to Kubler, the use of straight axes and rectangular shapes was a means to create extravagant proportions.
Another significant architectural facet from this civilization was the orientation of its main pyramids. The Teotihuacan’s oldest and largest structure, the Sun Pyramid, was positioned seventeen degrees north of west and was made of horizontal layers of clay (Kubler, 26). This main pyramid also served as a reference point in the orientation of the other structures at the site. It was also in the Teotihuacan that early mural paintings were attributed to; mural paintings were noted to have been used before 700 BC where painted exterior walls were common.
The design of these paintings also evolved from geometric shapes in red, yellow, gray and green, to representative images of water and other marine elements. Eventually, scenes would become subjects of these mural painting which included people, animals, buildings and other symbolic conventions. Another exterior finish mostly used by the Teotihuacans were the stuccoed rock constructions, which was noted to be mostly absent in the Zapotec style (Kubler).
Other civilizations during this period also made use of pyramids although at this point, it was prevalent that the function of these structures were mostly for ritualistic purposes. Although there were also pyramids that serve as burial sites, unlike the Egyptian pyramids, the Mesoamerican version had different functions, from religious to administrative. During the classical period, most of these pyramids as found from the Teotihuacan to the Toltecs were mostly for spiritual/religious purposes; eventually, pyramids would be also used for defense purposes.
Burial sites, such as the case of Monte Alban of the Zapotec style, were mostly found underground (Kubler). Although the Mayan architecture was mostly recognized during the Post-classical stage, classical Mayan design was already recognized for its extensive use of sculpture as part of the architectural design. The Mayans also made use of the corbel arch, also known as the false arch, as a means to integrate design functions instead of the structural. Usually, arches are structural components as it distributes the structural loads through its posts.
A corbel arch does not function as a structural element because technically, it is only an arch by appearance. The creation of the arch, through this system, is by the successive layering of stones until the layering meets at the apex thereby creating an arch. The Mayans used this technique as a means to create entryways. It is also by means of this technique that the Mayans would be able to create free standing arches which do not require the requirements as these arches do not carry structural loads (History; Kubler).
The Mayans also made use of paved roads albeit the absence of means of transportation; apparently, these roads served as connecters to the different structures within the town or city which would be useful for processions and other ceremonies. Post-Classic Period It was the civilizations of the post-classic period that had the most extensive documentation as this was the time that the Spaniards had encountered prior to the colonization. Noted civilizations during this period were the Toltec-Mayans and the Aztecs, among others.
Architecturally, this period represented some maturation of pre-Columbian architecture although such progress can be mostly seen in the decorative factors. This is to say that the architectural and construction approaches as previously used were still utilized. However, Toltec-Mayans, for instance, were noted to have developed a certain Toltec aesthetics that were meant to elicit fear instead of spiritual inspiration when it comes to its pyramids and temples. The Aztecs, similar to the Mayans, also made use of sculpture as important architectural and urban design elements.
The Aztec capital, Technotitlan, took urban design further with the creation of chinampas or artificial islands, along with natural islands, on Lake Texcoco thereby forming canals similar to Venice, Italy (History). Spanish Colonial Architecture Today, remains of pre-Columbian architecture are not just attributed to the passing of time but also the destruction these structures experienced upon the Spanish conquest. In an account by Robertson (8), Cortes reached Technotitlan and found a 16th century city of amazing pyramids, temples, frescoes and monumental structures, among others.
The city plan and design of Technotitlan was noted to rival European cities. Prior to Cortes’ arrival in Technotitlan, the Spaniards already saw Yucatan in 1517, but Yucatan did not have the riches the explorers were looking for. However, this would serve as a starting point of the Spanish colonization in Mexico. According to Weismann (68), as the Spanish started to colonize Mexico by means of Yucatan, accommodation was an important consideration.
With religion serving as another motivating factor for the colonization, the Spanish fleet also contained friars that would convert the natives to Christianity. Hence, temples and temple precincts in Yucatan were used for the requirements of these friars; these buildings were converted and re-built as monasteries. Evidences of such conversions can be seen in certain parts of Mexico where Franciscan monasteries would make use of pre-existing local structures such as temples and use them for their purposes.
Later on, these monasteries would then be reconverted and used as schools and hospitals. Courtyards and gardens would be converted to become orchards and wells (Weismann, 68). Another important conversion that was used by implemented by the Spanish was the re-creation of ancient towns such as Technotitlan. The originally impressive city plan of Technotitlan was reconverted in order to make room for Spanish settlements; these settlements would require a church, plaza, town hall, and jail, among others.
In order to make these building processes possible, some ancient structures had to be demolished in order to make use of the building materials (Weismann). The Sagrario Metropolitano is an example of building over the pre-Columbian Aztec city and making use of the ancient materials as construction materials of the church. Built from 1573 and finished in 1813, Sagrario Metropolitano was built over the Aztec’s sacred precint, the Templo Mayor, which was destroyed in order to use its stones as among the first building material of the church.
Interestingly, this would bring problems to the church; because of the uneven foundation due to building over a pre-existing site, Sagrario Metropolitano has had problems with its foundation, especially when the church had encountered earthquakes (Haird & Rudinger). The cathedral is also an example of what is known as Mexican Churrigueresque, a version of a Spanish Baroque style known as Churrigueresque. The Sagrario Metropolitano, a prime example of Spanish Baroque in Mexico, is usually described as “intoxicating” because of the combination of styles and extensive use of sculptural elements for a massive structure.
In addition to the Spanish Baroque style, integrated Native American and Moorish components were also present. The Puebla is also another example of Mexican Churrigueresque. The church is adorned with azulejos or tiles, with architectural components utilizing neoclassical columns and several sculptures. There are extensive use of symbols and statues of saints and other Catholic figures. True to the baroque style, the architecture and design of the Puebla is dramatic. Basically, Mexican colonial architecture seems to have attempted to eliminate the architectural influences of the pre-Columbian civilizations.
Although ancient cities such as Technotitlan can be recognized for its design merits, the colonization of the Spaniards was intended more to establish power in New Spain. Hence, by means of destroying these ancient cities and making use of their materials, it was a symbolic move for the colonizers to convey their power in foreign soil they were intending to eventually own. Conclusion Today, Mexican architecture can be regarded to have embraced more the passage of time and the construction of the Mexican identity around the Spanish influence.
The remains of the ancient civilizations, despite its grandiosity and significance, may be regarded as a separate entity from modern Mexico; these ruins seem to be isolated from the modernity Mexico has evolved into as determined by the Spanish colonization. However, pre-Columbian architectural components remain to be a part of the Mexican psyche, especially as there is now a growing recognition towards the accomplishments of early Mexican civilizations. The architectural sense as practiced in pre-Columbian times reflect the Mexican essence in terms of their cultural beliefs and social practices.
Today, despite the dominance of Catholicism and Spanish influence in Mexico, Mexico remains inherently separate from Spain, and this can be attributed to the fact that beneath the colonial influences, the strength of New Spain lies on the forces of the ancient ruins. Cited Works Baird, Joseph Armstrong & Rudinger, Hugo. The Churches of Mexico, 1530-1810. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1962. Kubler, George. The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya, and Andean Peoples. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1962.
“PRE-COLUMBIAN ART AND ARCHITECTURE,. ” 2009. History. com. 4 Aug 2009, http://www. history. com/encyclopedia. do? articleId=219773. Robertson, Donald. Pre-Columbian Architecture. London: Prentice-Hall International, 1963. Bibliography Baird, Joseph Armstrong & Rudinger, Hugo. The Churches of Mexico, 1530-1810. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1962. Kowalski, Jeff Karl. Mesoamerican Architecture as a Cultural Symbol. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Kubler, George. The Art and Architecture of Ancient America: The Mexican, Maya, and Andean Peoples.
Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1962. “PRE-COLUMBIAN ART AND ARCHITECTURE,. ” 2009. History. com. 4 Aug 2009, http://www. history. com/encyclopedia. do? articleId=219773. Robertson, Donald. Pre-Columbian Architecture. London: Prentice-Hall International, 1963. Segre, Roberto, Ed. & Kusnetzoff, Fernando, Ed. , Grossman, Edith, Trans. Latin America in Its Architecture. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1981. Weismann, Elizabeth. Art and Time in Mexico: Architecture and Sculpture in Colonial Mexico. New York: Icon Editions, 1995.
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