Built on the ruins of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, Mexico is a magical country. Delving into the meaning of the city’s name speaks a lot about how it came to being. Mexico is a Nahuatl word meaning the “belly button of the moon”: Metztli – moon, Xictli – belly button, and co – place. This refers to the place in the center of the moon and that the Aztecs built Tenochtitlan in the middle of the Lake of the Moon. As one of the largest cities in the world, there are thousands of stories to uncover, places to visit, and witness architecture as a storyteller of the bygone eras.
Mexican architecture is remarkably diverse. Each phase of history speaks of a compelling story of the country’s past. The city is often referred to as “the city of palaces” as it is home to the most number of palaces in the continent. Drawing a rough timeline of the evolution of Mexican architecture would require a brief knowledge of how the city came to being.
Mexica people settled in the Valley of Mexico in the 14th century. They built a city on the swampy land of lake Texcoco named Tenochtitlan. Stone and wood platforms were built on the lake upon which stood the city, allowing canals of fresh water to flow through it. Like other early civilizations, Mexico consisted of many neighborhoods, marketplaces, and large public plazas. Public plazas were the center of all activities, the largest one being Zócalo- one end of the plaza was the emperor’s palace, and the other was a gigantic step pyramid temple. Many of Mexico’s ancient structures have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites for their cultural and historical significance.
The planning and design of Mexico can be derived from the historic focal point of the city – its capital Zócalo. When the Spanish conquered Mexico, they admired the engineering, construction techniques, and aqueducts. Hence they chose to build the grand plaza, national palace, and cathedral on Zócalo. This made it a nodal point that dictated the orientation and layout of the city. The Spanish continued building on what was remaining of the infrastructure by the Aztecs. One can still see the ruins of old temples and homes in juxtaposition with the structures built later, depicting the complex relationship of space with history.
Architectural elements that are inspired by the Mayan Puuc architectural style can be observed in the buildings of Chichen Itza. Historians believe this could be due to mass migration or conquest of the Mayan city.
The Spanish conqueror rebuilt the capital city of Zócalo, bringing in European architects and urban planners to work alongside Mexican engineers. The construction of Mexico was a critical statement for the Spanish, hence a lot of attention was paid to grid networks and plazas. The city was laid on a gridiron pattern of neighborhoods, roadways, and plazas acting as nodes and open spaces. Mexico City was now converted into a colonial city, entirely based on European styles.
A remarkable encapsulation of their architecture is the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven, also known as Metropolitan Cathedral. As it was constructed continuously from 1573 to 1813, it showcases an amalgamation of elements of the European Gothic style, Renaissance, and Baroque styles. The architectural style followed was not the most important, but their ability to portray European architecture to the world.
Mexican Baroque Style
From the Portuguese word barrueco meaning unclean, mottled, flamboyant, daring, this form of architecture was dominant during most of the colonial period. It is safe to say that it was a way to break with the Renaissance style. It was commonly adopted by cathedrals and monasteries that used paintings and sculptures to create iconography and imply their teachings. One of the reasons was, the church was the center of community life in most towns with streets in regular patterns leading from it.
A lot of attention was given to facade ornamentation by late Baroque architects. They created intricately textured church facades and interiors. It was less of sculptural modeling but a two-dimensional effect – involving more drilling onto the surface to create the desired facade. They created a screen-like effect similar to stone and wood carving, allowing the native art tradition to thrive. A few styles did not adorn all of the surfaces as a whole but focused on detailed ornamentation of columns, pilasters, niches, and grooves, giving it a unique character.
After the Baroque style, many painters, sculptors, and architects were trained to emphasize neoclassicism, which drew inspiration from the clean lines, pure geometry, and proportions of Greek and Roman architecture. It sought to end Baroque architecture that was said to be “bad taste” and “lacking in design” by many. They aimed to create “clean and good” buildings to restore neoclassicism in the city.
The architecture of Mexico has had a long prominent place in the evolution of architecture in history. It stands as a testament to various architectural marvels that speak of changing architectural styles and elements over time. Mexico’s historical wonders along with amazing food, music, and local traditions make it an incredible country to be in!
Architecture of mexico (2022) Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Architecture_of_Mexico (Accessed: December 17, 2022).
Architecture of Cities (no date) Study.com | Architecture of Cities. Available at: https://study.com/academy/lesson/mexico-city-architecture-history.html (Accessed: December 17, 2022).