Architecture of Mexico

Architecture of Mexico
A replica of El Ángel in front of the National Palace in Mexico City.

In a broad sense, Mexican architecture comprises works of architecture created in Mexico, as well as architecture of pre-hispanic and colonial times that have become part of Mexico's architectural heritage. Moreover, architectural styles of the independent nation have a strong influence from those previous epochs; therefore it is necessary to include them as part of this heritage.


Mesoamerican Architecture

Mesoamerican architecture is the set of architectural traditions produced by pre-Columbian cultures and civilizations of Mesoamerica, traditions which are best known in the form of public, ceremonial and urban monumental buildings and structures. The distinctive features of Mesoamerican architecture encompass a number of different regional and historical styles, which however are significantly interrelated. These styles developed throughout the different phases of Mesoamerican history as a result of the intensive cultural exchange between the different cultures of the Mesoamerican culture area through thousands of years. Mesoamerican architecture is mostly noted for its pyramids which are the largest such structures outside of Ancient Egypt.

Pre-Classic Period

The major Pre-Classic cultures of Mexico were the Olmec and the western cultures of Colima, Jalapeno, and Nayarit.

The Olmec developed the first major Mesoamerican civilization, between approximately 1500 and 600 BCE. Major ceremonial centers such as La Venta, Tres Zapotes, and San Lorenzo were located in the Mexican states of Veracruz and Tabasco. Many of the most characteristic elements of Mesoamerican civilization originated with the Olmec and are especially evident at La Venta. The Olmec sphere of influence extended from the Gulf of Mexico coast (its heartland) through the highlands of Mexico, the Valley of Mexico, the Oaxaca region, and westward to Guerrero.

Classic Period

Only a fraction of a staircase on one side of the Great Pyramid of Cholula has been restored.
Temple of Warriors at Chichen Itza

Teotihuacán, the Maya cities, the Zapotec center at Monte Albán, and the Classic Vera Cruz culture were the dominant civilizations of the Classic era.

Northeast of Mexico City is the site of Teotihuacán ("Place of the Gods"). Here the first truly urban Mesoamerican civilization developed. Teotihuacan was the largest city in the pre-Columbian western hemisphere. It grew into an important city during the 1st century AD and flourished until about 650 AD. At its peak, it had a population of at least 125,000. Buildings were designed using the talud-tablero (slope-and-panel) system.

The monumentality of Teotihuacán architecture is evident in the Great Pyramid of Cholula, the largest pyramid as well as the largest monument ever constructed anywhere in the world, and the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán. Palace complexes organized around plazas are among the most impressive examples of pre-Columbian residences. All Teotihuacán architecture was thickly covered with stucco, which was usually painted with murals. The best remaining examples of these frescoes decorate the interior walls of palaces at Teotihuacán.

Maya civilization dominated southern Mesoamerica in the second half of the first millennium AD. Although originating in the Pre-Classic period and continuing until the time of the Spanish conquest, Maya culture achieved its most significant artistic and intellectual achievements during the Late Classic phase, from about 600 to about 900. Maya architecture is characterized by an exquisite sense of proportion and design and by structural refinement and subtle detailing. The Maya used sculpture more extensively for architectural decoration than any other pre-Columbian civilization. The corbel arch was employed not only to vault interior spaces, but also to construct freestanding arches. The majority of Maya ruins are in present day Mexico; they include Palenque, Yaxchilán, and Bonampak and, in the Yucatán Peninsula, Chichén Itzá, Cobá, Dzibilchaltún, Edzna, Hochob, Kabah, Labna, Sayil, Uxmal, and Xpujil.

In the Valley of Oaxaca, the Zapotec culture had been developing since the Pre-Classic period (beginning circa 1500 BCE), but it reached its height between approximately 300 and 700 AD. Monte Albán, the major Zapotec urban complex, indicates that this civilization had early links with the Olmec and with Teotihuacán.

The Classic Veracruz culture developed along the Gulf of Mexico with El Tajín as its principal ceremonial center. Its seven ball courts indicate the importance of the Mesoamerican ball game to this culture's ritual observances. Its art and architecture, especially at the site of Cerro de las Mesas, show Olmec, Teotihuacán, Zapotec, and Maya influence.

Post-Classic Period

The wall mosaics at Mitla
Model of the Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan showing the various stages as it was enlarged over time.
Statues at Tula.

During the Post-Classic period important cultures developed among the Toltec, the Tarascan, the Huastec, the Totonac, the Mixtec, and the Aztecs.

Toltec architecture and sculpture were diminished reflections of the ruins of nearby Teotihuacán. The temple atop the pyramid of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli at Tula has columns 4.6 m (15 ft) high, fashioned as warriors rigidly guarding the sacred precinct. Around the base of this pyramid are palaces and ceremonial halls, probably for the military elite.

By 1250, in the Yucatán, a new Maya capital was established at Mayapán, a walled city rather than the open center built by the Classic Maya. Tulum is another Post-Classic Maya walled city. Located on the Caribbean coast.

The Tarascan flourished in western Mexico from the beginning of the Post-Classic period until the Spanish conquest. Their capital at Tzintzuntzan on Lake Pátzcuaro had characteristic stepped circular temples arranged in a line and connected by a single rectangular platform.

At the time of the Spanish conquest, the Huastec culture was located on the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, while the central coast was occupied by the Totonac, whose major city was Zempoala.

By the 10th century, Mixtec rulers from the neighboring highlands had fought and married their way into parts of the Zapotec Valley of Oaxaca. Occupying Monte Albán as a necropolis, or city of the dead, they built fortified cities such as Yagul, as well as the important religious center of Mitla. Mixtec edifices are decorated with distinctive geometric stone mosaics.

The last major Mesoamerican civilization was that of the Aztec, who were also called Mexica (from which the name Mexico is derived). Between 1428 and 1521, the Aztec produced some of the finest remaining examples of pre-Columbian art.

The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, the present site of Mexico City, was one of the largest cities in the world at the time of the Spanish conquest. Built in Lake Texcoco on natural islands and artificial islands called chinampas, Tenochtitlán was similar in concept to Venice, Italy. The streets were primarily canals, and boats were the major form of transportation. Today, the central plaza of Mexico City overlies the main Aztec ceremonial center. Much Aztec stone sculpture was used for architectural decoration and representations of deities; it was also employed for human sacrificial altars, calendar stones, and other major ceremonial objects.

Colonial Architecture

The National Palace in Mexico City

Mexico's colonial history marked the collision of the European and Indigenous cultures. This period witnessed great destruction of Mesomaerican architecture, but also gave rise to a new form of art and architecture. Most colonial cities were planned around a plaza which held three closely related institutions: the cathedral, the cabildo or administrative center, which might be incorporated in a wing of a governor's palace, and the audiencia or law court. Many cities in Mexico retain their colonial town plan, cobblestone streets and beautiful colonial architecture.

Spanish Colonial architecture, which dominated in the early Spanish colonies, is marked by the contrast between the simple, solid construction demanded by the new environment and the Baroque ornamentation exported from Spain. Mexico, as the center of New Spain has some of the most renowned buildings built in this style. With twenty-nine sites, Mexico has more sites on the UNESCO World Heritage list than any other country in the Americas, many of them boasting some of the richest Spanish Colonial architecture. Some of the most famous cities in Mexico built in the Colonial style are Puebla, Zacatecas, Querétaro, Guanajuato, and Morelia.

Mexico City Cathedral, with the Metropolitan Tabernacle to the right.

The Historic centre of Mexico city is focused on the Zócalo or main plaza in Mexico City. The Zocalo is the largest plaza in Latin America [1] and the second largest in the world after Moscow's Red Square.[2] The historic center of Mexico City contains 9,000 buildings, 1,550 of which have been declared of historical importance. The historic center represents a mixture of architectural styles from the 16th century to the present.

The National Palace, located in the Zócalo, is the seat of the federal executive in Mexico. This site has been a palace for the ruling class of Mexico since the Aztec empire, and much of the current palace's building materials are from the original palace of the Aztec ruler Moctezuma II.

The Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral (Spanish: Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de María) is the largest and oldest cathedral in the Americas.[3] It is situated atop the former Aztec sacred precinct near the Templo Mayor on the northern side of the Plaza de la Constitución in downtown Mexico City. The cathedral was built in sections from 1573 to 1813 around the original church that was constructed soon after the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlán, eventually replacing it entirely. Spanish architect Claudio de Arciniega planned the construction, drawing inspiration from Gothic cathedrals in Spain.[4] It was built in a variety of styles including the Renaissance, Baroque, and Neo Classical. The rich interior is mostly Baroque.

The facade of the church of Ss. Sebastian y Santa Prisca in Taxco (1751-58) bristles with Mexican Churrigueresque ornamentation.

Other examples of Spanish Colonial style are the Palacio Nacional, the Palacio de Iturbide, the 16th-century Casa de los Azulejos, and many more churches, cathedrals, museums, and palaces of the elite.

During the late 17th century to 1750, one of Mexico's most popular architectural styles was Churrigueresque. These buildings were built in an ultra-Baroque, fantastically extravagant and visually frenetic style. Perhaps the most visually intoxicating form of the style was Mexican Churrigueresque, practised in the mid-18th century by Lorenzo Rodriguez, whose masterpiece is the Sagrario Metropolitano in Mexico City (1749–69).

The combination of the Amerindian and Moorish decorative influences with an extremely expressive interpretation of the Churrigueresque idiom may account for the full-bodied and varied character of the Baroque style found in Mexico. Other examples of this style are found in the remote silver-mining towns. For instance, the Sanctuary at Ocotlán (begun in 1745) is a Baroque cathedral surfaced in bright red tiles, which contrast with a plethora of compressed ornament lavishly applied to the main entrance and the slender flanking towers.

Cathedral of Oaxaca (1702-1733)

The "capital" of Mexican Baroque is Puebla, where hand-painted glazed tiles (talavera) and vernacular gray stone led to its evolving further into a personalized and highly localized art form with a pronounced Indian flavor. There are about sixty churches whose façades and domes display this style.[5]

The growth of urban areas and the trends toward secularization in the 18th century created an expanding need for secular buildings. Many recalled European Renaissance schemes. Early examples survived especially in Puebla. Palaces were usually constructed around four-sided central courtyards. The ceremonial quarters were on the first floor and the principal entrance was generally on the central axis of the main courtyard.

The exception in colonial Mexico is the corner facade of Pedro De Arrieta's Palace of the Inquisition (1733–37) in Mexico City, with its hanging keystone arches at the corners of the inner courtyard. This style was adopted in a number of other civil buildings in Mexico. The hanging key-stone was common in convents and monasteries as well. Francisco Guerrero y Torres built several monumental palaces during the late 18th century. The most interesting is that of the Condes de San Mateo de Valparaíso.

Hospicio Cabañas, founded in 1791, was designed by Manuel Tolsa

The Academy of San Carlos, founded in 1781, was the first major art academy in the Americas. The academy promoted Neoclassicism, focusing on Greek and Roman art and architecture. It was a force behind the abandonment of the Baroque style in Mexico, which had already gone out-of-fashion in Europe. Major building projects in Mexico were taken over by academy architects, most notably by Manuel Tolsa, who was responsible for the most impressive Neoclassical buildings in colonial Mexico, including the Colegio de Minería (College of Mining) and Hospicio Cabañas.

The academy was closed between 1821 and 1824 because of economic difficulties brought about by the Mexican War of Independence. After 1824, it was of decreasing significance. The institution reopened in 1843 under the orders of President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. During his regime, several Mexican architects, including the brothers Juan and Ramon Agea, were sent to study in Europe. On their return to Mexico from Rome in 1846, the Ageas practiced architecture in a Renaissance style, Juan, in particular, introduced to Mexico the theories of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.


Hacienda de Atequiza, Mexico (1905)
Gardens at Hacienda San Gabriel in Guanajuato, Mexico.

Haciendas were estates created under a system established in the 16th century, which bestowed land to nobles in exchange for military and social services to the Spanish crown. These land grants were limited to a few hundred acres but over time these estates grew. The hacendado or patron (owner) might buy neighboring ranches; often he would simply appropriate Indian land. As the haciendas grew, they became feudal estates supplying all the needs of the surrounding community, including food, clothing and medical aid. Haciendas played host to a variety of activities from baptisms, weddings, and celebrations of saints' days to fiestas, charreada (rodeo) events, bullfights, and harvest festivals.

By the 18th century, a typical hacienda was an elaborate institution. In addition to the main house and its guest quarters there were stables, a general store, a chapel, a school, equipment stores, servants' quarters, granaries, corrals and a forge.

In 1821 Mexico became an independent nation, but lapsed into a period of decline and economic upheaval. From 1864 to 1867 the French occupied Mexico with Maximillian installed as Emperor. The intervention was brief, but it began a period of French influence in architecture and culture which lasted well into the 20th century.

The Mexican revolution of 1910-1920 ended the haciendas and lands were restored to the poor. Haciendas today are often still owned by descendants of the older hacendados. Others have been bought since the Revolution by Mexicans from the city wishing to have a place in the country, and some have become hotels and conference centers.

19th and early 20th Century Architecture

Townscapes changed little during the first half of the 19th century in Mexico, until the French occupation during the Second Mexican Empire in the 1860s. Emperor Maximilian I brought a new set of urban design ideas to Mexico. Drawing from the mid-century Parisian revelopment plan of Baron Haussmann, Maximillain administered the building of a broad new diagonal avenue- Paseo de la Reforma. This elegant boulevard ran for kilometers from the downtown National Palace to the lush Chapultepec Park where the Austrian ruler lived in the Chapultepec Castle. Along the Reforma, double rows of eucalyptus trees were planted, gas lamps installed, and the first mule-drawn streetcars were introduced. The development was the catalyst for a new phase of growth from downtown Mexico City to the west, a direction that would define the city's structure for the next half century.

Monument to Cuahtémoc, Mexico City
Interior of the Postal Palace.
The Monumento a la Revolución in Mexico City

During President Porfirio Diaz's reign (1876–1880, 1884–1911), patrons and practitioners of architecture manifested two impulses: to create an architecture that would indicate Mexico's participation in modernity and the emphasize Mexico's difference from other countries through the incorporation of local characteristics into the architecture. The first goal took precedence over the second during most of the 19th century.

A modern, sophisticated Mexico City was the goal of President Diaz. Cast iron technology from Europe and the United States allowed for new building designs. Italian marble, European granite, bronzes and stained glass could now be imported. Diaz was determined to transform the landscape of the nation's capital into one reminiscent of Paris or London. It is not surprising that the most important architectural commissions of the Porfiriato were given to foreigners. Italian architect Adamo Boari designed the Postal Palace built by Gonzalo Garita (1902) and the National Theatre of Mexico (1904). The French architect Emile Benard, who worked on the Legislative Palace in 1903, founded an architectural studio where he took Mexican students. Silvio Contri was responsible for the Secretariat of Communications and Public Works (1902–11). Neo-Gothic designs incorporated into the monumental public buildings of the early 20th century. The two best examples were the Central post office and the Palacio de Bellas Artes, designed by Italian architect Adamo Boari.

President Diaz had enacted a decree in 1877 that called for the placement of a series of political statues of Mexican heroes along the Paseo de la Reforma. Classical designs were used to build structures such as the Angel of Independence monument, the monument to Cuauhtemoc, the monument to Benito Juárez, and the Columbus Statue. Diaz's conviction about the importance of public monuments in the urban landscape started a tradition that has become permanent in Mexico: public monuments in the 20th century landscape.

House of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (built by Juan O'Gorman in 1930)

In the 19th century, Neo-Indigenist architecture played an active part of the representation of national identity as constructed by the Porfirian regime. The representation of the local in Mexican architecture was achieved mainly through themes and decorative motifs inspired by pre-Hispanic antiquity. These representations were essential to the construction of a common heritage by which the nation might be unified. The first building based on the ancient Mexican motifs built in the 19th century was the monument to Cuauhtemoc exectuted by engineer Francisco Jimenez and the sculptor Miguel Norena. Other 19th-century buildings incorporating pre-Hispanic decorative motifs include the monument to Benito Juarez in Paseo Juarez, Oaxaca (1889).

At the beginning of the 20th century, Luis Zalazar enthusiastically encouraged architects to create a national style of architecture based on the study of pre-Hispanic ruins. His writings would be influential for the nationalistic tendencies in Mexican architecture which developed during the second and third decade of the 20th century.

After the Mexican Revolution, successive Mexican regimes would use the pre-Hispanic past to represent the nation. Later architects also took inspiration from the architecture of the colonial period and regional architecture as the creation of a genuinely Mexican architecture became a pressing issue during the 20th century.

Modern and Contemporary Architecture

Torre Across
José Vasconcelos Library, designed by Alberto Kalach, in Mexico City

Fifteen years after the end of the Mexican Revolution in 1917, government endorsements for federal housing, educational, and health care building programs began. While the development of modern architecture in Mexico bears some noteworthy parallels to its North American and European counterparts, its trajectory highlights several unique characteristics, which challenged existing definitions modern architecture. During the post-Revolutionary period, idealization of the indigenous and the traditional symbolized attempts to reach into the past and retrieve what had been lost in the race toward modernization.

The Torre Mayor, the tallest building in Mexico.

Functionalism, expressionism, and other schools have left their imprint on a large number of works in which Mexican stylistic elements have been combined with European and North American techniques.

The Institute of Hygiene (1925) in Popotla, Mexico, by José Villagrán García, was one of the first examples of this new national architecture. The studio designed by Juan O'Gorman in San Angel, Mexico City, for Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo (1931–32) is a fine example of vanguard architecture built in Mexico. Mexico's first project of high-density, low-cost housing was the Centro Urbano Alemán (1947–49), Mexico City, by Mario Pani.

Perhaps the most ambitious project of modern architecture was the construction, begun in 1950, Ciudad Universitaria outside Mexico City, a complex of buildings and grounds housing the National Autonomous University of Mexico. A cooperative venture, the project was directed by Carlos Lazo, Enrique Del Moral, and Pani. In the new campus the art of the Mexican muralists was incorporated into the architecture, beginning with Rivera's relief in the new Estadio Olímpico Universitario (1952), by Augusto Pérez Palacios, Jorge Bravo, and Raúl Salinas. The Rectory (1952), by Pani, del Moral, and Salvador Ortega Flores, includes murals by David Alfaro Siqueiros. Perhaps the best integration of mural art with the new architecture is seen in the University Library, by O’Gorman, Gustavo Saavedra, and Juan Martínez de Velasco, which features a monumental mosaic design on the facade by O’Gorman. Another architect of note is Felix Candela, who designed the expressionistic church Nuestra Señora de los Milagros.

This was a period of diverse experimentation and even structural innovation, as seen in the thin-shell concrete structures by the Spanish architect Felix Candela, such as his Church of the Miraculous Virgin (1953) in Mexico City and the Cosmic Ray Pavilion (1952) on the university campus. The integration of art and architecture became a constant in Mexican modern architecture, which can be seen in the courtyard of the Anthropology Museum (c. 1963–65) in Mexico City, by Pedro Ramírez Vázquez.

Antara Shopping Center.

Another side of Mexican modern architecture is represented in the work of Luis Barragán. The houses that he designed in the 1950s and ’60s explored a way to reconcile the lessons of Le Corbusier with the Spanish colonial tradition. This new synthesis created a completely original Modernist architecture that is uniquely adapted to its environment.

Ricardo Legorreta's Camino Real Hotel (1968) in Mexico City is a composition of courtyards and roof terraces within the walls of one downtown block. This work is indebted to the work of Barragán, applying his methods on a larger public scale. In Mexico the Brutalism of Teodoro González de León's Music Conservatory (1994) and the Neo-Barragánesque library (1994) by Legorreta coexist in the new National Centre of the Arts with the work of a younger generation of architects who are influenced by contemporary architecture in Europe and North America.

The School of Theatre (1994), by TEN Arquitectos, and the School of Dance (1994), by Luis Vicente Flores, express a modernity that reinforces the government's desire to present a new image of Mexico as an industrialized country with a global presence. Enrique Norten, the founder of TEN Arquitectors, was presented with the "Legacy Award" by the Smithsonian Institution for his contributions to the US arts and culture through his work. In 2005 he received the "Leonardo da Vinci" World Award of Arts by the World Cultural Council and was the first Mies van der Rohe Award recipient for Latin American Architecture.

The refined work of Alberto Kalach and Daniel Alvarez stands out both in their numerous residences as well as in the San Juan de Letrán Station (1994) in Mexico City. The residential work of José Antonio Aldrete-Haas in Mexico City shows both the influence of the attenuated Modernism of the great Portuguese architect Álvaro Siza and a continuity with the lessons of Barragán. Other notable and emerging contemporary architects include Mario Schjetnan, Michel Rojkind, Tatiana Bilbao, Isaac Broid and Bernardo Gómez-Pimienta, Juan C. Ordaz Coppel and Jacinto Avalos from Avalos Arquitectos y Asociados with award winning works in Mexico, USA and Europe.[6][7]


  1. ^ "UNESCO World Heritage Sites Mexico City Historic Center and Xochimilco". Retrieved 2008-08-30. 
  2. ^ "Mexico City Guide Historical Centre". Retrieved 2008-08-30. 
  3. ^ "Metropolitan Cathedral Mexico City". Sacred Destinations. Retrieved 2008-09-18. 
  4. ^ "Catedral metropolitana de México". MSN. Archived from the original on 2009-10-31. Retrieved 2008-09-18. 
  5. ^ Belejack, Barbara (1991-07-07). "A Trove of Mexican Baroque". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-04-25. 
  6. ^ Hernández, Rubén (1999-08-02). "Jacinto Avalos : Emociones junto al mar.(Entremuros)". Reforma. 
  7. ^ Houses by the Sea: Mexico's Pacific Coast (9789709241075): Mauricio Martinez: Books

See also

Category:Mexican architects

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