May 24, 2001
Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA Editor-in-chief
Few cities live up to our preconceptions. Chichen Itza does.
I was struck by how broad it is, how sophisticated it must
have been, how hefty. You measure the Mayan city in footfalls
along its prescribed pathways, from pyramid to cenote to ball
field. Step after step, the high jungle gives way to crumbling
walls, which turn and open with a slam to a clearing. There,
in an improbably dense Yucatan field, looms a thousand-year-old
solid structurea mute voice, a testament to human willpower
and skill. But whose voice, in what timbre? In what register?
To what purpose?
You reach Chichen Itza, the legendary Mayan city, from the
coast on a toll road. You drive and drive for more than 200
kilometers, humming along, solo, passing armed guards at the
toll plazas and a couple of lonely convenience shops. As you
drive further, the land ascends to an upland that is less
overtly jungly, drier than you expected. Smoke filled clearings
occasionally reveal huts thatched with palm branches.
After passing through the ticket booth, past hawkers and
guides, you walk down a broad avenue, following the bobbing
crowds. You can sense immensity ahead, a silence that overwhelms
the nervous chatter of turistas. And there, defying your imagination,
soars the castillo, 24 meters high.
Immensity of form, sacred iconography, myth, spiritual presence,
and power all rest there, a stone temple as broad as the human
imagination. 365 steps (91 on each side). 9 stories, representing
passage through the levels of the underworld. Oriented with
exactitude to the equinoxes. Inside, another, older pyramid,
with a jaguar throne; above, a temple animated by the windthe
voice of God.
Random impressions from my day: The extreme sophistication
and erudition of this culture, which devised an accurate calendar,
a written language, and buildings that resonate in our imagination
today. Limestone columns. Stone lintels. Carved serpents.
The heat of the open plaza, and the cool of the shade. The
contrast of public places from what is hidden and private,
(the stair to the interior temple within a temple). The circular
great pool of sacrifice, where the earth sinks 65 feet, and
virgins and soldiers and Richard Halliburton leapt to their
meetings with the gods.
Some say that the complex belies an Egyptian connection.
Having just finished reading a number of Indian books, I could
make an equal claim for the spirit of the subcontinent or
Southeast Asiafrom the stupa-like form of the round
observatory to the word Maya itself.
Driving back to Cancun, the present seemed equally surreal,
a strand of white hotels, glowing, animated, an array of stepped
forms standing above the beach, worshipping the sun.