How Maya Architecture Influenced Frank Lloyd Wright's Greatest Works

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It may come as a surprise.

Though Mayan Revival architecture began taking shape at the outset of the 20th century with Mexican and European architects like Manuel Amábilis Domínguez and Robert Stacy-Judd, it wasn’t until the work of Frank Lloyd Wright that the style became widely popularized. Though it’s believed that the architect himself never ventured to the Yucatán Peninsula where the breadth of the Maya pyramids still stand today, it is said he was inspired by Maya artifacts and replicas on display at the World’s Fair of 1893 in Chicago. It’s at the fair’s Columbian Exposition where Wright was believed to have first glimpsed plaster casts from Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and the arch of Labná, a diminutive city that had one of the most flourishing examples of Puuc style architecture in the region.

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Related: A Look Inside Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio

Predating the art deco movement and taking root in the 1920s, the Mayan Revival style is most notably seen in the private homes Wright designed in Southern California, each with their open-concept layouts built from concrete blocks molded from local materials with natural color schemes and pattered with bold geometric motifs. The first of his designs in the style was Hollyhock House, built on the 36-acre Olive Hill in East Hollywood. One of Wright’s most famous constructions in Los Angeles, he completed the home in 1921 for the oil heiress Aline Barnsdall, who originally wanted the architect to construct an elaborate artistic community of homes with a theater and shops at its center. The house, with its seventeen rooms and seven bathrooms, is often noted as a bridge of two prominent styles: Mayan Revival, with its textile blocks inspired by temples in the ancient city of Palenque in southern Mexico, and prairie style, with its low-pitched roof line. Though Barnsdall’s request for a house-meets-garden was met with the home’s myriad terraces, colonnades, and pergolas that connect indoor-outdoor spaces, she was ultimately disappointed with the home and eventually donated it to Los Angeles to serve as a public art park. It was inscribed as the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Los Angeles in 2019.

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Wright completed the Millard House soon after, a home he built for book dealers and couple George and Alice Millard near Arroyo Seco Park in Pasadena in 1924. The home was the first where Wright experimented with the modular system of concrete blocks that became prevalent in his Mayan Revival homes. After tinkering with the system at the Hollyhock House, Wright ventured to take his design even further with this home to effortlessly blend with the landscape. The result was a four-bedroom, four-bath home built from sand and gravel blocks with ornamental Mayan symbols, set near the lot’s steep, forested ravine. In similar style, Wright completed the Storer House in 1923 (it was compared to an ancient Pompeiian villa at the time of its construction, with its foundation minimally visible amidst verdant greenery) followed by the Freeman House, now owned by the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture.

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In 1924, Wright completed one of the last and arguably the most famous of his Mayan Revival works. Something of a Hollywood icon, Ennis House is set in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles and was built for Charles and Mabel Ennis. With over 27,000 blocks assembled in the style of an ancient Mayan pyramid, the home—with its ornate interiors of marble flooring, chandeliers, and mosaic tiles—is the largest of Wright’s Mayan Revival homes. The structure was built from a mix of gravel, granite and sand sourced on-site, with each block harboring patterns evocative of symmetrical reliefs of Puuc architecture in Uxmal, one of the most impressive Maya sites of in the Yucatan Peninsula. Though today, like most of Wright’s Mayan Revival homes, the property isn’t available for public viewing, it can be seen in over 80 Hollywood productions, from films like Blade Runner and The House on Haunted Hill to television shows like Rush Hour and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.