RIHA Journal 0311 | 31 May 2024

Folkloristic Cosmopolitanism: Mexico’s Indigenist Architectures at World’s Fairs and International Exhibitions

Miriam Oesterreich

In 1929, Mexico presented itself at the Ibero-American Exposition in Seville, Spain, with a pavilion architecture that replicated the aesthetics of 'Mexican antiquity', referring back to ancient Mexican construction types. Starting from this staging, this article examines the indigenist exhibition architectures in terms of the strategies used to represent the indigenous in the context of establishing a national canon of aesthetic forms. The example of Mexico enables a discussion on how 'peripheral modernism' was imagined at international exhibitions and world’s fairs, how it – in turn – was linked to exoticisation and auto-exoticisation, and which forms of staging were used, especially since no similarly large exhibitions took place in Mexico itself. In broad terms, the pivotal question is to what extent the world’s fair format provided a unique stage for negotiations between the poles of nationalism and cosmopolitanism, tradition and modernity, periphery and center. A special focus will be on the question in which architectural and artistic configurations these negotiation processes became visible. This entails retracing and reappraising the contexts of such indigenist aesthetics.


[1] In 1929, Mexico presented itself at the Ibero-American Exposition in Seville, Spain, with a pavilion architecture that replicated the aesthetics of 'Mexican antiquity', referring back to ancient Mexican construction types. Starting from this staging, this article examines the indigenist exhibition architectures in terms of the strategies used to represent the indigenous in the context of establishing a national canon of aesthetic forms. The example of Mexico enables a discussion on how 'peripheral modernism' was imagined at international exhibitions and world’s fairs, how it – in turn – was linked to exoticisation and auto-exoticisation, and which forms of staging were used, especially since no similarly large exhibitions took place in Mexico itself.1 In broad terms, the pivotal question is to what extent the world’s fair format provided a unique stage for negotiations between the poles of nationalism and cosmopolitanism, tradition and modernity, periphery and center. A special focus will be on the question in which architectural and artistic configurations these negotiation processes became visible. This entails retracing and reappraising the contexts of such indigenist aesthetics.

Seville 1929

[2] The international Ibero-American Exhibition was held in Seville in 1929 to coincide with the world’s fair in Barcelona. The Plaza de España was the focal point and visual axis of the exhibition site, located in the public Parque de María Luísa, while the pavilions of the invited North and South American nations, as well as that of Portugal, were distributed throughout the exhibition grounds; the exhibition design imitated land and sea maps from the time of the Spanish 'voyages of discovery' (Fig. 1).

1 Map of the Ibero-American Exhibition in Seville, 1929. From: Sevilla. Exposición Iberoamericana 1929–1930. Guía Oficial, Barcelona 1929

[3] The Mexican pavilion was assigned number 36 and was located behind the Palacio de Bellas Artes, the art exhibition building, and next to the Brazilian pavilion at the far end of the park. Built on an x-shaped ground plan, the pavilion was designed by Mexican architect Manuel Amábilis2 in a neo-Maya style, aesthetically inspired by the Maya-Toltec culture of the Puuc region of the Yucatán Peninsula,3 where the architect was from (Fig. 2). Amábilis collaborated with two Yucatán artists: Leopoldo Tommasi López created the sculptural programme in hewn stone and plaster, while Victor Manuel Reyes was responsible for the murals.

2 Exterior view of the Mexican Pavilion at the Ibero-American Exposition, Seville 1929. Illustration from: Manuel Amábilis Dominguez, El Pabellón de México en la Exposición Iberoamericana de Sevilla, Mexico City 1929, plate 6

[4] The two-storied structure housed eight exhibition halls. The entire façade, surrounding fences and a fountain were covered with architectural decoration in the neo-Maya-Toltec style. Although Amábilis characterises his architecture as being based on the model of the monumental, rectilinear Maya architecture of the Yucatán peninsula with its rectangular floor plans, he nonetheless describes it as being purely Toltec.4 He cites the Palacio de Sayil as a reference for the finely detailed interlocking columns in the façade, and there are also formal correspondences with the Maya site of Labná. Next to the main entrance, feathered serpents served as columns (Fig. 3); in the pre-colonial Mexican cultures these are an important symbol within the Mesoamerican pantheon. For example, stone sculptures of the feathered serpent goddess Quetzalcoatl can be seen at Chichén Itzá. Moreover, there are two chacmool figures on the pediment, as is also the case in Chichén Itzá.

3 Mexican Pavilion, detail of the main entrance with feathered serpents, Ibero-American Exposition, Seville 1929. Photograph from: Amábilis Dominguez (1929), plate 23

[5] The relief decorating the stepped gable above the main entrance (Fig. 2) shows five figures that were meant to symbolise the solidarity of the Mexican social classes, thus inscribing themselves in the rhetoric of the Mexican Revolution (ca. 1910–1920).5 This relief broke with the pre-Hispanic style that otherwise served as a model and was 'modern' in its design. These aesthetic fusions and superimpositions suggest a unity between then and now, between the pre-colonial past imagined as socialist and the post-Hispanic, post-colonial revolutionary present. In the wake of the Mexican Revolution, the disciplines of archaeology, anthropology and ethnology had achieved national prominence, and their knowledge was widely disseminated throughout society. Mayan cultures were therefore ideally suited to the construction of 'national-anthropological constants' of class solidarity and the socialist vision of communal harmony. The tribes subsumed under the term Maya culture were considered to be a genuinely peace-loving people, in contrast to the Aztecs and the other cultures of the Mexican Plateau, who were seen as having a militarised social structure and a warlike assertiveness.6 In the course of the 1930s and 1940s, the latter became the bearers of 'mexicanidad', and their architectures became increasingly prominent during the 'institutionalisation of the revolution' and were intertwined with nationalist semantics.

[6] The Ibero-American Exposition in Seville (9 May 1929 to 21 June 1930) was conceived in conjunction with the world’s fair taking place in Barcelona at the same time (20 May 1929 to 15 January 1930), and they were promoted together as the "Exposición General de España" (General Exposition of Spain). The "Exposición Internacional de Barcelona" fully celebrated industrial, aesthetic and architectural modernity.7 Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, for example, designed the German Pavilion, a modernist structure devoid of national symbols and markings. Integrated furniture, such as the now iconic Barcelona Chair, was created specifically for the occasion to form an organic whole, conceiving of the immeuble and meuble as a single entity. In addition, the construction of new infrastructures, such as the rack railway to the Paseo Central, the metro and the streetcar stations, opened up the city to exhibition visitors and allowed them to explore it by ultra-modern means.8 While the focus in Barcelona was on modernity, the 'traditional' or 'folkloristic' counterpart took place in Seville. In Barcelona, fourteen industrialised European nations took part, positioning themselves as the most technologically and industrially advanced of the modern countries, with Japan and the United States represented exclusively by private companies. Spain, on the other hand, invited mainly its former colonial territories to Seville, to gather in a kind of homage to the 'motherland', which was highlighted as the center of a neo-colonial network of harmonious relations.9

[7] By this time, Mexico had been politically independent from Spain for more than a century, since 1821. In 1920, the tenth year since its inception, the Mexican Revolution finally ended with victory over the conservative Porfiriato (from 1876 to 1911, Mexico had been under the dictatorial rule of General Porfirio Díaz). This was followed by a period of cultural-political upheaval that turned against the aesthetics of European influence and led to a nationalist reappraisal of Mexican indigenous and pre-colonial cultural elements, which reached its peak at the end of the 1920s. As Martha Fernández has noted, the Mexican government accepted the invitation to Seville largely because international exhibitions of this kind were much like a showcase that offered the opportunity to present Mexico’s very own 'progress' and 'modernity' to the world, and thus to claim a position among the modern states.10 The post-revolutionary government of Plutarco Elías saw Seville as an opportunity "to change the image of Mexico as a violent and chaotic country [...]. Most of all, the fair was an occasion to exploit curiosity about, and to foster favorable international opinion of, the Mexican Revolution."11 For the architect Amábilis, the indigenist architectural aesthetic offered a chance to combine the image of the pacifist Maya with that of post-revolutionary Mexico, and to express artistically the autonomy and modernity of his nation; or, as he put it in the publication on the Seville pavilion: "to achieve and recognize this communion of a native race, the love for an autonomous country".12

[8] If the indigenist design of the façade and the context of the building – in a discourse that affirmatively reappraised indigenous elements for aesthetics and culture – were able to make this position plausible, the interior of the pavilion is all the more surprising for paying homage so forthrightly and openly to the 'mother country' of Spain. A frieze in the entrance hall featured a poetic dedication (Fig. 4):

Mother Spain: because you have illuminated American lands with the brilliance of your culture, and placed the devotional light of your spirit in my soul, now bothin my land and soul those lights have blossomed. Mexico13

The same dedication was printed on contemporary souvenir postcards and served as the motto for Amábilis Dominguez’s book publication on El Pabellón de México en la Exposición Iberoamericana de Sevilla, Mexico City 1929 – it was by no means a hidden or subtly encoded message.

4 Mexican Pavilion, entrance hall with inscriptional frieze, Ibero-American Exposition, Seville 1929. Photograph from: Amábilis Dominguez (1929), plate 25

[9] Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo has remarked on the occasion and concept of the exhibition that "the aim of Seville’s exhibit was not to portray the entire modern world but to modernize the idea of Hispanism [...]".14 On the one hand, Spain’s cultural imperialist self-image towards the Latin American nations, which had been decolonised for more than a century, is clearly expressed by the location: It was from Seville that Columbus embarked on his voyage to America, and it was here that he returned with his fleet. For centuries, Seville was a major hub for the trade in colonial goods and the center of global migratory movements within colonialism, including the trade in enslaved people. The exhibition design shows how Spain sought to present itself on a monumental scale through the Plaza de España.15 Measuring 200 meters in diameter, the semicircular plaza metaphorically 'embraces' the former colonies, but also the architecturally co-opted regions of the country, which are arranged alphabetically in 48 tile ornaments featuring maps of the provinces, mosaics of historical events, and the coats of arms of the provincial capitals (Figs. 5-6).

5 Plaza de España in Seville, photograph by Walter Mittelholzer, 1932, 2,4 × 3,6 cm. ETH-Bibliothek Zürich, Bildarchiv/Stiftung Luftbild Schweiz, LBS_MH02-13-0568 (Public Domain Mark)

6 Plaza de España, Seville, detail of the tile ornamentation, 1929 (photo: Wikipedia Commons).

[10] Moreover, the form of the Plaza de España evokes aesthetic parallels with bullfighting arenas, an architecture that had become closely linked to Spanish national identity in the course of the nineteenth century, and which, along with flamenco, was positioned as a national symbol. It is no coincidence, then, that this recourse to national Spain as the 'mother country' takes place in Andalusia, since the southern region has taken on a national character through the reappraisal – via ideas and imagination – of such romanticised aspects of Andalusian folklore. What was perceived as typically Spanish corresponds above all to the clichés associated with Andalusia.16

[11] The azulejo tiles of the Plaza de España, a hybrid export hit of the Spanish colonial power,17 and the ornamentation of the architectural decoration evoke reminiscences of the Moorish rule over Spain, which is ultimately domesticated in the ornament.18 The metaphor of the 'mother country' is also used in the exhibition brochure:

Seville, center of centuries of Spanish culture, has invited Portugal and the countries of North and South America, which owe their birth to the intrepid spirit of Spain’s early maritime adventurers, to come and congratulate with the Mother of Nations the progress made in their history, their art, and their cultural advancement.19

[12] As Tenorio-Trillo explains, with the eclectic amalgam of the most diverse styles, both interior and exterior, Mexico was able to mythicise the ideas of the Revolution, idealising them for public consumption in a romantic tenor, while at the same time making use of a conservative Hispanism. The revolutionary myth created in the course of the 1920s could then be employed to gain access to the modern, cosmopolitan world.20 Amábilis considered this amalgamation of different styles and the simultaneous singularisation of native elements – with which he was part of a much larger current in the cultural politics of post-revolutionary Mexico – as the elaboration of a national Mexican architectural style.21 And the international exhibitions or world’s fairs were the perfect formats to render visible this aspiration and to establish its broad popularity.

Paris 1889

[13] Amábilis’s way of adopting pre-colonial aesthetic elements from the ruins of ancient American cultures, varying them and then combining them into a new amalgam is a form of architectural indigenism. However, it must be remembered that the adaptation of pre-colonial and indigenous forms is by no means an innovation of post-revolutionary architecture serving the interests of the state – rather, there is a longer tradition of such adaptation since the late nineteenth century.22 Mexico itself, under the rule of Porfirio Díaz, had an indigenist pavilion built for the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1889, known as the Palacio Azteca, the Aztec Palace, which became somewhat famous at the time (Fig. 7).

7 The Aztec Palace at the 1889 Paris world’s fair, photographer: Hippolyte Blancard, 1889, platinum print from a silver gelatin-bromide glass negative, ca. 16 × 22.5 cm. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris, Estampes et photographies, boite fol. A-EO-508 (12) (photo: BnF Gallica, https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b11600595d).

[14] The Porfiriato was initially a period of relative stability. Díaz pursued a policy of industrialisation and modernisation, driven by large-scale infrastructure and engineering projects such as the extension of the railway network, the construction of bridges and the promotion of specific industries such as mining and textiles.23 Participation in world's fairs – Paris in 1867,24 Philadelphia in 1876, New Orleans in 1884, and finally Paris in 1889 and again in 1900 – was intended to present Mexico as a modern nation and to establish an international presence, both of which would counteract the common stereotypes of the country as uncivilized, barbaric and backward; in effect, it was the performance of a balancing act between metropolis and periphery. Immigrants were to be recruited and investors attracted, while also tourism was increasingly promoted, a strategy that gained considerable importance in the first half of the twentieth century.

[15] The indigenist Palacio Azteca, designed by architects Antonio Peñafiel and Antonio de Anza for the "Exposition universelle de Paris de 1889", measured 70 m × 30 m and imitated a teocalli, a stepped Aztec temple pyramid. According to the call for tenders, the structure was to "characterise the architecture of the most civilised races of Mexico, but to distance itself from the dimensions of the ancient monuments, which [particularly] contradict modern needs and taste".25 The desire to be authentic and specifically Mexican was thus combined with the aspiration to be modern.26 Although the structure purported to authentically reproduce the Aztec architectural culture and provide a tangible experience of it, it is in fact a collage, both stylistically and technically: classical elements are used in an eclectic manner, the sculptures represent pre-colonial heroes but stylistically follow the sculptural heroism of the French fin-de-siècle, while the steel girders and modern materials facilitated its construction and dismantling. In the trilingual brochure on the Mexican pavilion, which was massively distributed at the exhibition, Peñafiel declared his palace to be "constructed in the purest Aztec style", drawing comparisons between the Aztec past and Greco-Roman antiquity.27 The interior, however, was dominated by a typically French, or in this case 'modern' design, with a spacious staircase, metal construction, glass display cases, a glass ceiling, and various theatrical devices used in contemporary exhibition practice, such as an array of curtains and drapes.

[16] This heroisation of the Aztec past in the Palacio Azteca went hand in hand with a simultaneous radical denigration of the contemporary indigenous people and their cultures: the Díaz dictatorship had privatised enormous tracts of land, leaving around 90% of the rural population without any property, and most of them ended up in debt bondage or even slavery, forced to live in extremely precarious conditions.28 The idealisation of the Aztecs only worked because they were considered a "past past"29, a people from a long gone era.

[17] Tenorio-Trillo argues that the deciding factor in the design of the Palacio Azteca was an argument advanced by the Porfiriato elite: to satisfy a European cosmopolitan demand for the exotic,30 or in other words, to auto-exoticise one’s own culture on the stage of the world’s fair, offering it as a consumable in a setting governed by supply and demand, import and export, not only of goods and commodities, but also of cultural images. It is precisely the world’s fairs that seem to have been locations where the exhibition, definition, and promotion of the 'indigenous' functioned efficiently and profitably, found a large and interested public, and were relatively easy to stage.

[18] Postcolonial nations such as those of Latin America played an ambivalent role in the relationship between colonising and colonised nations: on the one hand, no longer colonies since around 1821, they strove to present themselves as modern nations; however, on the other hand, they often adopted the role of the 'exotic Other' in their representation and exhibited their own folklore.31 Views of the display cases in the Palacio Azteca show that mainly traditional objects, handicrafts, and ethnographic artefacts such as ceramics were exhibited. In its eclectic fusion of diverse elements from all over Mexico, the Palacio Azteca reveals a strategic use of forms of self-exoticisation that served a dual purpose: to be perceived as specifically Mexican and, at the same time, as specifically modern, thus combining the apparent opposites of historical lines of tradition and modern cosmopolitanism.32

[19] In this context, I agree with Alejandra Uslenghi who also makes a compelling argument for interpreting the building as a conscious reclamation of national modernity. She describes how the deliberate incorporation of 'modern' materials like glass and iron served to aesthetically transform the specific Aztec heritage into a national emblem, thereby symbolically aligning it with the European civilisations of Greek and Roman antiquity. This reinterpretation of history is notably intertwined with the architectural historicism seen in Western and Central Europe during the era of industrialised modernity. Uslenghi argues:

It was precisely the construction of an Aztec temple replica, reproduced with modern technical means, what constituted it as an image of the past; the legacy of antiquity comprised the materials from which the new whole was to be built. Its technological reproduction named the ruin as a site of reevaluation of tradition [...]. In keeping with the Mexican exhibit's argument for a culture that encompassed its own destruction in order to instrumentalize the remains at the service of the national epic, the modern structure of the Aztec temple was posed as a way to dominate history continuously from the vantage point of the present, rather than arrest it in the past.33

Folklore and cosmopolitanism

[20] At the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition in Seville, women dressed in folk costumes made some kind of appearance in the pavilion. They were presented as modern variants of an indigeneity that could be identified as belonging to the pre-colonial era (Fig. 8).34 With the positive revaluation of regionalism, the virtues of the Mexican Revolution and nationalism seem to be aptly embodied in the image of a woman, and an indigenous woman at that, especially the Tehuana.35 The Mexican nation, in the form of an attractive, smiling young woman, could possibly mitigate the violence of the revolution and create harmony after the affront of independence, in short, have a healing effect.

8 Women in indigenous-inspired costumes – a Tehuana everyday costume and a Tehuana holiday costume – in the Mexican Pavilion during the Ibero-American Exposition, Seville 1929, filmstill from: Sevilla, Andalucía, film commissioned by the Patronato Nacional de Turismo, 1929, online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0OlDIR1y4Z8, time: 00:17:50 (September 27, 2023)

[21] While the adoptions of the Mesoamerican canon of forms are obvious in the 1929 pavilion, I think the ruptures in these adoptions are equally apparent (Fig. 2). Even at first glance, the pavilion in Seville, with its strange cruciform floor plan more reminiscent of panopticon prisons than an exhibition building, looks very different from ninth- to eleventh-century Mayan structures. Rather than Mesoamerican ceremonial architecture, the baroque forms of the pediment seem to recall the Mission Revival style popular in the United States at the time.36 The Mexican coat of arms, with the eagle perched on a cactus and a snake trapped in its talon and mouth, breaks with Mayan aesthetics in the intersecting axis of the façade, while its encasement in plaster is more reminiscent of another Baroque influence, the mandorla enclosing the venerated image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico’s national saint, than of ancient Mexican imagery. Similarly, the sectional view of the building (Fig. 9) with its ribbed vaulting strongly reminiscent of sacred architecture and the light flooding in from above through a stained glass window featuring the national coat of arms, much like the effect of a Baroque cupola lantern, highlights the blatant differences with classical Maya architecture.

9 Mexican Pavilion for the Ibero-American Exposition, Seville 1929, sectional view. Illustration from: Amábilis Dominguez (1929), plate 5

[22] The eclecticism is even more pronounced in the interior: the murals and the furnishings, the ornamentation and the inscriptions are fully indebted to Art Déco (Fig. 10).

10 Mexican Pavilion, interior view of the ground floor, Ibero-American Exposition, Seville 1929. Photograph from: Amábilis Dominguez (1929), plate 30

In 1925, with the "Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industrielles Modernes" in Paris, the Art Déco style, previously developed and popular in France, established itself as the fashionable style of the period and rapidly turned into an international phenomenon.37 As a result, the second half of the decade saw its widespread acceptance and adoption in the United States, with architects in particular embracing the style enthusiastically for the new skyscrapers. Diego Rivera, noting their blocky and tapered massive forms, described this high-rise architecture as adescendant of and directly influenced by Mexican stepped pyramid architecture.38 The Briton Alfred Charles Bossom, who had worked as an architect in the USA, wrote:

In the skyscraper America has invented and developed a wholly new and revolutionary form and type of building that is absolutely and characteristically her own. Search for foreign inspiration or example and you will search in vain. The skyscraper is as indigenous as the Red Indian.39

However, as Oriana Baddeley has noted, formal associations are evoked rather than the forms themselves duplicated or copied:40

[…] the introduction of ancient Mexico to the conceptional framework of western designers stems from a wider aspiration, to escape from the constraints of the classical European tradition and to contravene the accepted rules of proportion and articulation. Ancient Greece and Rome were replaced by their perceived opposites, ancient cultures outside of the European norms. In this context, the accuracy of historical or geographic quotation was not important since the priority was to achieve a novel, exotic effect.41

[23] Art Déco was also widely adopted in Mexico – and more broadly, throughout Latin America. In Mexico, for example, the magazine Cemento was responsible for the widespread and enthusiastic reception of Art Déco (Fig. 11).42 Modernist in both form and content, Cemento was the bulletin of the Committee to Promote the Use of Portland Cement, and indeed new materials such as reinforced concrete and stainless steel were favoured in Art Déco architecture.

11 Cover of Cemento no. 24 (July 1928), bulletin of the Comité para Propagar el Uso del Cemento Portland. Hemeroteca Nacional de México, UNAM, Mexico City

[24] With regard to Latin America, Rafael Cardoso describes the 1920s as an epoch in which the political polarisation between nationalism and internationalism, between regionalism and cosmopolitanism had not yet been fully played out, and in which many (younger) Latin American intellectuals did not see it as a contradiction to embrace a self-understanding that was at once modern and national.43 He characterises Art Déco as a style that was ideally suited to express modernity and at the same time be utilised for national interests.

[25] Baddeley sees the adoption of Art Déco, international in its scope and breathtaking in its pace, as a direct consequence of the 'culture of the world fairs', initiated and internationalised by the aforementioned Paris Exposition, which she identifies as "Art Déco’s birth amid the assertive nationalism of the World Fairs".44 She sees many of the elements of the canon of ancient American forms that inspired the proponents of Art Déco in the 1920s as having been pioneered precisely by Antonio Peñafiel’s Aztec Palace at the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1889, and by the neo-Maya representation of ancient Mexican structures in plaster casts at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.45

[26] The latter exhibition was a landmark moment, for it was the first time that "Mayan culture and architecture" was brought "to North American public attention [...] – with stimulating results for further research and patronage".46 A key figure here was Frederic Ward Putnam, ethnologist and anthropologist at Harvard University and curator of the university’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Taking a historical perspective, Putnam was interested in profiling the advanced indigenous civilisations flourishing at the time of the discovery of the 'New World', particularly the culture of the Yucatán Maya.47 In turn, in response to the World’s Columbian Exposition, Prairie Style architecture emerged with figures such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin. Wright and his assistant Louis Sullivan shared a disparaging view of the neoclassical style, which was based on the European tradition, and emphasised what they considered to be the innovative and genuinely American aspects of ancient American architecture.48 The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition was considered as particularly decisive for the spread of the official Beaux-Arts style, which predominated in the mostly large pavilions in the so-called White City.49 However, later Prairie Style architects found inspiration for their innovative designs in the study of the life-size plaster cast imitations of ancient Mexican structures, most notably the Nunnery Quadrangle of Uxmal (c. 900–1000 AD) and the Gateway Arch of Labná (c. 700–900 AD), that were displayed at 65th Street and Lake Michigan, the highest point on the fairgrounds, a short walk from the Anthropology Building. There, they were undoubtedly seen by most visitors, including Frank Lloyd Wright, who visited the exhibition on several occasions.50 This architect would play an important role in adaptating pre-colonial architectural forms to create a specifically American modernist architecture based on horizontality, flat roofs with overhanging eaves, and open interiors, and which sought to create a special affinity between architectural form and the landscape-oriented aesthetic of the vast American West.

[27] Baddeley summarises the significance of the two world’s exhibitions – Paris 1889 and Chicago 1893 – for the appropriations and re-formations of ancient American forms as follows:

These two 19th-century manifestations of the introduction of Mesoamerican motifs within the context of contemporary design exemplified a duality of approach that was to remain central to the popularization of ancient Mexico in the 1920s and 1930s. The Aztec Palace was the most expensive and largest display Mexico had ever put on at a World Fair. […] Token gestures were made to the Aztec aesthetic but the pavilion functioned primarily as a symbol of a new, independent, modern and cosmopolitan Mexico.51

In addition, the multifaceted Art Déco lent itself to the integration of specific indigenous elements, thus creating 'intrinsic', 'national' substyles. However, any distinction only worked in part, for 'exotic' forms always attracted attention precisely because of this 'otherness' embedded in the ornamentation.52 Indeed, it was the hybrid, the eclectic, often the fantastical of Mexico’s indigenist self-portrayal at the world’s fairs, drawing on and referencing the 'whole' spectrum of Mesoamerica and its – in fact very diverse – architectural styles, that informed the ornamental repertoire of Western, mainly North American architects and designers in the early twentieth century.53

[28] Besides the influence of Mexico on the architectural language of the United States through indigenist-informed Art Déco designs, North American architects themselves travelled south, some as early as the late 1910s, seeking inspiration for their own modern architectural language in Mexico’s ancient sites. These ventures were very much in keeping with the spirit of the times: in its search for the 'New', Primitivism invariably drew attention to the particularly modernist aspects discernible in the 'Other'.

[29] The Mayan Revival style drew on ancient Mexican forms and inserted them into contemporary settings, in the United States with modern materials, formal variations, and luxurious features.54 Significantly, the long list of indigenist structures in the United States, i.e. those that reveal a direct reference to pre-colonial forms, begins with the Pan-American Union Building in Washington, completed in 1910, which featured Mesoamerican design elements such as ornamental bas-reliefs and decorative rosettes with 'Mayan hieroglyphs', i.e. Latin letters in a typography similar to Mayan characters, as well as a fountain conceived as representative of the advanced civilisations of Mesoamerica. Marjorie Ingle has identified the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Diego as integral to the establishment and dissemination of the Mayan Revival style: "The 1915 Exposition was to be a showcase of California and western regionalism, the development of a Southern California vernacular".55

[30] Concurrent with the development of the Mayan Revival style, the United States initiated the idea of Pan-Americanism, the cultural dimension of the so-called Good Neighbor Policy of the 1930s. In response to the First World War in Europe, this policy entailed a non-interventionist attitude towards the national affairs of Latin American states.56 As a direct neighbour of the United States with a long shared border, Mexico played a special role in this policy, which sought to promote cultural and economic exchange based on mutual respect. The initiation and development of (mass) tourism in the southern nations, particularly in Mexico, was an integral part of the Pan-American idea,57 and found concrete expression in projects such as the Pan-American Highway, which was completed in 1936 and provided a direct connection between Laredo (Texas) and Mexico City.58

[31] The Mayan Revival style can be regarded as part of a broader effort to establish a pan-American aesthetic that aimed to clearly distinguish itself from the previously dominant European canon of forms. That is, in the United States, ancient indigenous Mexican elements were adopted into modern architecture, interiors, and design, and were valorised in distinction to hegemonic European forms and judgments of taste, because they were seen as specifically American. Holly Barnet-Sánchez has traced and explained the ambivalence of 'intrinsic' and 'extrinsic' aesthetics in the collecting of ancient Mexican objects, and it is precisely this ambivalence that also applies to Mayan Revival architectures:

Pan-Americanism had created a context for a specific art-culture system in the United States that permitted and even encouraged the collection […] and presentation of Pre-Columbian objects as part of a greater hemispheric heritage, which, by definition, made these antiquities ours, that is belonging very specifically to the citizens of the United States. These objects came to embody an irreconcilable contradiction, being both the product of the 'Other' […] and a part of the U.S. Euro-American patrimony.59

[32] Frank Lloyd Wright is also considered one of the main proponents of the Revival style – he integrated Mesoamerican architectural elements into eclectic, often concrete structures, such as the Hollywood villas Hollyhock and Ennis House. The source of inspiration was even more evident in the villas than in the skyscrapers, especially given the placement of Mesoamerican ceremonial structures in the respective landscape: The massive concrete walls, seemingly windowless from the outside, are tilted backwards at 85 degrees and grouped around a central landscaped courtyard, which was supposed to be used as an amphitheater. Derived from the symmetrical relief blocks of Uxmal, the precast concrete blocks that make up the enormous Ennis House create an inward-looking architecture. Robert Stacy-Judd, perhaps the founder of the Mayan Revival in the United States, on the other hand, is more associated with borrowed ornaments, which he translates into fantastic architectural assemblages, while the building structure and its organisation in space are not the main source of his inspiration.60 The Mayan Revival style spread throughout the United States, most prominently on the West Coast, and can be found in numerous hotel architectures, such as Robert Stacy-Judd’s Aztec Hotel in Monrovia, in theatres and cinemas, in private villas, and in apartment buildings.61

[33] A very different form of integrating native elements to emphasise what is genuinely Mexican or Pan-American is to assign national significance to materials and spaces. Since the 1940s, national connotations have enhanced the status of the volcanic landscape of the Pedregal, south of Mexico City, in particular. As a sign of not only pre-Hispanic, but even prehistoric times, the volcanic stone is linked to the land itself, becoming the very material that typifies the nation. In this process, the discourses that had monumentalised the Mexican volcanoes and turned their solidified lava into a national topography are revived, an ideal that had been prepared by José María Velasco’s paintings of the volcanoes and the valley of Mexico City in the nineteenth century, and later continued by Dr. Atl, who attentively followed the birth and formation of the Paricutín volcano on canvas in 1943.62

[34] At the Palacio Azteca in Paris in 1889, the idea of technological progress, concretely expressed in the architectural structure, was (seemingly) in contrast to the official academic style of painting displayed inside:63 almost all the professors of the Academia de San Carlos were French-trained, and many of them exhibited their work in France in 1889. The established academy painter José María Velasco, who had already exhibited at the Philadelphia world’s fair in 1876, where he was awarded a gold medal, and at the World Cotton Centennial in New Orleans in 1884,64 presided over the art section of the Mexican pavilion, where 68 of his own paintings were on show.65 In a Realistic style, he established the vision of picturesque landscapes in the Valley of Mexico with its two iconic volcanoes, elevating the scenery into a 'national' landscape and presenting it to an international audience as specifically Mexican.66 At the same time, the Valley of Mexico was the traditional homeland of the Nahua, the descendants of the Aztecs, and the idealisation of this landscape fuelled indigenist efforts to construct an Aztec antiquity.67 Breaking with the picturesque, Velasco often incorporated into his landscapes precisely those signs of technological progress that supported the Porfiriato: his paintings Puente de Metlac and Cañada de Metlac (Fig. 12) were among those attracting the most attention in the exhibition, and both depict steam trains winding their way through wild expanses, demonstrating the function of technology in domesticating nature. And here the painter echoes the discourse of colonial painting: moving into unfamiliar land, unknown and potentially dangerous, a wild 'Other', is a leitmotif of colonial discourses.68

12 José María Velasco, Cañada de Metlac (The Metlac Ravine), 1893, oil on canvas, 104 × 160,5 cm. Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City (photo: Wikimedia Commons)

[35] Continuing such discourses, from 1947 onwards the architect Luis Barragán built luxurious villas on part of the already established 'national topography' of the Pedregal, using concrete and glass as building materials, with a decidedly modernist form in the spirit of the International Style, and fully incorporating the surrounding landscape into the structure of the houses and their gardens (Fig. 13). It was this form of building out of the given landscape that earned Barragán the reputation of being the founder of Critical Mexican Regionalism.69