Friday, December 21, 2012


According to Mayan astronomical calculations, something extraordinary will happen this 12/12/21. However, it will have nothing to do with the crazy story about an apocalyptic end of the world, but with alignment of various architectural monuments in the Mayan cities with the position of the sun on that day. One of such cases, less known than Chichen Itza, is Tulum, a city built in the Late Post-classic period (1200-1521 AD) which stands dominant, over a stunning Caribbean seascape of turquoise waters and white sand beaches.

At dawn on the winter solstice, the sun is "framed" on a small window in the building called the Castle, showing the connection of the city not only with its surrounding seascape but with its cosmological environment.

Similar alignments also occur during the equinoxes, when the sunlight passes through an opening and it is projected over a specific building. Such astronomical calculations allowed Mayan rulers to control the population, which must have looked stunned as the sun god was confined and trapped in a building opening following the "orders" of their kings and priests.

For this reason the city was originally known by the Mayans as Zama, meaning "Dawn" and highlights the impact that this phenomenon had on the local collective memory (using astronomical calculations in architecture is not unique to the Mayans, although these had a very advanced calendar system. In this blog we have discussed similar cases such as the Neolithic monuments of Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland , as well as the sun temples in Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu in Peru).

However, the current name comes from an urban feature: Tulum means wall or fence and refers to the 380 x 170 meters rectangular wall  which protects the city from three sides (the short ones to the  north and south and the long one to the west).

The east side was protected naturally by the cliff that overlooks the sea, and that gives the city a privileged visibility over the seascape. The gates on the wall are linked in a unique urban pattern based on the existence of paved avenues that connected the entrances with the main temple.

The Castle, front view (from the west)

El Castillo, rear views (from the east)

On the architecture of its buildings, historian Gustavo J. Gutiérrez León writes (quote translated from Spanish) :

"The use of broad bottleneck-shaped vaulted ceiling , typical of the Maya culture, stand along with flat roofs constructed of logs supported on the walls. Internal spaces are rectangular and sometimes extended by the use of central columns which supported a wooden lock -Palace and House of Columns. Occasionally buildings have a columned portico, which in the Castle took shape of snakes, as in the analog building in Chichén Itzá. Internally the structures have two or more rooms, in the deepest one there is a small shrine: Temple of the Frescoes, House of Columns- as in the case of Palenque. Equally common is the use of shrines: small independent structures that do not exceed one meter high.

In general, the buildings are low with facades divided by moldings, thus emphasizing their horizontality. Friezes usually have boards in which a character is represented upside down -Temples of the Descending God and frescoes. The walls of the temples are intentionally tilted outwards, giving a peculiar effect. To counteract the load, the door openings are narrow at the top. The lintels are recessed with respect to the facade beyond the edge of the accesses.

Temple of the Frescoes
But there are also unique architectural features of the place. Stucco masks on the corners of some buildings, such as the Temple of the Frescoes, hence the character is identified as Itzamna, the most important deity in the Mayan Post-classic period. Another feature of the Maya culture in general, linked to architecture, appears in Tulum: mural painting. As elsewhere in the Post-classic period, the characters are gods and not humans anymore -Temple of the Frescoes and the Descending God. "

In 2006 Arquine conducted an academic competition for a museum (never built, by the way) whose winners were the team 5NOVE/Alessandro Consol. The proposal was entirely underground to avoid interfering with the surrounding monuments, but it was connected to the outside by means of light wells in the form of truncated pyramids.

Due to its location, Tulum must have had an important role in regional trade. While the scale of the buildings is not as monumental as in other Mayan cities, nor its building have very special finishings, we were  enormously impressed by its spectacular location in the landscape and their profound astronomical knowledge in the service of architecture .


Thursday, December 20, 2012



For many years I had wanted to visit Chichen Itza, the spectacular Mayan city located in the forest of the Yucatan peninsula, east of Mexico, long before it was chosen as one of the 7 wonders or that it became fashionable in the tabloids due to an apocalyptic interpretation of the "prophecies" Maya.

Here, we need to use our imagination to picture an impressive citadel, full of colorful monuments whose volumes, painted in ocher, tuquoise, green, orange, white and black, stood stunningly against the blue sky. Like their ancestors of Teotihuacan, the Mayans in Chichen Itza combined architecture with rich and colorful sculptures, evident in the detail of a profuse relief sculpture that represents snakes and other divine creatures.

Mayan cities enjoyed a sophisticated urban and architectural planning , with complex systems of aqueducts, canals and drains.

The city of Chichen Itza was huge and covered an area of ​​24 square kilometers with about 400 stone buildings distributed in 46 groups, that were built over the centuries. While it is not necessary to use the imagination to know the features of its inhabitants, as their descendants walk throughout the complex as craft vendors, it is necessary to imagine their numbers: more than 100,000 inhabitants ( only 10 cities in the world had that population 1000 years ago).

Regarding the urban landscape, I asked our guide how accurate was Mel Gibson's Apocalypto and he replied: "It is out of time, the Mayans were in decline when the Spanish arrived and they did not go to capture prisoners. Aside of that, the representation is quite realistic. "

However, the area that we see today corresponds to a ritual zone and it was encircled by a wall, which means that generally  it could only be accessed by prominent authorities. At night, this area must have become a wonderful spectacle, when the pyramids were illuminated by hundreds of torches, as it is evidenced by the traces of oil found in the pyramids.

The pyramids were made of limestone joined with a cement made of burnt lime, crushed and mixed with water, and they were often built on top of  previous structures. Excavations confirm that the Kukulcan pyramid stands over three ancient structures, which allowed it to reach a height of 24 meters to the top platform. To these are added the 6 meters of the temple on its peak, reaching a total of 30 m.

Each of the sides of the base measures 55 m, making it smaller than the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan .

Besides its size and elaborate artistic quality, Chichen Itza is an outstanding example of astronomical knowledge applied to architecture. A detail in the Kukulcan Pyramid, also called "the Castle," are the two serpents that flank the central staircase.

Well, in December 21st, during the winter solstice (yes, the day when "the world ends") the stairs of the pyramid produce a shadow in the shape of a snake and that, starting from the head form the body of the magic reptile, thus uniting heaven and earth. The detailed Mayan calendars also allowed them to understand the cycles of the stars and eclipses, and used that information to govern, control and impress people.

Another impressive aspect in this urban space is the acoustics. The sound was thoroughly studied, and allowed a person to clearly hear the speaker talking at the top of the pyramid. The following video   demonstrates the impressive effect obtained by  a single clap, whose sound was enhanced 10 to 12 times. Can you imagine the cry of a crowd?

The acoustic effect not only occurred in the pyramid, but also in the structure for the ball game.

This was a solemn space, where a game similar to football was played (although it could play with shoulders, elbows and knees) bouncing a rubber ball between two teams of seven players.

The game ended when the ball passed through one of the two rings especially carved in stone located at each side of this space.

The game was a sacred ritual, and the losing team was sacrificed, as evidenced by the reliefs found on one side of the structure

Besides the buildings, the complex contains a large well or cenote, vital for supplying water to the population and where, paradoxically, human sacrifices were offered during  times of drought. Because of them the city is named: Chi Cheen Itz a means "mouth of the well of water witches".

This brings up the huge environmental footprint that the city should have had, not only by the deforestation involving the city area itself, but by the large number of trees and water that was required in the construction process. This forest devastation was one of the causes of the decline of the Mayan civilization. Indeed, the city was abandoned already in the thirteenth century, three centuries before the arrival of the Spanish, due to environmental collapse and the brutality and cruelty of the ruling class, which was then a coalition formed by the Mayans and the Toltecs. The latter subjugated the Maya culture and exercised their power through human sacrifices to worship the sun, which according to them was fed only by the hearts of the sacrificed. For this reason many people fled to the jungle, accelerating the city's  process of collapse.
By the time Europeans arrived in this city, the jungle had claimed it for himself.


Monday, December 17, 2012



This second part is devoted to the architectural work of Le Corbusier in Chandigarh, is a complement to our previous post on the city's urban design.

The Capitol buildings in Chandigarh are the most important monumental complex in this city and some of the most interesting examples of Le Corbusier's work, although there are other of his buildings scattered throughout the city. The novel conceptual development and the thoroughness and detail evident in each building are typical of a Swiss watchmaker (actually, that was the profession of Le Corbusier in his youth) and demonstrate the commitment and love that the master devoted in his work.

Detail of the Assembly Palace's coverage .
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos in this article belong to C. Zeballos


Isolated from the rest of the city, located in the north foothills of the Himalayas, and separated from it by parks and highways, the entire Capitol represents the head of Chandigarh, in an analogy with the human body that was explained in the previous article .
While the scale of the complex exceeded the buildings functional requirements, its monumentality was necessary to symbolize the Prime Minister Nehru's vision, who hoped to overcome the glory and fame of Lahore, the ancient capital of Punjab ceded to Pakistan; a goal which, at least in the western world, has been achieved.
Asymmetrically arranged in a huge open area, the buildings of the Capitol area represent the powers of the democratic state and are comprised by: the Assembly (legislative), the Courts (judiciary), the Secretariat (executive) and accompanied by monuments such as the Open Hand and the Tower of Shadows. Here, Le Corbusier demonstrates is mastery in the use of the concrete, while reaffirming his conception of architecture as an element imposed to nature, achieving harmony and balance though contrast.

Capitol Area in Chandigarh.
See location on Google Earth


Court of Justice from the Secretariat.
The Superior Court of Justice was the first building to be finished. It consists of an L-shaped block, framed by a concrete cover that functions as a large umbrella that unfolds gracefully in the shape of arches, and that somehow establishes an reference to the covers of the havelis in Mughal architecture. This space between the double cover offers a smooth ventilation in the summer and protection during the rainy season. Le Corbusier used to say that both the sun and the rain are components of the architecture, and therefore applied in this building his famous concept of brise-soleil, or the inclusion of parasols as permanent and constituent elements of the building. Despite this, the functional distribution of the courts and the judges offices had to be shifted to prevent  the sun from direct insolation.

Detail of the facade of the Court, showing different grid compositions.

The main elevation faces a square where most vehicles park and where the entry controls are located. The rear facade looks at the esplanade facing the Assembly. Both spaces are spatially linked  through a portico formed by three large painted concrete columns (in contrast to the other exposed concrete elements).

Detail of the concrete parasol and its encounter with the plates.

The building contains 8 high courts, supreme court separated by the above mentioned plates . The courts are spaces of 8 * 8 * 12 meters, in which Le Corbusier applied another of his well-known principles, the modulation system known as modulor .
A system of ramps connecting the various offices of the judicial bureaucracy, while offering impressive views of the entire Capitol complex.

Detail the perforations in the ramps.

On the roof, Le Corbusier devised a set of outdoor terraces, which unfortunately today are used as warehouses.

Rooftop terraces of the courts.

It also had to create a special parking area for the judges, who did not agreed park next to the general public.


Main facade of the Secretariat.

Located at the other end of the Capitol, the so-called Secretariat is a long, 8-story, 245 m long and 42 high block, that houses  the administrative offices of two provinces, Punjab and Haryana. Its shape resembles Le Corbusier's Housing Units, called Unités.

Interior of dining in the secretariat. Note the separation of the windows from the structure, one of Le Corbusier's favorite principles .

With numerous elements that alter and dynamize its repetitive modulated character, the block  is an analogy to classical architecture: it is composed of a base, a body and a capital. Le Corbusier wanted to include his famous piles at the base and was about to give up the whole project when he was rejected (yes, he was very proud). Fortunately an intermediate alternative was found and the offices in the first floors were removed to make way for a gallery that offers shade for pedestrians.

Details of how the facade is dynamized by a sculptural element that enriches the composition.

In contrast to the light grid of the facade, there is a massive sculptural element, pierced by small windows, that houses a series of internal ramps.

Detail of stairs

Similarly, on the roof there is another recurring element in Corbusian architecture: the roof-garden, which was designed to compensate the ground that the building takes away from nature, and is composed of a series of sculptural and symbolic elements that used to have a civic role. Unfortunately today this area is closed for safety reasons (it was the first time in my life that I took pictures escorted by an armed soldier).

The Secretariat Garden-terrace 


Photo courtesy of John Steedman

Perhaps the most emblematic building of the complex, is aligned on the axis of the Capitol. It is a large rectangular block that reaches 38 m at its highest point. Instead two legislative houses of curved forms are linked by a foyer.

The front grid is rotated to avoid direct sunlight

Around the square there is a huge concrete parasol, whose monumental form is reflected on a pond, a detail used by Le Corbusier to give lightness to the building, gaving the impression of a large ship.

Assembly Plant

But the most significant aspect of the building is the coverage of the legislative chambers, formed by a pyramidal prism in the case of the Council Chambers and a sculptural hyperbolic paraboloid to the House of Assembly. It is said that Le Corbusier was inspired by a cooling chimneys saw in Ahmedabad and also by his fascination for the Indian bulls.

Game volume on the terrace of the Assembly

The scale and magnificence of the Assembly Hall is spectacular, and personally, is the vault that has impressed me most, along with the Pantheon in Rome. Unfortunately it was not allowed to take pictures, but still doubt I would have managed to capture the majesty of this space.

Painted black, it highlights the dramatic game of light, that gives the space generating a sense of solemnity.

Interesting structural models and lighting, courtesy of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia

The seats of legislators, of colorful tapestries, surrounding the Congress president and are arranged in a horseshoe layout. Outside, the building's doors are adorned with colorful paintings by the talented, versatile and workaholic Le Corbusier.

Pictorial work of Le Corbusier in the door of the Assembly


Designed to study the solar movement, this building served to Le Corbusier to support his thesis that "it is possible to control the sunlight in the 4 corners of a building, play with it even in a hot country and finally obtain low temperatures" .

Detail of the tower of the shadows. Behind the Assembly building


This interesting composition, which is both a dove and an open hand ready to give, became the symbol of Chandigarh. This mobile sculpture that rotates according to the wind direction, represents the synthesis of the Swiss architect philosophy.

A few weeks before he died while swimming in the Mediterranean Sea in August 1965, Le Corbusier wrote a letter called Mise au point, which says:
"This symbol of the Open Hand, open to receive the wealth created, to distribute to the peoples of the world, must be the symbol of our age. Before I find myself one day (a little later on) in the celestial spheres amid the stars of God Almighty. I shall be happy to see at Chandigarh, in front of the Himalayas, which rise up straight upon the horizon, this Open Hand, which marks for père Corbu a deed, a certain distance covered, from you, André Malraux, from you, my associates, from you, my friends. I ask help in realizing this symbol of the Open Hand in the skies of Chandigarh, a city desired by Nehru. Gandhi's disciple."

The Capitol area included other buildings that were designed but never realized. One of them was the Governor's Palace, which included offices and accommodation for the governor and his environment.
To learn more about the governor's house, I recommend this interesting and very complete dissertation Pere Perez Fuentes, entitled " Le Corbusier from the Governor's Palace . "

Governor's House. Model located in the City Museum
3D Model of the Governor's Palace, made ​​by Henry Gunawan.

Another building that was not realized was the Museum of Knowledge, an "Electronic laboratory for scientific decision making" where the user was able to interact with information stored in electronic media: words, sounds , colors, movies, etc. This is another example that his ideas were decades ahead with respect to his colleagues, Le Corbusier proposed the type of equipment that ultimately Toyo Ito built  in his Sendai Mediatheque 50 years later.

Press here to see a video of the Capitol, produced by architect Louis Gualtieri.

The Capitol is set candidate to be declared World Heritage Site by UNESCO.