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Building Styles

 

Colonial (1542 - 1821)

 
Colonial buildings are usually configured in one of four basic shapes.
 
Vendors or poorer people typically built a series of two or three contiguous rooms along the street line, with room for animals, food plants and random outbuildings behind. People higher up the economic ladder built “L”- or “C”-shaped homes, with the outdoor space serving again as a functional place for cooking fires, horses and the like. Only the wealthiest had the resources to build larger “O”-shaped structures, allowing a large central courtyard surrounded by colonnades and rooms all opening to the outside.
 
Stylistically, Colonial homes are generally unadorned and simple, using only structural elements such as beams, columns and post/lintel configurations as aesthetic focal points.
 
This photo illustrates a typical street in Mérida. Visible are the three primary styles that define the urban fabric. Left to right: Colonial, Neo-colonial, Porfiriato.
 

Post-Independence/Neo-colonial (1822 – 1875)

 
The period between the war of Mexican Independence from Spain and the start of the rule of Porfirio Díaz was marked by stark economic changes in Yucatán.
 
At first, the region struggled to recover from the losses instigated by the war. Things worsened during the bloody War of the Castes – a horrific conflict that began originally between Yucatecans and Mexicans, later between Mayans and landed Spanish gentry, and ultimately between fathers and sons. Poverty and harsh circumstances prevented much development. Toward the last decades of the period, however, Yucatán had already converted the majority of its haciendas toward the cultivation of henequén – “green gold” – and we begin to see the appearance of larger homes in Colonia Centro, with somewhat more elaborate façades.
 
The old Mérida central train terminal has recently been restored and converted to a school of the arts.
 

Porfiriato (1876 - 1911)

 
Hailed as a hero in the war against the French in the famous Cinco de Mayo battle in Puebla, Porfirio Díaz assumed the presidency of the Republic in 1876.
 
It is ironic that he served as a general against the French, because during his time in the office of president (which lasted 34 years and was perhaps more like a “benevolent dictatorship” than a democratic presidency), Díaz popularized the art, architecture, cuisine and general culture of France throughout Mexico. In his efforts to modernize the country, not only were railroads and steam engines introduced, but also city planning changed to adopt the broad boulevards and green parks so famously French.
 
Above: Porfirio Díaz fêted in the grand ballroom of the Palacio del Gobierno, Mérida.
 
This was also the heyday of the henequén boom, and Mérida boasted more millionaires per capita than any other city in the world. Mansions sprouted like wildflowers along the new Paseo de Montejo, and old colonial homes in Centro were plastered with new ornamentation in the Beaux Arts style, to reflect new tastes but also to close the door on the Spanish colonial past. More homes of two or even three stories were built, often now in the lavish “O” shape, with grand stairways leading to breezy upstairs parlors. Virtually all of the non-residential buildings constructed during this period were for the processing, commercialization or transport of sisal fiber.
 
Palacio Canton – now the Museum of Anthropology – was only one of the beautiful henequén mansions that lined Paseo de Montejo.
 

Post-revolutionary (1912 – 1930)

 

A time of great global turmoil – European wars and the climax of World War I – was also marred by the Mexican Revolution, which ignited in 1910 and concluded in 1921.

The revolution began essentially as a rebellion against Díaz and his scheme to launch Mexico into the capitalistic global economy. It could also be linked to the great socialist movements afoot in Europe at the same time, as well as the result of residual rage at hacendados – the original landed gentry of Spanish descent. It marked the final break with the Spanish past, as hacienda land was seized and returned to the indigenous Maya, and Catholic churches were ransacked and priests and nuns slaughtered. When the smoke cleared, a new Mérida emerged, ripe for new investment and another brief burst of affluence. Interesting new architectural styles emerged – such as “Neomaya”, Neo-colonial and Regional Yucatecan Modern – colored as they were by their rather self-conscious socialist underpinnings.


Modern (1930 – 1970)

 
While these 40 years witnessed a global depression, another World War, and a post-war economic boom, the general timbre of life in Mérida was one of decline.
 
Henequén wealth was all but wiped out by the development of nylon, which the chemical giant DuPont patented in 1935 and began commercially producing by 1939. But creative life was anything but depressed. In terms of architecture, the social changes brought about by the early years of the twentieth century expressed themselves in giddy aesthetic experimentation and pronounced artistic and stylistic movements in Europe – which ultimately found their way to Mexico and to Mérida. Homes, theaters and public buildings appeared in the characteristic geometry of the French Art Deco  and Moderne styles. At the same time, the influence of the Weimar Bauhaus gave shape to a new breed of buildings, which embraced the “less is more” theories of “functionalism.” By no means as evident in Mérida, but represented nonetheless, is the Organic architectural methodology of Frank Lloyd Wright and his disciples at Taliesin.


Contemporary (1970 – present)

 
Economic stability and growth giving rise to an expansion from the urban core outward and northward toward Progreso has resulted in the creation of dozens of new residential and commercial developments and shows no sign of slowing down.
 
Homes in every style – from “postmodern” to “neocolonial” to what could only be termed the “McMansion” – are sprouting up unchecked in nothern outreaches, all served by new placitas (mini-malls) with the same ubiquitous offerings. At the same time, during the last decade and a half, a renaissance within Mérida’s centro histórico has been fueled by the arrival of a new kind of “landed gentry” – foreigners who have discovered the comforts of tropical living, the charms of the people of Yucatán and the majesty of old colonial homes. At a remarkably fast pace, they are purchasing these homes – many of which had been abandoned and were falling into ruin – and restoring them with everything from simple coats of paint to up-to-the-minute new infrastructure. Whatever the outcome of these dramatic shifts may hold for the future, we are all witnessing and participating in the emergence of a new Mérida. And with this privileged platform comes a proud responsibility.
 
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