Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Mesoamerican stairs

While climbing Mesoamerican pyramids I'm frequently asked, "Why are the stairways so steep?", followed by “The ancient Mesoamericans weren't exceptionally tall people, were they?"  In our modern architecture we think of stairways as routes to quickly ascend or descend.  We expect them to be easy to climb when approached straight-on; with a hand-rail as an integral part of the stairway. Not so for ancient Mesoamericans. 

In aswering the first question I usually refer to the Pyramid of the Niches in El Tajin, an archeological site on the Gulf coast of northern Veracruz. Besides being an important religious center, El Tajin was probably a staging area for merchants setting off on the daunting five-day trip from the coastal plain to Teotihuacan, gateway to the Valley of Mexico at 2,200 meters (7,200 feet) above sea level.  

El Tajin's emblematic Pyramid of the Niches has 365 niches equally spaced around all four sides of the seven-tiered pyramid -- very probably one for each day of the solar year.  However, in order to count 365, we need to imagine there are niches obscured by the stairs going up to the top of the pyramid.

With the passage of time portions of the stairway have collapsed, and sure enough there are niches underneath the stairs!  These niches were never meant to be seen again once the stairway was built.  It is as if the builders thought of the stairway more as a ladder leaning up against the building.  Indeed throughout Mesoamerica the angle of the stairs on many buildings is similar to the angle at which a ladder would be leaned against the building.

It is not unusual for the steps to be higher than they are deep -- making for a strenuous climb.  I find it more comfortable to climb or descend in a long zig-zag. An added benefit is that the steps above can become the handrail.  

Renowned archeologist David Pendergast tells us "temples were . . . . sacred places to be visited and used by the priests and perhaps their retainers.  The priests themselves almost certainly did not dash up and down the stairs, but rather used the steps almost as a stage for ceremonial processions, moving with great pomp and dignity upward a stair at a time."  He adds, with humor,  "Priests, and their retainers perhaps retreated from the altar much as visitors do today, stern first and slowly." 

Occasionally you'll come across stairways that probably served a double duty as steps and bleachers -- with steps that are deep enough to sit on cross-legged while comfortably leaning against the riser as a backrest.  On those stairways I like to think of priests and nobles gathered to listen to a speaker sitting on the ceremonial platform in the middle of the courtyard.

Jaime Awe, Belize’s Commissioner of Archeology, believes that steep stairways provide "architectural economy."  They also preserve the maximum amount of space in the plazas in front of ancient Mesoamerican buildings.  A few years ago he showed me a most unusual step at Cahal Pech archeological site, near San Ignacio, Belize.  

The step blends in with all the others but it is a 20th century addition.  He called it a "Queen's step" splitting a very high step into two.  It was added for Queen Elizabeth II's visit to that site, allowing Her Majesty a more graceful entrance to a housing compound at the ruins.  My mind took me back to Dr. Pendergast's reference to priests, with their retainers helping them up the stairways.  Some things never change. 

And what about that follow-up question about the physical stature of the Mesoamerican people using the stairways?  In "Forest of Kings", Linda Schele writes about Aw-Cacaw who inherited the throne of Tikal in northern Guatemala in May of 682.  Tikal's emblematic Temple 1 is built over his tomb.  Dr. Schele writes: "Ah-Cacaw was a large man for his times.  He would live into his fourth katun [a period almost twenty years long], and be over sixty years old when he died.  At 167 cm (5 feet 5 inches) he was a veritable giant standing ten centimeters above the average height of the men in his kingdom."  

Dr. Pendergast was certainly right.  Given their relative stature it would have been a slow ascent and descent for ancient Mesoamericans who must have struggled even more than we do getting up and down the pyramids.  However they probably weren't in as much of a hurry as we seem to be.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Five continents on the Periférico

Setting out on the Periferico expressway in Mexico City is a daunting venture, but can become an interesting, enjoyable trip if you tune out the traffic congestion and instead focus on the public art.  Brainchild of Mathias Goeritz (1915-1990), Mexico City hosts the world's longest sculpture corridor.  Goeritz conceived of, participated in, and led a Sculpture Olympics as part of the Cultural Olympics, a two-year arts extravaganza preceding the 1968 Mexico Olympics. 

For the modern age, Goeritz wished to place sculpture along a roadway where it could be seen by those traveling by car or bus.  The sculptures would need to be massive.  Goeritz enjoined sculptors from the five continents to design 19 sculptures to line the Ruta de la Amistad (Route of Friendship), a 17-kilometer portion of the Periferico expressway leading to the Olympic Village in southern Mexico City.  Each artist was given an identical base on which to erect a monumental piece of abstract concrete sculpture designed to be viewed by passengers in vehicles in motion.  Nineteen were chosen as the number of sculptures since Mexico's was the 19th Olympiad.  Three other pieces of sculpture located at Olympic venues are part of the Scultpture Olympics, though not part of the Ruta de la Amistad.  

My personal favorites are Japan's "Spheres" by Kioshi Takahashi and Switzerland's "Anchor" by Willi Gutmann.  Both, in a sense, seem to be made up of two parts.  If turned 180 degrees they could fit together as a whole.

The sculpture representing the United States is by a particularly interesting artist, Herbert Bayer.  Born in Austria in 1900, Bayer became a U.S. citizen in 1944.   He participated in the Bauhaus movement both as a student and as a lecturer.   Early in his career he was known for his graphic designs, but later he was recognized as a painter, photographer, sculptor, interior designer, and architect.  He was considered the last living member of the Bauhaus.  Bayer's sculpture on the Periferico, known as "Articulated Wall", reminds me of a double helix.  It's the tallest of the sculptures making up the Ruta de la Amistad. Though not intentional, Bayer's Wall seems to invite climbing.  Gauging from the graffiti on it, it has been climbed many times.  

Clement Meadmore's, "Janus" represents Australia as both a country and a continent. Some see a Moebius strip; I see a swirl.  Whether using steel, bronze, aluminum, or, in the case of the Periferico, concrete, Meadmore's characteristic design is a rod, always of the same proportions, twisted into a different shape.  With it he has achieved myriad designs.  In "Janus", Meadmore included a stairway to intentionally allow visitors to climb up on top of his public sculpture and experience its change in design when seen from different angles.  Sadly, that can no longer be done.  Neighboring International Baccalaureate Colegio Olinca has appropriated Meadmore's sculpture, not only into its logo -- the "O" in its name -- but has also surrounded it with a fence.  I've always thought that the “international” school – with a number of countries flags on flagpoles visible from the Periferico -- should at least fly Australia's flag in appreciation for having appropriated the Australian sculpture.  

Three other pieces of sculpture located at Olympic venues complete the Sculpture Olympics.  One of them is Mathias Goeritz's "Big Dipper" ("Osa Mayor"), on the grounds of the Sports Palace (Palacio de los Deportes).  Tall fluted columns are positioned in the shape of the Big Dipper, when seen from above.  Indeed they are on Mexico City's airport flight path.  Look for them if you're on the left side of a plane landing from the south.  In the day when Mexico City was administered by a presidentially appointed Regent, the city government decorated the tops of Goeritz's monument to make them look like Christmas candles.  The artist demanded the columns be restored to their original design and they were.  An interesting aspect of Mexican law stipulates that artists retain control over their artwork even if sold.

I encourage you to make the drive along the Periferico soon.  Due to the construction of the second level of the Periferico, several of the Route of Friendship sculptures will be moved to other locations. It is an expressway bracketed by Mathias Goeritz with the Ruta de la Amistad at the south, and his, and Luis Barragan's, "Torres de Satélite" ("Ciudad Satelite Towers") at the north.  All in all Goeritz made a significant mark on Mexico’s City’s cityscape.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Mexico's Olympic Tradition

The Games of the XXX Olympiad of the modern era concluded Sunday.  Mexico, birthplace of the Mesoamerican ball game and team sport jubilantly celebrates a thrilling gold medal in soccer, the most popular game in the world.  

As I watched the 2012 games, I thought back to the 1968 Olympics and Mexico’s unique decision to hold a “Cultural Olympiad of the Games of the XIX Olympiad.”  During the Olympics, and the preceding two years, Mexico was host to a wide variety of artistic and cultural events.  All subsequent Olympics have followed Mexico’s example. 

Tangible, indeed concrete, memories of the Cultural Olympiad remain in Mexico.  They are the 19 enormous sculptures that since 1968 have lined Mexico City's Periferico expressway along a 17-km span known as the Ruta de la Amistad.  

In preparation for the Olympics sculptor and art historian Mathias Goeritz proposed an “Olympiad of Sculptors” that would renew the ancient Greek Olympic tradition of combining physical contests with sculpture.  This was facilitated by his close collaboration with famed architect Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, the award-winning designer of the Museum of Anthropology and the Aztec Stadium who also happened to be the president of the organizing committee of Mexico’s Olympic games.

Goeritz, originally from Germany, was familiar with the European grand avenues lined on either side with sculpture with the distances between sculptures primarily dictated by urban walking.  Goeritz wanted to relate sculpture to roads but from the perspective of a driver who travels much faster than a pedestrian walks.  He was dismayed by the increasing ugliness of highways and saw a need for the involvement of the artist.

Goeritz opened the inaugural session of the International Meeting of Sculptors, June 17, 1968, in Mexico City stating, “There is an urgent need for artistic design focused on contemporary city and thoroughfare planning…The artist, instead of being invited to collaborate with urban planners, architects and engineers, stands apart and produces only for the minority that visits art galleries and museums.  Art integrated into the inception of the urban plan is of fundamental importance in our age.  This means that artistic work will leave its surroundings of art for art’s sake and establish contact with people as they go about their daily life by means of total planning.”  

Karel Wendl, himself a sculptor, was the International Secretary of the project headed by Goeritz.  In describing Goeritz’ vision Wendl later wrote,  “The Ruta de la Amistad was to be an international event with the unifying theme of brotherhood of all the peoples of the world.  The sculptors' artistic liberty had only three restrictions:  the sculptures were to be made of concrete, be monumental, and be abstract.  Furthermore, the sculptors were asked to keep in mind the unusual nature of art that, for the most part, would be seen from automobiles passing by on a superhighway. 

It was Goeritz’ vision that the sculptures would represent all continents, all races, both genders.  Selected sculptors meeting these criteria were invited to submit models.  All material was donated and teams built the sculptures in place.  The Olympic Committee approved all decisions but Goeritz and his team of sculptors had considerable control over the project.  Ultimately they decided where the various sculptures would be placed and whether their size would be increased or decreased from the proposed size by the artist.  

The 17-km stretch of the Anillo Periferico connecting the various Olympic venues was chosen as the site for the sculptures. The artist teams arrived in June 1968 to already completed foundations.  They had only two months to supervise the execution of their work.  Many of the artists asked that the pieces be left in the color of natural concrete.  Goeritz preferred different colors.  In most cases he let the artist choose the color but later said it was a mistake.  “All sculptures should have been painted the same color – perhaps a bright orange.”

Once the sculptures were in place the International Olympic Committee asked Mexico to proclaim one of them the winning piece of sculpture.  Mexico refused, saying they are all winners, and reminding the Olympic Committee that it was here, in Mesoamerica, that the concept of teamwork in sports originated, a concept that allows many participants in an event to be winners.  

The sculptures have faced numerous threats through the years.  Neglect and vandalism were their greatest enemies before the building of a “second floor” to the Periferico, which is now underway.  Some of the sculptures will need to find a new home as a result of the highway construction.  Nonetheless, through it all, they have survived and now have received the protection of the World Monuments Fund currently restoring the sculptures.  

As a result of Goeritz’ vision, Mexico City now has the world's longest sculpture corridor.  Thankfully they aren't bright orange.  

Next week will feature the various sculptures and artists along the Ruta.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The ancient roots of basketball

The Mesoamerican ballgame -- with its image of a ball going through a ring – always brings basketball to my mind.  Indeed there is likely a close relationship between the two games.  Last week's Charlie's Digs focused on the introduction to Europe of the Mesoamerican idea of team sport and the concept of a team as a winner in a sporting event -- a significant break from previous European individualized sport -- in which only individuals competed and only individuals won.  

Most archeological sites in Mesoamerica have at least one ball court with its characteristic capital "I" shaped playing field with a vertically placed ring high on each side of the court.  Hundreds of years after the conquest and the introduction of the idea of team sports to the western world, the Mesoamerican ballgame again played a role in sports.  This time it led to the development of basketball, today one of the world's most popular games. 

Basketball was invented in 1891 by Canadian athletic coach, James Naismith.  With a B.A. in Physical Education from McGill University, Naismith worked his way through seminary as a Physical Education instructor at his alma mater.  In 1890 Naismith graduated with a degree in Theology from The Presbyterian College of Montreal but decided to combine theology with his love of sport.  Instead of taking a pastoral position he relocated to Springfield, Massachusetts and a job at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) Training Center – now Springfield College. 

In 1891 Naismith was asked by the director of the YMCA program, Dr. Luther Gulick, to "create an indoor game that would provide an 'athletic distraction' that didn’t take up much space, and could help track athletes keep in shape.”  Gulick explicitly emphasized, “It should be fair for all players and not too rough." Naismith seized on the opportunity to concurrently design a game his American football team could play during the long winter months.  He believed maintaining physical conditioning would give his team an advantage over opponents when football season rolled around.  

In the 1941 posthumously published book, Basketball Its Origin and Development, Naismith recalls pondering over how to adapt popular games of the time to a small indoor space.  He notes, "The normal individual is strongly influenced by tradition.  If he is interested in a game, any attempt to modify that game sets up an antagonism in his mind.  I realized that any attempt to change the known games would necessarily result in failure.  It was evident that a new principle was necessary; but how to evolve this principle was beyond my ken."

Naismith sought ideas from other cultures and from a sport with which his students had neither contact nor bias.  Naismith and his wife subscribed to a Christian missionary magazine which had featured the Mesoamerican ballgame. 

The connection between an1891 issue of a missionary magazine and Naismith’s creation of basketball that same year wasn't made until after his death.  It is more than an interesting coincidence -- perhaps possible only because of his background in ministry and sport.  Indeed, the life-long melding of athletics and theology shaped Naismith’s career and legacy.  The YMCA, through its international programs, and the U.S. Army's adoption of the game for stress relief are credited with the rapid spread of basketball worldwide. 

In 1895, Naismith enrolled for a medical degree at the University of Colorado Medical School in Denver. While pursuing medical studies, he worked as physical education director at YMCA, Denver. 

In 1898, the new “Dr.” James Naismith joined Kansas University as its basketball coach, physical education instructor, and chapel director.  He retired from the University forty years later by which time basketball was an established sport throughout the world.   

Dr. Naismith had the rare honor of both creating a new sport and forty-five years later being present at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games in which basketball was recognized as an official Olympic sport for the first time.  Naismith tossed the ball at the first game, and presented the medals to the winning teams. Fittingly the first medal presented, the bronze, went to Mexico, homeland of the game that was "beyond his ken".   The U.S. and Canadian teams received the gold and silver medals. 

Today basketball is one of the world’s most played, and popular, games.  In the 2012 Olympics 25 professional NBA (National Basketball Association of the USA) players will play on the teams of birth countries from six continents.  Basketball courts are ubiquitous throughout the world.  I rarely pass through a pueblo in Mexico without one . . . as it should be in the country of its true origin.