Although best known for his iconic Prairie Style (flat or low-sloped roofs, long cantilevers and a strong sense of integration with the landscape), groundbreaking architect Frank Lloyd Wright was also the designer of a series of houses heavily influenced by Mayan ruins. The heavily terraced exteriors imitate the style of the ruins, and ivy grows on the concrete blocks, giving the houses a lost-in-the-jungle look. Although famous for the style, Wright was not the only architect dabbling in it. Mayan Revival architecture was popular in the 1920’s and 30’s, both in America and abroad.
Construction of these buildings—especially Wright’s designs—relied heavily on the “textile block system.” In this technique, concrete molded blocks were made (usually on-site), with an emphasis on stylistic patterns and Lego-like assembly. Often, the concrete cubes would have holes incorporated in the design to allow light into the houses.
But just because Wright was famous, he was not always admired. Quite often his attempts to push the boundaries of current architectural thought were met with skepticism and derision from critics and even the homeowners themselves. And Wright knew of the chance he was taking when he ventured into the textile block system. In In the Realm of Ideas, a book about Wright, he is quoted as saying “What about the concrete block? It was the cheapest (and ugliest) thing in the building world. It lived mostly in the architectural gutter as an imitation of rock-faced stone. Why not see what could be done with that gutter rat? Steel rods cast inside the joints of the blocks themselves and the whole brought into some broad, practical scheme of general treatment, why would it not be fit for a new phase of our modern architecture? It might be permanent, noble, beautiful.”
Notorious for his leaky rooves, Wright’s textile block homes have not weathered the last eighty years perfectly. His first Mayan Revival design was La Miniatura, which was built overlooking a ravine—and hundreds of blocks from the terraces have fallen away. His most famous house in the style, the Ennis House, in Los Angeles, has been the location and backdrop of many films—including “Bladerunner”—because of its modern, unique appearance. But it, too, has fallen into disrepair and is frequently sold and resold by owners who don’t want the responsibility of caring for a broken-down architectural landmark. (Most recently, it was sold to billionaire Ron Burkle in 2011.)
Still, despite the crumbling exterior, Ennis House, and Wright’s other textile block houses, are iconic masterpieces of America’s most famed architect.