Impact of western cultural values on traditional Mayan housing

As part of our prelim research phase, I was looking into traditional Mayan architecture and found a fantastic paper by James Davidson, “Western architectural ideology and its impact on the traditional building practices of the Maya peoples of Guatemala and Southern Mexico”.

The opening question is directly relevant:

“can ‘traditional’ building practices synthesise with nontraditional

methods of construction in enabling Western practitioners to

design culturally appropriate small-scale public housing in non-Western

and Indigenous built environments?”

James references a UN Habitat for Humanity project in Guatemala, with the main point being that such projects are ultimately insensitive and inappropriate to the local communities – and that this is a direct result of being defined by western cultural values in the first place. He also noted during his research of the region that while the imposed western housing solutions came to signify elevated social status, (and this was appreciated by communities he interviewed), these buildings did not engage with traditional behaviours, (which the Maya communities still practice). For example, the storage and drying of local food staples in the roof space and traditional cooking methods were incompatible with the concrete and tin buildings of UN habitat for humanity.

Some useful phrases:

– “ranchos (farm houses), chozas, casas de paja (thatch houses), and casas de los antiguos (old houses or ‘houses of the ancients’), casas de los pobres (‘houses of the poor’)”

– “The term ‘traditional’… refers to those Maya houses or dwellings constructed using thatch, be it grass (paja, pajon), wheat stalks (trigo), sugarcane-leaf (hoja de caña), corn-leaf (hoja de maize) or a number of different types of palm frond (ah’hij, guano, manoco or zacate) as a roofing material.”

-“storage and drying of crops such as maize (corn) and frijoles (beans) is serviced within the roof space of the cooking/sleeping house itself, negating the need for a separate storage building.”

-“The typical method of tie-down for all timber and thatch elements within the traditional dwelling is termed vejuco…This method utilises the bark of a number of locally available trees, as well as the internal fibres of the mecate or agave cactus.. The method used to prepare the tie-down is to soak the material for three to four days and then apply it to the timber joint whilst wet. The material shrinks as it dries and provides a stable joint connection. It has been shown, through local oral accounts that such jointing is excellent for maintaining a stable structure during earthquakes.”

-” Anthropological research conducted in the 1960s and 1970s has linked the Maya belief system to mythology regarding humankind’s relationship to the universe.4 This fact is also evident in the current investigation in that there are a number of elements within the traditional house which relate to specific beliefs associated with house layout, construction and material usage.”

-“The outcomes of the regional survey have been to recognise the cultural and regional specificity of these houses, as they embody traditional cultural knowledge related to the beliefs, behaviours and products of Maya cultures and which are intimately linked to the land, materials and ecology of the region. No two dwellings are alike as each dwelling is flexible in function so as to accommodate the individual desires and motivations of the owner.”

-” Most of the houses examined during the author’s regional survey were either the last of their kind, being inhabited by an elderly Maya couple which refused to move to another dwelling, or were inhabited by an extremely poor family which did not have the monetary resources to join the change process by buying contemporary building materials. The predominant house form throughout the region is no longer that of timber and thatch, it is concrete block and corrugated tin.”

-“(The UN Habitat for Humanity housing project) .. The problems with such housing far outweigh the benefits, people are still living in poverty, the only difference is that they now have a different house in which they have to ‘transform’ and ‘change’ in order to ‘fit’, rather than a house which is modified to ‘fit’ their behaviours and methods of living.”

Read the whole article here –

– Flynn

1 thought on “Impact of western cultural values on traditional Mayan housing

  1. Flynn, this article is a great find!

    It is true that we are facing a paradox in many ways. As your quote above says, the traditional buildings are now conceived as the ‘houses of the poor’: houses of the marginalized.
    This understanding was not constructed in recent times, but is perhaps the product of a western-izing process that started over 500 years ago. However, what happened in more recent times was a deliberate distinction between the developed and the non-developed world.

    Developing countries, including Mexico, try to catch up and follow the model of the Developed: the West. Some few years ago, the Mexican government generated a methodology for measuring poverty or better said, marginalization; it being a more complex index than measuring only the income. This methodology is applied by CONEVAL (The National Council for the Evaluation of Social Policy).

    One of the dimensions measured by CONEVAL is the quality of living spaces. There is an explicit list of materials that if present, determine lack of quality in the living places. If the rooftops are made of disposable materials; if the walls are made of clay, bamboo, palm, metal or cardboard sheets, asbestos or disposable materials; if the floor is made of soil, and if more than two people live in one room; the house lacks quality in the living places.

    The paradox is that research in Sustainable constructions made around the world approve the use of local materials, including many of those which have been listed among the bad quality ones…

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