Los Angeles Review of Books

All photographs by MacDuff Everton. All rights reserved.

 

THE BUILT LANDSCAPE is often how we relate visually to history. We visit archaeological sites, monuments, churches, temples, mosques, museums, forts, castles, and buildings of state. I love urban landscapes where layers are piled upon each other, such as those you find in Rome or Mexico City. 

We speak of the pleasure and splendor of ruins — but how often does an architect contemplate what their creation will look like when it falls into decay? Will it still have a tangible presence? It is time going backwards, returning to the beginning and exposing the bones of the structure. Archaeological sites have a form and presence never anticipated by the builders; in their altered state we are embraced in a backward gazing dream. For many sites, the façade is everything. Builders were aware of light and shadow and how the interplay of the two would change throughout the day. The setting can be just as important and seductive. This would be important regardless of whether the building was religious, monumental, utilitarian, or residential.

Architecture is often used to make religious and cultural statements. For example, Bayon, at Angkor, is a state temple, a complex monument that uses face towers to create stone mountains of ascending peaks, and below are two bas-relief galleries with delicately carved historical, religious, and mythological subjects sweeping across the walls. Dancing apsaras are incised on pillars. 

In Europe, the façade of cathedrals have saints, clerics, and angels floating above our heads, and the interior is a man-made space meant to encompass the heavens and earth, with soaring ceilings, and rich imagery and decoration. They invited the congregation to worship and pray. Everyone had access to God. The altarpiece is an artistic testament to God’s power and glory and the focus of the richest display of wealth: paintings, gold leaf, carvings, and elaborate niches. Windows let in light, sometimes through stained glass, which adds a kaleidoscope of rainbow colors dancing on the floor and walls as the sun moves. It is light, mysterious, and holy.

In the Americas the Maya wrote their history on the outside of their buildings. Like any culture that believes the earth is alive, they used objects as symbols for the natural world. Their pyramids were mountains, and the doorways of their temples were the mouths of those mountains — cave entrances. Their Classic Period was noted for elite architecture, propagandistic monuments, and flamboyant theater-state rituals where epicenters of Maya sites were constructed as stage settings for religious spectacles, demonstrating the political and spiritual power of the rulers.

Human’s early impact on the landscape is found in the megalithic sites of Europe. Standing stones, stone circles, and cairns date to the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age. People have probably been anthropomorphizing the stones since soon after they were erected — brooding, pensive figures — maybe even witches or faeries in the woods or open moor. The builders of the Neolithic burial chamber at Pentre Ifan in Wales would never have intended it to be viewed as it is today — a large and elegant capstone balanced delicately on the tips of upright stones. They covered it with a mound of earth 130 feet (40 meters) long, traces of which still remain, but thousands of years of wind and rain have exposed the very essence of its design, revealing a monument of lyrical grace, equal to or surpassing modern contemporary sculpture. 

An archaeological zone is often referred to as a “dig” because we literally have to shovel through centuries and millennia of detritus to uncover the buildings to discover the site. There might only be the most teasing of hints, but often nothing left on the surface to tell us what will lie beneath. In the tropics we have archaeology under the canopy, mature hardwood forests crowning what once were palaces and pyramids, their roots, over time, inexorably crumbling masonry walls and breaking lintels into two.

We can see fragments of this happening today even where we live. The weeds that spring from the smallest of crevices, a sidewalk broken by a tree root, its outline traced by the bulges and cracks of the cement, a vacant yard turned feral by neglect or foreclosure. Leaves and weeds accumulate, break down, and the mulch becomes soil. More weeds, bushes, and trees take root in the soil that collects — on a rooftop, inside a vacant building, along an abandoned track. An animal builds its nest, a bird drops a seed, and each and every thing adds their parts — a reminder that, even in a city, we live in nature, even if that nature is a product of human influence. People and their towns and cities might hold nature, by differing degrees, in abeyance, but it is always a part of our world, and once a city goes into decline or is abandoned, the natural world takes over.

Ruins provide us an enigma that we can study and try to decipher. We walk around trying to see the overall picture, meanwhile looking for the details that will inform our thoughts, and we are free to come up with our own hypotheses. Many archaeological sites are in park-like environments — they can be pleasant to visit. People bring picnics and play games and turn it into a family outing, cheerfully oblivious or simply enjoying that once upon a time intrigue and pageantry inhabited the spot. They might nibble on their appetizers where soldiers once massed, kings spoke to their subjects, merchants contemplated perilous and long journeys, and captives were sacrificed.

While ruins remind us how much we have forgotten, they also give us license to dream. We can try to imagine what buildings once looked like, what a square might have sounded like full of people, what the market might have smelled like packed with vendors with all the wealth of their wares. Ruins expose us to cultures we might not have known existed, to history we can look forward to learning, to discovering more about the people who probably never entertained the thought that one day we would be standing here wondering who they were. 

We think of ruins as being isolated cultural sites, but our effect on the earth has been so significant that we have entered the Anthropocene Era. Sometimes we deceive ourselves into thinking that these changes have been utterly natural, but we are living in the ruins of a natural disaster of our own making, a process started thousands of years ago but accelerating quickly. “Nature is not a temple, but a ruin,” writes J.B. MacKinnon in The Once and Future World: Nature as It Was, as It Is, as It Could Be. “A beautiful ruin, but a ruin all the same.”

Just as Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote about impermanence in his sonnet “Ozymandias,” and later Robinson Jeffers in his poem “Hands,” we should realize that one day someone will stand where we now live and wonder who we were.

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Click images to enlarge. 

Angkor Cambodia

Angkor, Cambodia; face towers at temple of Bayon, late 12th to late 13th c. Khmer civilization – images of Jayavarman VII as a Bodhisattva facing the cardinal points – Angkor Thom.

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Aranceh Yucatán México

Acanceh, Yucatán, Mexico; Maya archaeological site at main plaza of town showing Maya, Colonial, and contemporary influences.

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Bullfight Ring Three Cultures Yucatán México 
Acanceh, Yucatán, Mexico; bullfight ring in main plaza with 3 cultures – Maya, Colonial, and contemporary, Maya archaeological site

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4. Dunadd Argyll Scotland

Dunadd, Argyll, Scotland; capital of Dalriada, the site of this ceremonial center in Kilmartin Glen is where many Scots believe Scotland began.

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5. Merida Spain ampitheater

Mérida, Extremadura, Spain; Ampitheater of Mérida, built with an elliptical shape for gladiator combat for the Roman colony of Emerita Augusta, capital of Lusitania, inaugurated 8 B.C.

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6. México City México Plaza of Three Cultures

México City, México; Tlatelolco (Plaza of Three Cultures), Aztec archaeological site.

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7. México City México Templo Mayor with Cathedral

México City, México; Templo Mayor, sacred center of the Aztec Empire, now in the political and religious center of México City next to the cathedral and zócalo. Cathedral in background. 

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8. México City México Templo Mayor

México City, México; Templo Mayor of Tenochtitlan; Sacred center of the Aztec Empire, now in the political and religious center of México City next to the cathedral and zócalo; Standard bearer sculptures reclining against stairway of Stage III Temple leading to shrine of the war god Huitzilopochtli.

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10. Pompeii Italy

Pompeii, Italy; group of visitors to Roman city preserved after being buried in ash after the eruption of Vesuvius on 23 August 79 AD.

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11. Sans Souci Haiti

Sans Souci, Haiti; ruins of the royal palace of King Christophe (Henry 1), built between 1810-1813, part of National History Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Callanish, Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland; megalithic stone circle 

Callanish, Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland; megalithic stone circle.

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Stonehenge, England; the most celebrated prehistoric monument in the world

Stonehenge, England; the most celebrated prehistoric monument in the world.

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Xunantunich, Belize; archaeological work on El Castillo, Maya site

Xunantunich, Belize; archaeological work on El Castillo, Maya site.

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Macduff Everton is a photographer based in Santa Barbara, California, who has captured breathtaking landscapes and everyday life in more than 75 countries. He is the author of The Modern Maya: Incidents of Travel and Friendship in Yucatán (Represented by Janet Borden; University of Texas Press).

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