Week 11 SCRAP Reading Group: All about architecture and planning

This week’s conversation focused on architecture and planning. We had 14(!) people join, from Canada, US, Belize, and Mexico. Another great two-hour conversation. See below for Shawn’s summary and discussion questions.

Wernecke, Daniel Clark (2005) Chapter 3. Planning and Preparation. A Stone Canvas: Interpreting Maya Building Materials and Construction Technology. Dissertation Presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of The University of Texas at Austin.


Houk, Brett A. (2015) Chapter 11. Deciphering Meaning in Maya Cities. Ancient Maya Cities of the Eastern Lowlands. University Press of Florida, Tallahassee.


The two contributions under consideration this week were selected for their complementarity, each serving as a logical extension of the observations and interests of the other. Clark Wernecke’s chapter takes a broad approach to a discussion of evidence for planning and preparation of ancient monumental architecture in the Maya area, and at various scales/resolutions from individual structures, to groups, and larger segments of site plans. Through extensive literature review, he attempts to pick apart our perception of planning, distinguishing between what may be demonstrable and what is simply inferred. He considers such dimensions of planning as function, mathematics/geometry, labour organization, ground preparation and foundations, and platform construction. Brett Houk’s chapter picks up on this discussion by attempting to examine the significance of monumental planning at the city level. With particular reference to a handful of well-surveyed cities of the Eastern Lowlands, Houk identifies and attempts to make sense of patterns in these plans, and to explain the significance (or not) of the apparent differences.


  1. Intention occupies the highest rungs of Hawkes’ Ladder of Inference for a reason. With respect to architecture and the city plan, what do we mean by “planning”? Can we read intention in the layout and construction of individual structures, let alone entire plans? Where? What does it matter (i.e. how would it have impacted the everyday experience/understanding of a site)?
  2. What constitutes evidence for planning at the site level? To what extent might we expect fidelity to any one plan/planner to exist? In other words, to what degree might we expect to read a coherent message in city plans (particularly where developed over centuries or millennia) and are there smaller-scale explanations for apparent planning at the city level?
  3. Different planning principles are more or less readily evoked at different sites. What does this say of the builders, their identities, concerns, and experiences? How might these speak to topics such as stability vs. instability? Continuity vs. discontinuity? Sophistication vs. simplification? Innovation vs. conservatism? Flexibility vs. rigidity? Experience? Familiarity vs. unfamiliarity?
  4. What degree of precision (either in an individual structure or overall plan) is required to demonstrate intention/planning?
  5. Wernecke brings up an interesting point with respect to our perceptions of success and failure. Is a structure that fails in 200 years any less successful than the one that takes 1200 years to reach the same point? To what extent are we, with our gods’ eye view blending decades (if not centuries), guilty of dehumanizing architecture and spaces of the ancient Maya? What are the consequences of this? What can we do about it?
  6. In a similar vein (is this just an extension of the previous question?!) Houk specifically addresses issues of maps as static representations of dynamic places. Moreover, he points out that, even at our best surveyed sites, our maps are often idealized and imperfect representations of a palimpsest that likely don’t represent an accurate snapshot of the site at any one point in time. Does this matter? What are the implications for our understanding of ancient Maya architecture and cities?
  7. What do regional patterns of plan or construction mean? Is it simply familiarity with techniques and style (Houk’s principle of “build what you know”)? Is it political emulation? Is it something else? How do we decide?
  8. Finally, how do we read function into our site plans?