Sketches from Mexico: Lucky McMahon


The Studio and Mexican Modernism class absolutely helped me move toward my goals! I am particularly interested in “sites of memory” and the layering of histories and how that affects contemporary space, especially in Mexico City. All of our work—from studio to the travel drawings—were based on this concept. My honors thesis is heavily informed by my experiences in Mexico, and I intend to pursue an independent study there in the summer of 2012. Mexico City was founded by Cortes atop the razed Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán and much of the valley lay beneath the waters of Lake Texcoco, a system of interconnected saline and freshwater lakes. As a result, many of the oldest structures are warped and unstable, which adds to the perceptual surreality in which Baroque curvalinearity, indigenous craftsmanship, and multiple spiritualties collide and paradoxically coexist. This metaphorical and literal layering of histories, from pre-Hispanic to colonial to the Revolution and to modern, creates a sense of halting continuity in which the desire for progress and the recognition of the significance of history are inextricably linked.

I would recommend this program to other students for various reasons. Foremost, the intensity and close focus of the program allow for an in-depth immersion in the culture, architecture, and, significantly, my own interests. The manner in which we drew was at times highly subjective and emotive, which required an introspection that is normally not allowed. Our drawings were a reflection of our own immersion in and contemplation of a brave new world. We travel through almost half the country, and the variety of landscapes is absolutely amazing. The architecture that is born from and grown out of a close relationship to the landscape is even more astounding.

I think I have grown immensely from my experiences outside of the States. I’ve learned to trust my intuition, to pursue what makes me happy, and to make the most of every day. A quote from T.S. Eliot that I thought of often was: We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time. I stayed an additional week so that I could visit little towns outside Mexico City, and I learned to make my own priorities and to explore continually. If I wasn’t in studio, I was wandering around the city and finding architecture where I least expected it. I really appreciated that my experiences helped me become self-reflective because otherwise it’s easy to just take it day by day and not be critical of myself.


Without a doubt, the most exhilarating aspect of this summer was the relentless travel and intense drawing. I have never felt as alive as when I was scaling a pyramid at Uxmal or riding a horse through the mountains of San Cristobal. Generally we would spend at least two days in a city; one day for a walking tour which covered the large urban landmarks like plazas and cathedrals and one day for focused and layered on-site drawing of urban lacunas (small scale urban interventions for pedestrian traffic and small community gathering). After our first few days in the city, we departed for the Yucatan Peninsula in the south of Mexico, near the Guatemala border. The first stop was Tlacotalpan, a tiny port town with brightly-painted, porticoed houses as far as the eye could see.  Organized around two squares which touched at a corner, the town’s main Baroque cathedral was intended for the upper-class Spanish, while the simplified cathedral of the other square was for the indigenous citizens. Our first pre-Hispanic site, Uxmal, is probably my favorite. Built of a little tan-pink stone, the Mayan site is amazingly well-preserved with grand plazas and open corner conditions in which the forest and mountains leak into the space, directing views and creating axial alignments. Mérida, a much larger coastal town, has varied and intimate urban plazas and some of the most emotionally charged cathedrals I’ve ever experienced; the elderly women crumpled by the entrance to the door with cups for change and the infinitely benevolent light in the space brought me to tears. This is something which I only noticed for the first time in Mexico: the contradiction and coexistence of the most painful sadness and the most exhilarating beauty.

Palenque, another Mayan site, was deeper in the rain forest with an impressive palace complex atop a mountain and the suburbs far below among the winding pathways and the deepest roots. To reach Yaxchilan, next to the border of Guatemala, we had to ride boats down a wide river where we saw crocodiles. Yaxchilan, again built into the side of a mountain, had one of the most surreal structures in which one had to pick one out of three entrances and hope that it eventually led to the exit. Completely dark and full of bats, it was more like wandering through a subterranean cave than a building. Next, San Cristobal was a gorgeous colonial city next to a river. My first well-documented lacuna was here, and I loved spending the day entirely immersed in the observation and recording of human activity in the space. This is also the site of our first horse-back ride through the mountains to a small town in which the indigenous pagan religion and Spanish Catholicism are blended seamlessly. A quiet church full of statues of saints in gilded cages surrounded by the smoke of incense and a million tiny candles was the most surreal space we visited. Finally, as we made our way back to Mexico City, we stopped at Oaxaca, which is a gorgeous colonial city of light green sandstone. There was a parade out of nowhere where groups from farmers’ co-ops would dress in amazing costumes and offer baked sweets and mescal to pedestrians watching and cheering the workers. Here, we recorded another urban lacuna. From there we visited several open chapels, which is one of the architectural typologies specific to Mexico.


The northern trip, our last traveling excursion outside Mexico City, had fewer pre-Colonial sites, but had many more examples of lacuna spaces, which really helped inform our own projects in studio. Our first stop, Guanajuato, was absolutely gorgeous with winding narrow streets and houses climbing the mountains. A complex system of subterranean tunnels snaked below the city, allowing access where the narrow streets would not allow it. They were really scary. One of my favorite lacunas was tucked behind the university. Zacatecas, a city of pink and red stone, had two particularly nice plazas that flanked the market and cathedrals; they were always being used and were interesting ways to negotiate a steep grade change. Our next stop was Real de Catorce — what a place!! After driving on the flattest landscape along a road made of tiny stones laid by hand, we reached the mountains and the entrance to the city: a two kilometer tunnel through which we couldn’t drive. So we grabbed our bags, tried to avoid breathing in gas fumes, and plunged forward. What space could be more analogous to the subconscious? When we finally reached the city after much stumbling and running into things, I was amazed by the simple precision of the architecture. As we took horses to abandoned mines and the mountains surrounding the city, one could see the vast expanse of the landscape. We were so high above the city that the clouds surrounded us.


Note: Because Mexico is at present included on the US State Department’s travel advisory list, the Honors College cannot currently fund any student travel to this country.

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