Introduction to Palenque Architecture
Visitors to Palenque are often struck by the human proportions and spacious galleries of its architecture, the deft application of stucco sculpture, and the sophisticated dialogue between buildings and the landscape. As George Andrews noted long ago the architects of Palenque created an architecture that affected the viewer through grace of form as opposed to the monumentality employed at such sites as Tikal (1975:169). The lightness that characterizes the architecture of Palenque when compared to that of other Maya cities was achieved through engineering innovations, but it also derived from aesthetic choices about what was architecturally appropriate. Other cities could have easily emulated the techniques developed and employed at Palenque, but it was a choice they did not make. Just as the Greek and Indian architects preferred post and lintel construction for their temples and civic architecture—despite knowledge of the arch—Maya architects chose to create forms that derived from the ancient domestic thatched huts that are still common over much of the Maya word today.
At some sites, such as Tikal, the basic form of the hut was elaborated and abstracted into massive pyramids capped by an almost unusable temple superstructure. The point here though was the temple’s soaring height, not interior space. In fact, later in history the Rio Bec architectural style completely eliminated the interior space in the temple pyramid, which became part of the sculptural façade of the actual temple.
At Palenque ancient architects began with the same simple hut but they apparently valued the more precise translation of the vernacular into stone and chose to preserve the human proportions and architectural details of the thatched hut. They paid special attention to the roofline and developed a Mansard roof style not found employed at other Maya sites with the same attention to detail. Within the slope of the roof stucco sculptures were placed and the entire roof was terminated by a roof comb composed of a latticework of stone and stucco sculpture as seen in the photograph of the Temple of the Sun below.