Rio Bec B

The Beautiful Rio Bec B [Photo by John Hagenbuch: March 2006]

Rio Bec architecture seems to evoke extreme and opposite reactions from scholars. Michael Coe, who refers to the Rio Bec towers as an 'aberrant architectural style', writes: "Here showiness rather than function is what was apparently sought, for characteristic of this style of the Late Classic is the decoration of perfectly ordinary small 'palaces' with high towers imitating the fronts of temple-pyramids; these towers are solid, however, the steps being impossibly narrow and steep, and the 'doorway' at the summit leading to nothing. It is as though the Rio Bec architects wished to imitate the great Tikal temples without going to any trouble... To today's 'functionalists', the fakery of the Rio Bec style is somewhat repellent, but no one could help but be awed at these mysterious sites crumbling in their jungle fastness."

Michael D. Coe, "The Maya", p.112-3

Paul Gendrop, in contrast, is more sympathetic: "...something that, a priori, might pass for a simple, decadent copy without any utilitarian value (or worse, mere theatrical scenery) begins to change on analyzing these buildings so characteristic of the Río Bec area, because of the important place they occupy at each site, the detail and excellence of their execution, the peculiarities of their architectural conception, the systematic and coherent use of a series of distinctive traits, and the importance itself of the iconographic motifs used.

We remember, besides, that the era in which these Río Bec buildings were constructed—an era particularly fecund in artistic creativity in this as well as other regions of the Maya lowland—coincides precisely with the time in which Tikal, as a logical result of a rich and uninterrupted architectural progression of twelve or thirteen centuries, is ready to build its most imposing temples.

...In the prehispanic Mesoamerican world, public manifestations of worship were made outdoors, essentially. Situated on top of its pyramidal base, the temple had become, through the centuries, less and less accessible to the common people who, congregated around the pyramid base, had to be content with witnessing from below the ceremonies taking place above, before the door of the sanctuary which, on occasions, was reduced to the condition of a simple tabernacle with accessory functions as a "sacristy" and also, perhaps, as an echo chamber designed to amplify dramatically the voice of the celebrant. In addition—and this is seen particularly at Tikal—as the temple grew in volume and height the interior spaces became narrower.

In order to support the weight of a constantly more impressive roofcomb, the "holy of holies" had been reduced to truly absurd proportions, as in the case of Temple V at Tikal. We might conclude that—at least in regard to some of the gigantic temple-pyramids in the Petén—the ceremonial requirements eventually could get along with just the physical and symbolic presence of the sanctuary whose inner space had become practically useless.

From uselessness to complete suppression was merely a step, and this is what probably took place north of the Petén in the ceremonial centers of Río Bec, where the only thing preserved, though scrupulously, was the exterior appearance of the temple-pyramid with its vital and inseparable addition of symbolic elements."

Paul Gendrop, Rio Bec, Chenes, and Puuc Styles in Maya Architecture, p. 35-36