The Curious Design Enigmas of Chichén Itzá's Temple of Kukulkán

This article was originally published by Ezra Schwartz on LinkedIn. It has been reprinted here with permission from the author.

Following a recent family visit to Chichén Itzá, I became somewhat obsessed with a couple of design enigmas I found there:

Design Enigma 1: The large pyramid in this amazing archeological complex, known as the Temple of Kukulkán, is highly symmetrical. But the first thing I observed when we approached it and stood in front of its west side, is that the structure on top of the pyramid (A above), is not center-aligned relative to the 9 terraces below it, as one would expect*. The visual guides 1 and 2 show the misalignment (images above and below).

Courtesy of Ezra Schwartz

Upon a closer observation, I also noticed that while the door (B above) is centered with the staircase (C), it is not centered with the West wall (A is smaller than B - see in the detail photo below). Finally, also in the detail below, see how the door (1) is not centered with the inset rectangle above it (2). That inset, however, is centered with the West wall.

Courtesy of Ezra Schwartz

To me, these asymmetries contrast with a core design principle of this magnificently symmetrical structure.

Design Enigma 2: Naturally, I started to search for an explanation and was surprised to find that friends who visited the site said they did not notice the imbalance, and that, of the numerous sites obsessing about the Temple of Kukulkán, none mentions the disharmonious relationship between the top structure and the rest of the pyramid.

Artists and designers often use asymmetry to create interesting and dynamic compositions, but to me, the execution of asymmetry here is odd as it presents like a measurement mishap, which, given the visual prominence of the structure and its importance, should have been immediately fixed during original construction.

Solid design ideas for solving these enigmas are most welcome.


#1. Note that when observed from the North-South axis (#3 in the first image), the top structure is center-aligned with the terraces.

#2. All photos are in the public domain and can be found in the Wikipedia article about Chichen Itza.

#3. In response to Sam Parker's comment, I added on Jan 22 the photo below, which shows the shape of the serpent he refers to. Per Wikipedia: "On the Spring and Autumn equinoxes, in the late afternoon, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a series of triangular shadows against the western balustrade on the north side that evokes the appearance of a serpent wriggling down the staircase, which some scholars have suggested is a representation of the feathered-serpent god Kukulkán."

Courtesy of Ezra Schwartz
About this author
Cite: Ezra Schwartz. "The Curious Design Enigmas of Chichén Itzá's Temple of Kukulkán" 16 Mar 2018. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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