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THE ENDURING APPEAL OF NEW MEXICO ARCHITECTURE; May 2014

By Stacia Lewandowski

What is it about New Mexico's old adobe buildings that attracts us to them? Perhaps it's the hand-crafted nature of them, the rounded edges, "not a plumb line in sight!" as locals used to boast. Or, perhaps it's how the buldings fit into the landscape, as when Carlos Vierra was reportedly pleased that the adobe house he had just designed and built was mistaken for "ruins." People's affection for adobe has not been universal, however, especially in the earlier days of the nineteenth century. But we know that enthusiasm for it increased alongside the growth of its art colonies after the turn of the twentieth century.

Prior to that, it was a different story. For example, in 1807, after Zebulon Pike entered Santa Fe, then a provincial capital of Spain, he reported: "There are two churches, the magnificence of whose steeples form a striking contrast to the miserable appearance of the houses."

By the time of New Mexico's statehood in 1912, Santa Fe's historical architecture was very much on people's minds. In fact, one of the first projects city planners initiated was a study of the region's indigenous architecture, with a particular focus on the Pueblos and the Spanish buildings of the colonial era. There were people who understood that architecture is the face of a community and, as such, should appropriately reflect its culture. They appreciated the fact that Santa Fe enjoyed a cultural history unique in all of the United States and its local architectural standards, already threatened by outside trends, should be perpetuated rather than demolished.

After a comprehensive study of the region's architecture, primarily made possible through a wide-ranging photographic survey conducted by Jesse Nussbaum (with contributions from artist Carlos Vierra), elements of style from the Pueblos and the old Spanish homes and churches were scrutinized, categorized, deemed authentic, and worthy of emulation and preservation. From 1913 onward, Santa Fe's construction and restoration projects were encouraged to reflect the "New-Old Santa Fe style."  

Newly arrived artists were among the first wave of people to appreciate the look of adobe architecture, the genuine nature of its elements. Many of them, escaping the industrial cities elsewhere in the United States, appreciated the hand-crafted work reflected in the local adobe traditions. Some of them eagerly built their own homes and revelled in the sculptural possibilities inherent with mud-covered adobe.

But more importantly, many of  the artists were enthralled by the appearance of these centuries-old buildings, the angles of the multi-storied Pueblos and the varied character of the mission churches. They were inspired by them, pulled by an aesthetic appeal of the solidity of the form, functionality of the designs, and tactile quality of the mud.

Without question, one of the most painted, photographed and probed buildings in all of New Mexico, is the San Francisco de Asís Church in Ranchos de Taos, south of Taos. The church and courtyard stand alone in a central plaza. Its commanding exterior is unorthodox in shape, weighted by huge rounded buttress supports, counterpoised by rising vertical lines of the central nave section. Artists from Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams to the present day, continue to be inspired by this building from the Spanish colonial period, begun in the late 1700s and completed in 1816.

In one of her masterworks, Taos printmaker Gene Kloss (1903-1996) provides us with a powerful scene of the interior of this same church. At once intimate and dramtatic, Kloss conveys a hushed atmosphere filled with the weight of worshipping figures bowed downward, clearly of this earth, while the prayerful service of the priest and his attendants in triangular form on the altar, is imbued with intense light, all of the focus uplifted heavenward. It's a brilliant scene from 1939, created during the depths of the Depression.



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