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The Magic of Simple Vernacular Building in the Context of New Mexico’s Long History of Building
Architecture is often referred to as the “Queen of the Arts” because the buildings and the spaces it encompasses accommodate all other arts: music, theater, oratory, dance, sculpture, painting, ritual and ceremony. It can safely be said that the ideals of a society are embodied in what and how a society chooses to build—with what materials and to what ends. A people’s architecture can be evaluated by how well its buildings fulfill their function by their design, craftsmanship and aesthetics. It will also be judged by the effect its buildings have upon the natural and man-made environments, as well as on the individual and collective human body and psyche.
Throughout history—and perhaps against all odds—humans have given form to their deepest thoughts and aspirations in the form of gigantic pyramids, mammoth temples carved out of stone, spires that reach to the high heavens, as well as through fabulously domed buildings that mimic the sky. We have also built lesser but equally intriguing forms such as the hórreos, or elevated, chapel-like granaries of Asturias, Spain; thatched cottages of Ireland; temascales, or sweat lodges of México; Buddhist stupas of Asia; yurts of Mongolia; and the tipis of North America.
Closer to home, we can appreciate the great buildings of the Pueblo people—large communal, multistoried apartment complexes like those of Chaco Canyon and Taos Pueblo. Their designs echo the ascending elevations of the land, from valley to foothills, to mesas and mountain peaks. In these communities, people built multiple kivas, underground ceremonial chambers that serve as a focal point for an all-encompassing spiritual and religious life. Here, the people were and are in communion with the creative energies of the Earth—the source of all of life’s beginnings—including their own emergence through successive underworlds.
The Diné of Arizona and New Mexico, on the other hand, chose to build simple, isolated, hexagonal- or octagonal-shaped hogans that, with their doorways oriented toward the east and the morning sunrise, also embody profound cosmic understandings. Significantly, this lived-in space can also be where elaborate, lengthy ceremonies take place, sometimes with the creation of detailed sand paintings on the floor and all-night chanting and recitation of prayers and sacred stories, carried out by the hatathli, or medicine man. Although the hogan is but one enclosed space, areas within it can be designated to serve highly specialized functions, reinforcing a strict order in the lives of the Diné.
The Nakai Diné, or Españoles Mexicanos, brought to this land from central México and distant Spain the above-ground, monumental Christian churches that thrust upward toward the skies of Middle Eastern-derived faiths. Cruciform in shape and notably spacious, they could accommodate an entire village for religious functions and the celebration of sacraments. The massive, earthen, San Francisco de Asís Church, in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, is the epitome of this type of regionally adapted Old World architecture, as is the San Estéban Church at Acoma Pueblo.
The frontal positioning and elevation of the altar reflect the hierarchical and authoritarian nature of a society that also built torreones, or defense towers, and enormous governmental buildings such as the Casas Reales, the Palace of the Governors, in Santa Fe. In contrast, the houses of the common people—the vast majority of the population—tended to be simple, earthy and welcoming, a true reflection of the humility and humanity of the genízaro, or mestizo (synthesis of Spanish and Native American) society that evolved in Nuevo México over the course of 300 years of relative isolation.
Among the first buildings constructed by the Americans in this region were military forts such as Fort Union and Fort Sumner, which employed a combination of stone, adobe and timber. The tradition of military defense architecture has persisted to this day with New Mexico’s many military bases, which are off-limits to most citizens and, therefore, mainly invisible.
Aside from this, the Anglo-American culture has been prolific in the introduction of building materials new to the area, including, in Territorial times, fired brick, milled lumber, iron, glass and dressed stone such as is evident in the St. Francis Cathedral in downtown Santa Fe. The effects of American-manufactured corrugated tin on Nuevo Mexicano village architecture cannot be underestimated.
Contemporary American architecture has specialized in massive steel, concrete and glass buildings to house the state’s leading financial, governmental, medical and cultural institutions. It has also built land-use-defining road and freeway systems with colossal bridges and overpasses. And, it has supported the construction of modular suburban houses, big-box retail stores and enormous shopping malls, rickety franchise buildings, fortress-like public schools, and ostentatious hilltop mansions for the rich and famous.
A response to this, but in the opposite direction, has been the relatively recent development of ecological, low-impact Earthship Biotecture, such as those northwest of Taos, and straw-bale and modern adobe houses, which are scattered throughout the state. Part and parcel of this conscientious effort to reduce humans’ carbon footprint have been myriad attempts to construct toxin-free, energy-efficient green buildings. The most recent edifices on the campus of Santa Fe Community College are prime examples, as are numerous homes that employ solar panels, radiant heating, water catchment and systems for recycling, along with many other beneficial technologies.
As promising as the tide of green building might be, what tends to be lacking from this scene are significant opportunities for low-income residents, especially youth, to experience the magical and rewarding process of creating unique and special spaces out of living, breathing materials imbued with the makers’ own energies. The urge to build is so deeply entrenched that, especially as children, it is thought to be an innate and nearly irrepressible instinct on a par with exploring one’s surroundings.
So much building is now done for us by the so-called “experts” that all we have to do is to move in or adjust our vision to a subdivision that popped up seemingly overnight in a field across the street. Because of this, we have much less investment in our communities, in the landscape or in each other. Too often, we no longer feel attachment to or creative pride in our buildings or our increasingly featureless villages, towns and cities. In Nuevo México, particularly, nearly every previous generation was able to participate in the vernacular construction of homes and other structures. These creations distinguished Nuevo México from every other state and saturated the landscape with points of beauty, interest and warmth.
As a child, I remember constructing corrals and barns for our animals with the help of my brothers, as well as assisting while roofs went up on buildings on our homestead. On our own, my brother Joe and I dug warrens through the mountains of piñón wood brought down from the forests and built forts out of assorted logs and posts every chance we got, especially after watching an inspiring television episode of “The Rifleman,” with actor Chuck Connors.
In the last few years, it has been my pleasure to work with inner-city youth in North Philadelphia in the creation of entire parks featuring massive benches made from recycled discarded brick and stone. Back in New Mexico, I was fortunate to participate in the construction of the all-adobe Dar al Islam mosque in Abiquiú, designed by the late Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, author of Architecture for the Poor. The project was, to a great extent, masterfully crafted by his then-80-something assistant, Alah Aladin. With the help of friends and informal, spontaneously assembled teams, I have also built many adobe ovens, a huge banco in the foyer of Plaza Resolana, a small domed building, a circular shade house from felled Chinese elms and a 2-foot-thick adobe wall that incorporates Mesoamerican-inspired bas-relief sculpture.
The height of my vernacular building experience, however, coincided with the design, supervision and construction of a large amphitheater in a forest redoubt near Mt. Taylor. The structure, which comfortably accommodates 100 or more people, was built around a small, circular, central plaza and in the shape of a giant turtle, replete with an expressive head and legs. Hundreds of native youth, who participated in its construction, were ecstatic at having the opportunity to co-create a space that incorporated their own ideas and energy. In so doing, they gave expression to the ideals of our time: learning directly from nature, honoring the sanctity of life, exploring a creative hands-on approach to building and, perhaps most important, building community.
Alejandro López is an educator who employs the art of building with natural materials.
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