Santa Fe New Mexico. Home of Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Arnold Ronnebeck and Louise Emerson Ronnebeck
Santa Fe might be the only city in the United States best approached by car. I have made the 54-mile journey down I-25 many times, the mundane four-lane highway heading away from Albuquerque’s barren terrain into something else quite magical. With each mile comes a frisson of separation, detaching me from the 21st-century and edging towards something visibly retrograde and, to my mind, far preferable. The cadence of geological time is hard to ignore, exposed and harsh and free of thought-less clutter like signage. This is an immense basin, its size the end game of eons of geological upheaval, and a resolute reminder that here in the high desert even the most casual observer must adopt a long-range perspective. And so, as Santa Fe comes into sight across a vast and high plain embraced by the Jemez and the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the city of 85,000 unobtrusively emerges from the foothills of the surrounding mountains. The setting is colossal, and the low brown adobe buildings of suburbs and town respect the view. They are the color of the earth and appear to have always been there, which is almost the truth.
The past is supreme in New Mexico. It defines everything, even modern architecture, which has become relevant here in recent decades. Modernism has its antecedents in pre-Columbian building traditions that thrived in a 130,000 square mile swath of the American Southwest. Efficient and–in hindsight–elegant, these square or rectangular volumes were plainly fundamental, built of earthy materials such as mud and straw or stone. Sometimes they were carved into canyon walls. The cube-like structures radiate unity–linked either by a minimalist anatomy or arranged in clusters–evoking domesticity, community, and a reverence for the environment, both earthly and celestial. Their purpose was straightforward: To house, to connect, and to protect.
I’m using the term “past” to refer to the distant reaches of time from about 900 to 1350 CE when the Ancestral Puebloan culture prospered. Hundreds of communities in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona comprised a complex network that was connected by a system of roads and way stations. The stone dwellings still exist and are part of the largest collection of indigenous architecture in the United States. Now protected inside national parks, these dwellings can be found in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Mesa Verde National Park, Bandelier National Monument, Hovenweep National Monument, and Canyon de Chelly National Monument. But it’s not just the buildings that link us to the past: Pueblo tribes—Zuni, Acoma, Hopi, and Laguna—still thrive and they trace their lineage to the Ancestral Puebloans.
The Puebloans’ guileless, pragmatic building style is the unlikely philosophical precursor in this part of the world to the modernist movement: Both embraced functionality and rejected decoration. But the ancient architecture was also a casualty, its mein too unassuming to withstand the onslaught of statement-making building traditions of Greco-Roman cultures. Classical-based architecture bristled with aspiration—order and symmetry celebrated civic, political, and military ideals, a message that co-opted the creative imagination of the fledgling United States. As for prototypical site-specific and culture-specific dwellings—their significance for the architectural lineage of the Americas was blotted out for centuries.
Everywhere, that is, except New Mexico. Rather than being marginalized, the pueblo style has been canonized. Characterized by thick adobe walls of earth, water, and straw it embodies the popular conception of Santa Fe architectural style. Pink, tan, or brown adobe dwellings are cozily at home in this high desert setting. Portals or porches stretch across fronts, sides, and backs of the structures and make welcoming outside places for residents to dine and relax and still be protected from the harsh sun. The popularity of pueblo architecture was assured when it became the official Santa Fe style, largely due to the efforts of one architect. John Gaw Meem’s impact on the city of Santa Fe can’t be overstated: The architect designed many of the city’s most memorable buildings including the Museum of International Folk Art and an addition to the La Fonda Hotel, and he also headed the committee that wrote the 1957 Historical Zoning Ordinance ensuring that all future buildings in central Santa Fe adhere to the vernacular idioms of the Old Quarter.
Even before Meem, though, stylistic modifications to pueblo architecture were a handy way to normalize political shifts: After New Mexico became a U.S. territory in 1846, it quickly became fashionable to retrofit the windows and doors of existing adobe buildings with Federalist-style trim painted white or turquoise. White Doric columns replaced tree trunk columns to support portals and porches. The after-market additions were stylistic shorthand that implied acquiescence to a new reality.
The territory of New Mexico became a state in 1912 and was still considered exotic when arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan settled in Taos in 1917. New Mexico Modernism today is the aesthetic descendant of a community of iconoclastic artists who made their way to the state at her invitation. Those artists included Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Stuart Davis, Arnold Ronnebeck and Louise Emerson Ronnebeck, and Georgia O’Keeffe. They were enthralled by the sun-drenched landscape of the southwest and its range of saturated colors, especially the bright blue sky; the sunset’s pinks and purples; and the pinks and greens of the land and vegetation. They were radical artists who also understood that the New Mexico terrain invited fresh Modernist interpretations that, particularly in Georgia O’Keeffe’s work, inspired a framework for an exploration of color and shape.
Not all of these artists remained in New Mexico, but Georgia O’Keeffe did. She first came to New Mexico in 1917 when she spent a few days in Santa Fe. She returned to paint in 1929. In 1940 the artist bought Ghost Ranch after living in it for a few years; she purchased the house in Abiquiu in 1945. Ghost Ranch—an adobe territorial pueblo style with square columns and window and door trim–was relatively new. O’Keeffe gently renovated Ghost Ranch by removing a small double-hung window in her studio and replacing it with a six-paned picture window that admitted north light; she also streamlined the north side of the house by eliminating the ends of the support beams (called “vigas”) as well as the downspouts, or “canales”. In her bedroom two picture windows butt together at the corner, suggesting mitering, a strategy modernist architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright employed to allow unobstructed views. Also in O’Keeffe’s bedroom, a Calder mobile is suspended over the bed; her painting “My Last Door” takes command of the east wall. The Abiquiu house is even sparer: A humble twin bed draped in white linens seems monastic. On the ledge above the bed, rocks and seashells are a distillation of the artist’s instinct for form and contour. With these modest gestures modernist interior design and architecture quietly made their way into New Mexico.
In the last two decades a robust proliferation of modernist homes has changed both the shape and the intention of buildings and their relationship to the surrounding landscape. The dramatic high desert is the perfect setting for bold, abstracted forms found in modernist houses, each a reflection of the other’s shape. These houses provide a way to evoke a sense of place: Wide swaths of glass; deep-set portals; long porches; and courtyards allow vistas, color, and light to become integral to the very being of a house, enabling a way to experience the world outside and still be safe.
The architects we feature in this book take their vocabulary from the New Mexico landscape, reinforcing what is apparent–that this is the only way Modernism can make sense in the state’s harsh and arid climate. They defer to basic materials such as adobe and wood, in combination with steel and glass, and apply this language to the meticulous convictions of Modernism. You’ll see examples in these pages: Several houses are rusted Cor-ten steel, its reddish hue blending into the surrounding terrain; others are concrete, stucco, or adobe (two incorporate an older adobe structure); and others are stacked rock, reminiscent of the structures built against the cliffs at Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, Mesa Verde in Colorado, and Hovenweep National Monument in Colorado and Utah.
But most importantly, these houses—although they refer to another time—are very much of the here and now. They count on the elemental integrity of old building traditions while at the same time asserting a way of life that worked in the past, that works in the present, and that will work in the future. The houses represent a revelation of the rightness of context (of which Santa Fe is the quintessential example), where communities—both of people and of dwellings—are an incarnation of our longing to be part of the world around and above us.