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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

On 10:33 AM by Rachel Preston Prinz in
I was recently asked to speak at the Texas Southwest Cultures Conference in ABQ about the ways we can use architecture to respond to two vital calls for action:

1) Using nature as a weapon against the sameness of industrialization, and
2) Talking about how art and architecture can be used for a medium of educating about environmental concerns.

I added that we should be considering how we might create a better sense of Place in the process.

My talk starts with a basic premise… we should not be legislating the creation of ersatz architectural history through instituting zoning requirements that demand a certain "style” of building because it obscures what’s actually great about design and architecture of the past and puts us in a present without context. Let me break down what I mean… and how I got here.

I am an architectural designer and historian and have served as an appointed member of the Town of Taos Historic Preservation Commission. I work on projects all around northern New Mexico – everything from documenting 400 year old villages and the Santa Fe National Cemetery, to restoring acequia systems, masterplanning for the growth of historic communities, to designing cottage homes so green that people actually build them themselves.

In every small town and village I work in, most of which are severely distressed/depressed because of the economy and an exodus of the young people from the area, architecture evolved over time as a response to the immediate needs of the users. Almost always, buildings start with one room and grow with the families, one wedding and one room at a time. Because people were only building exactly what was needed, and because there were no heating and cooling systems to overcome ambient air temperatures, buildings tended to be small-ish, with short doors and small windows to conserve heat, and fireplaces to warm them in winter and allow for cooking. Outdoors, they built portales in the places they wanted shade for summer. They often put doors towards the east to allow the first rays of sun in in the morning. They put windowless walls towards the north to block out the cold and snow. And windowless walls around the perimeter of the plaza buildings to protect them in case of attack.  Roofs were flat because there was little rain, and being in a territory, with only a twice-annual mule train to supply them, the architecture was pure and simple.

This attention to detail - to a MEANINGFULNESS  of each part of this uniquely southwestern vernacular of design - is reflected in our rich architectural legacy. Up until the late 1800s.

Then, the Americans came. And with them, new ideas. New architecture.  New ways of being in relationship with the world. Systems to control heat and cold. Better ways of being. They thought. It worked out great for a long time. As long as oil and coal seemed in endless supply. They slapped up every manner of building. From the places they knew.  They built them the way that buildings worked there and with the materials that worked there. They liked making art, and therefore north light, and they could put up a two-story window wall on the north side of a building and overcome the effect of the bitter cold seeping into the space with a large wood stove and eventually a furnace. But as they acclimated to their new Place in the world, they also assimilated its culture. Being a hardy sort, as people who live on a frontier most often are, they found that the old ways - say, of building for a humid environment in Virginia – don’t work here. So they adapted, and started merging the old with the new.

After the wars, when men and building supplies were in even shorter supply, greed and speed became the driving forces behind architecture throughout the US. It seemed like the whole idea was to grab up all the land one could, build as many houses as physically possible on it, and slap them up fast and cheap. The Southwest was not immune.

But there was an undercurrent: a romantic notion that the artists who had come here to participate in our artists colonies had… that this was an oasis. A place where they could respite, and leave the world a while. (And isn’t that still what draws everyone here?)

They created an entirely new way of being in relationship with this place. They stole mercilessly from the past, mandating the use of the forms, the colors, and the textures… That architecture may only be this fake old fashioned style or that one. NO modernity need apply. And they do this without caring one iota how those forms were supposed to be used. Nevermind that it took 10,000 years of trial and error to get it right the first time. And that those ideas used every bit of skill and knowledge that people of that moment could muster.

When we mandate architectural styles, we end up with, on one hand, as an example… the Disneyfication of Santa Fe – where most people think they are in historic buildings and living and working and playing in a historic and richly cultural city… when in fact it is basically all a big stage set… that, by the way doesn’t work within context of the environment or landscape because it broke the land development patterns that had been developed especially for this place over hundreds of years by the Spanish and the Puebloans before them… and on the other hand, we have places that cannot come into the modern age and evolve to represent who we are as a people NOW. A modern building proposed on Santa Fe plaza has SO many people up in arms for no reason other than because it is modern. “How DARE they?” Do what? Evolve?

The other issue of making fake architecture that looks old but isn’t, is that it doesn’t allow what’s old be great for what it is and what it did then. The old gets lost in a sea of things that look like it, and yet are decorated with such artistic flourish that they seem “more” somehow than the simple pristine truth of what really was. We do our historic neighborhoods a disservice when we obscure them. We take away funding for preservation for the things that are REAL and that money goes to our idealized versions of them.

In Taos, the really old architecture is expensive and requires a huge amount of maintenance which takes more money. Which means that most of the time, its run down. We put new stuff up next to it, and its so pretty people are willing to pay as much for it as the old. Even though, more often than not, the new will not last as long as the old. That’s part of how we have lost in the compromise too. Buildings today are not built to last and be the home of future generations of our family. We’ll just sell it to the next sucker who falls for this place when we get bored of or run out of money for maintaining it. And what’s old slowly dies next to it, ignored despite its own type of perfection, which though dated, still forms the backbone of our sense of Place.

And for one more reason… all these mandated details share one more thing in common – they are expensive. So the Haves get to ensure their oasis becomes a neighborhood of the Haves because the old folks who actually built the neighborhood - and Have Not - can’t afford the taxes, let alone to bring their buildings to compliance with the desired outcomes of the Have’s rules.  Just so they look “right” in their place… Even though their place is the only thing that’s real at all.

I'm extremely thankful to my first boss, David Puckett, for teaching me how important not creating ersatz history is.

This recipe kills historic communities and turns them into something else entirely. 

The hardest part for me about all this, is its all quite avoidable. We can start to talk about the language of the architecture and evolve the conversation immediately.

Here are some things we know are important in historic architecture of the Southwest… texture, natural light, structural integrity, massing, soft flowing edges, fences, positive and negative space, decoration… a space for spirit, views, shade, response to environment... What if THESE became the language by which we defined architecture as being of its Place? What if THIS was the test of great design?

Another problem with legislating fake history is we now know the toll we have taken on the environment. AND we have the technology to go further than the masters of what WAS ever dreamed possible. Why would we put canales on a building now and not harvest that rainwater for use in our homes and then our landscapes? Why would we put a portale on the north side of the house, where its only usable the hottest 3 months a year and so the rest of the year it is exposed to bitter cold abrasive winds… so it ages as fast as physically possible and therefore require MORE regular maintenance? Why would we put our windows and doors to the north and west, when these are the directions of the prevailing winds – the source of our dust and biting winter chills? This design flaw makes us shovel snow and mop more. That’s not efficient. Or sustainable.  Why would we NOT have a wood stove for cooking and warmth when we know for a FACT that we are going to lose gas and/or power from time to time? (as many of us in Northern New Mexico experienced when the gas went out for the 5 coldest days of winter a few years ago.)

We should NOT be legislating that people build bad buildings. I’d go so far to say that not evolving our design to the next level is a moral failing.

In creating building art, I believe that we should be modeling the behavior we want people to emulate. Why? So that it seems do-able. SHIFT happens when people feel safe, and feel they can make a difference. It’s a way of finding purpose.

We can create a new, evolved future and honor all that is great about the past. We can be environmentally responsible. We can integrate the worlds of man and nature. We can connect to a sense of Place that is transcendent. That feels eternal. That has all the things we need – security, sustainability, beauty…

We have a responsibility to make it better for the future. For our kids. And their kids.
It starts here, and now, with us having this conversation.