New Mexico Architecture: Evolving Forward

Innovative yet traditional. Ground-breaking and conservative.
New Mexico architecture defies convention and embraces contradiction.
Throughout the centuries, the unique style of the southwest continues to be expressed.



Pueblo Origins

The architecture of New Mexico started out as the buildings of the original indigenous people. It was less a style and more a reflection of the climate, available building materials (with its strengths and limitations) and spiritual beliefs.

By the time the Spanish arrived, pueblo architecture had become distinctive. Communities of contiguous flat-roofed houses were built of adobe formed into long low bands called puddled adobe. Flat roofs were built of horizontal beams and crossed poles overlaid with earth. There were few openings for entrances and light.

The community often looked like a construction of cubes, each level set back from the level underneath, creating a geometric look. A fine example is the Taos Pueblo. In other places these constructions were grouped around a court. Other architectural features, born of practical matters, included outside ladders leading to upper stories.

Stones were also used in construction but without tools to shape the pieces, they were used as found, with builders carefully selecting the most appropriate stones and then using mud mortar in the joints.

Spanish Design

When the Spanish came, they brought the technique of shaping mud into bricks making construction faster and easier. The early Spanish buildings also used thick earth walls, flat roofs with beams and cross pieces overlaid with earth. But the Spanish favored a single file of rooms built around a courtyard, reached through a front gate and a covered passageway. A second courtyard functioned as a corral surrounded by storerooms and sheds. The Martinez house near Taos built in 1827 is considered one of the best remaining examples of the architecture.

The design of the towns reproduced the design of the houses – enclosed and fortified compounds with a solid outside wall. Within the town the private dwellings each formed a kind of miniature plaza. This can be seen in Albuquerque’s Old Town and the historic part of Santa Fe.

La Hacienda de los Martinez, Taos
One of the few northern New Mexico style, late Spanish Colonial period "Great Houses" remaining in the American Southwest

The other Spanish architecture was that of the mission churches found in the pueblos and rural towns. The design elements of these buildings formed the basis of Mission style, although it was more highly developed in California than in New Mexico.

Outside Influences

That was the situation for almost 200 years. Then, in 1821, the Santa Fe Trail opened and goods from the eastern and mid-western parts of the United States trickled into the area. In 1848 the province that included New Mexico was annexed as a United States Territory. As trade increased, and new people arrived, so did manufactured goods, and new technology.

The incoming technology changed the look of the housing, and the new-comers brought a new form of architecture, one that was greatly influenced by Greek Revival.

Mills turn logs into sawn lumber. Window glass, doors, and locks appeared as did pedimented lintels over doors and windows. But these pieces of wood trim, often painted white, accented the existing adobe brick walls and flat roofs. Bricks didn’t replace adobe but were available to prevent erosion along the top of the walls and for construction of chimney flues and hearths.

With the greater security provided by American troops, buildings could open out with doors and windows. Buildings gained a second story and wood floors appeared. Verandas and elaborate entrances became popular along with wood trim and fireplace mantels.

The resulting architectural hybrid was called Territorial style.
But territorial annexation and its impact was only a taste of the cataclysmic changes wrought by the coming of the railroad, just a few decades later.

With the railroad came a flood of new designs and fashions. A cornucopia of design elements entered the architectural lexicon. Towns began to lose their regional flavor.

Vernacular Revivals

But, in the midst of the plethora of architectural styles, there began a growing interest and appreciation for the architectural and social roots of the area. A revival of vernacular architecture could help the region distinguish itself, attract tourists, and establish its own identity.

The Santa Fe Railroad was developing a hotel-based tourist trade and began to offer luxury accommodations with an enticing theme of the West. Although the railroad used California Mission style, native American roots were also mined to tempt visitors. The railroad opened the El Navajo hotel and station in Gallup. The fabulous Alvarado in Albuquerque combined a hotel, railway station, and curio Indian crafts building. Mary Colter’s innovative native American themes infused parts of both of these buildings.

La Fonda Hotel, Santa Fe
Santa Fe style is a mix of Spanish,
Pueblo and Territorial styles
photo by Chris Corrie

In Albuquerque, the University of New Mexico was the first civic use of Pueblo style appearing under the leadership of university president William Tight. Estufa, a fraternal meeting building was constructed in the style of an Indian kiva. The university remodeled the Romanesque style Hodgin Hall to the Spanish Pueblo Revival.

While Albuquerque found itself as a growing city and railroad center, Santa Fe found itself too far from the main line and its economy began to wither. In 1912 the planning board, with an eye to restoring the city’s economy through tourism, defined the architectural styles that would be used to reconstruct the city’s historic appearance.

Shortly thereafter, one of New Mexico’s defining architects, John Gaw Meem began his career. Meem came to Santa Fe in the 1920s for treatment of tuberculosis, fell in love with the city and the state, and stayed, reinterpreting Spanish and native American architectural traditions. In addition to the La Fonda hotel in downtown Santa Fe, Meem went to the University of New Mexico designing over 30 major buildings. In 1957 he led a committee that drafted the Historical Zoning Ordinance, which mandated the use of either Pueblo Style or Territorial Style on all new buildings in central Santa Fe. A mix of Spanish, Pueblo and Territorial it came to be called Santa Fe style.

This decision has not been without controversy. Meem believed that architects could express the form elements in a way that could be consistent with existing architecture without being strictly imitative. Others felt that the Historical Zoning Ordinance limited the possibilities of architectural expression. Still others argued that the ordinance covers only a portion of the city – the historical area, leaving room for new designs.

Albuquerque, meanwhile, pursued a different tactic, welcoming business and development. Although Old Town has been preserved, the cost has been the loss of many historic buildings, of all styles. But the openness of the city to innovation and design also fostered a sense of architecture as an art form. And watching the loss of its architectural history has resulted in the remaining buildings being better protected.

New Architects and Architectural Designs

That greater sense of experimentation and architectural freedom is expressed in buildings around the city, contributing to the vitality of the architecture.

It is in Albuquerque that world-famous architect Antoine Predock has his offices. Predock infuses a strong sense of place into his designs. He has melded Pueblo Revival and modernism for the La Luz development, and created a “river-edge vernacular” for the Rio Grande Nature Center and Preserve which acts as a ‘blind’ providing panoramic views of the wildfowl areas.

New Mexico-born, Albuquerque-based Bart Prince is a ground-breaking architect whose designs eschew form follows function in favor of architecture as a sculptural form. Prince regularly upends notions of what houses should look like and how they should function.

Home of Bart Prince, architect, Albuquerque
Prince's designs eschew form follows function in favor of
architecture as a sculptural form. Photo by Bart Prince

While his designs may shock, or at least surprise, they grow out of the intentional desire to be different yet relevant to each situation. They grow out of a situation – the site, client’s needs and desires, the materials used and the structural systems – rather than be applied to it.

One other architectural form has grown out of the fertile New Mexican soil. Earthships. Native American designs and the architecture of the pueblo often incorporated an awareness of solar energy. This intentionality is also expressed in Taos Earthships. Designed by Michael Reynolds, a New-Mexico architect who says he practices biotecture and is a proponent of "radically sustainable living,” Reynolds’ Earthships are built of recycled automobile tires filled with compacted earth. The rammed earth “brick” (encased in steel belted rubber) echoes adobe’s thermal properties. His designs use winter sunlight to warm the tire walls and earthen floor which then release the warmth during the night. In summer overhangs and other design elements keep the Earthship cool.

At a time when cities across the country are mining their history for something that distinguishes them from “Anywhere” USA, New Mexico offers its vibrant, evolving regional architecture. From the adobe brown pueblo revival buildings, to the Earthships of Taos, with the substance of history as the bedrock, the architecture of New Mexico grows, and evolves.


Neala Schwartzberg is a freelance writer living in Albuquerque whose passion is travel with an art, culture and history slant.

Originally appeared in The Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque - Volume 23

Related Pages

Cornerstones: Rebuilding Traditions article

The E. I. Couse Historic Home & Studio in Taos article

Hispanic & Native American Churches in Albuquerque article

The Ranchos Church article

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