Santa Fe Style: A Caricature of Adobe
In May of 2004, I was invited by the Historic Santa Fe Foundation to present a talk, open to the public, that would express my views on historic preservation in Santa Fe, specifically the challenges of adobe. I chose to expand the theme a bit and offered a short history of the preservation movement in general using Santa Fe and adobe only to give the talk some context.
My wife, Ann (always my most supportive critic) told me afterwards, "That was really good, Crock. A little academic, perhaps." What she meant was, "Dude -- it was a flyby."
Ann was right. I chose the topic, or at least its presentation, poorly for an audience that mostly wanted to see nice slides of Santa Fe in less frenetic times. Nevertheless, I find the topic compelling and at the risk of losing another audience (actually, only two folks walked out on the live version -- others politely dozed), I will recapitulate the nut of the presentation here.
Historic preservation is driven by sets of values that are as divergent as, say, the literal versus the didactic interpretation of the Bible. Some want everything preserved, not subject to any interpretation other than the literal. Some who favor this approach are driven by nostalgia in a rather dogmatic form. Others who take the literal course look at the aesthetic, but generally from a purely western (as in European) sort of way; they, too, want things to remain static, particularly as far as "original fabric" is concerned. The literalist approach relies on strict compliance with rules and legislative guidelines.
On the other side are those who believe that historic preservation is a moving target; that it is the people who inhabit or use the place who should have the final say in its conservation. Those folks might ask, "Why shouldn't I add another room to my old house? My daughter just got married and they need somewhere to live." Or, "What we need on this public square is a place where the kids with rings in their navels can play hacky-sack without nailing grandma as she sits peacefully on the park bench." These tend to be the practical preservationists, willing to acknowledge the message from the past as it is received in architecture, landscape and planning schemes, but pretty insistent that things have to function smoothly as well.
One essential difference, frequently observed locally, is between those who look at a place and those who live in it. Splitting the hair concerning the latter, there is a difference in the way one looks at a place where one's family has lived for generations and, in the words of our notoriously unfriendly former mayor, those whose persons and perspectives "just got off the bus." The old-timers, whose commitment to place is time-honored, tend (perhaps counter intuitively) to accept change that comes with use rather casually. To take that thought to one of its conclusions is to acknowledge that change happens and that all periods, including the present and future, are important indicators of the processes of human life: So which of those periods do we mark?
Some places and monuments transcend both of these points of view. There are sites that have such deep associative, spiritual or historic meaning that we generally concur they should remain sacrosanct except so far as their maintenance and longevity are concerned. No one would support adding a second story visitor center to the Lincoln Memorial; no one would support the razing of the Santuario de Guadalupe in favor of a bank building; and Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon certainly should not be converted into time-shares, lucrative as that prospect may seem to a financially strapped National Park Service. Those places are so erudite, so special that conclusions about their preservation need not be drawn anew because the questions don't even need to be asked.
It is this "easy" heritage that preservation doctrine addresses most successfully. In its short history of one hundred years, beginning with a document from a meeting of the International Council of Architects in Madrid in 1904, practitioners of architectural conservation have struggled intensely to jointly serve the often-opposing principles of preservation and use. In 1964 a seminal document emerged in response to the loss of a tremendous amount of artistic patrimony during floods in Venice and Florence. Called the Charter of Venice, it is a stunning piece of work and has provided the basis by which much of the world conducts its pursuit of heritage preservation. In the United States, for example, the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties is an immediate derivative of the Venice document. But the Charter of Venice and by extension the Secretary's Standards, are concerned primarily with materials, not use, and certainly elide the idea of change through use.
I have long ranted against the Secretary's Standards and argued for their amendment where they are applied to living communities for whom change is as normal as aging; I have taken the position that use trumps material. Yet, upon reflection, had we in Santa Fe really, seriously, and in a disciplined way applied the Standards, emphatically emphasizing the key local material -- adobe -- the forms we admire would have stood a better chance of survival.
"Adobe" builders now use a forty-pound block of earth impregnated with asphalt emulsion, laid up in Portland cement mortar, tied with concrete bond beams, all sprayed with polyurethane insulation and coated with elastomeric plasters. Excuse me? No way can that be called adobe. Call it Contemporary Composite, call it faux, and call it Santa Fe Style. Just don't call it adobe.
We have ignored the inherent limitations of the material that gave us the architectural characteristics we aspire to; good siting, low rooflines, and intimate spaces. We have replaced those values with their converse; precarious siting, monstrously disproportionate elevations, and echoing volumes. Anything goes as long as it is rounded and brown. Had we conserved the materials with their specific uses and limitations without replacing and amending them, the form that we love would have followed.
That is the paradox. We have ignored, really, both sides of the use/materials argument by accepting materials-based standards, often at the expense of use, and then not enforced them. We confounded the problem by accepting a form, a façade, when we should have allowed the materials to dictate appearance through their appropriate utilization. We have let our obsession with a "style" become a caricature of the materials.