Myth, Synthesis and Santa Fe Style
Vernacular: from the Latin vernaculus signifying homeborn, native.
In 1540, inspired by tales of cities encrusted with gold and jewels reputedly seen by the shipwrecked Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado abandoned the security of a government position and left his wealthy wife in New Spain (which we now call Mexico) to search for the mythical northern cities of Antilia. In doing so he began a process whereby the myth that he was pursuing was displaced by an even larger, grander and, in some ways, more insidious myth that he carried passionately as his faith and more deleteriously as a tool justifying conquest. As he approached the realm of Cíbola, which we now call Zuni, the village leaders approached and drew lines of sacred corn meal on the ground and instructed the Spaniards not to pass beyond them. They were invoking, as it were, a third mythology; and that invited a fray. The iron-clad warriors, in response, read in a language the Zunis didn't understand and alluding to a symbolism they could not associate, a document which required that the natives of what was to become America "acknowledge the [Catholic] Church as the ruler and superior of the whole world, and the high priest called Pope, and in his name the king and queen [of Spain]." Failure to do so, the Zunis were informed, would result in moral justification to make war against, and enslave, them.
Coronado's quest to replicate the highly successful and enriching exploits of Cortés in Mexico and Pizarro in Peru was an unequivocal bust. No gold was forthcoming and if there was glory it must have seemed pitiful by the standards of his predecessors. Nevertheless, Coronado fulfilled his mandate: war was undertaken and the displacement of the native cultures and their theology began. In some cases the complex verbal traditions of the Native Americans were driven into seclusion or obliterated under the convoluted, often gross misinterpretations of the written word of the One god. In other instances, indigenous peoples found little difficulty in accommodating the European mythology and some of its symbolism. The cross, for example, was a deeply rooted image in many traditions of both North and South American Indians, just as it was in some pre-Christian Old World societies. If at the time of European contact a culture and its traditions were not simply erased, in time a curious synthesis developed and the written mythology of the One became inextricably intertwined with a pantheon of kachinas and atavistic spirits. It is not uncommon today to witness non-Christian ceremonials in and around Catholic chapels throughout Latin America and in the American Southwest. Typically these are preceded by a celebration of the mass in which the native performers or dancers, who in a few minutes will become the impersonators of animals or, as with the kachinas, become the entity by donning its attributes, partake of the Eucharist. I have seen the celebrant of one such mass in the remote Sierra Tarahumara of Mexico share his anointed altar with a dying goat. When the viscera of the animal were removed, the Christian priest, carrying the host, followed the shamen as they offered their sacrifices to the six cardinal directions. Each prayer of the mass was met with an oblation to mountain deities from the congregation. The mythology of one became at that moment virtually indistinguishable from the mythology of the other.
What do a discussion of theology and the intermingling of myth have to do with the vernacular architecture of northern New Mexico? Well, it is not in the practice of religious ceremony alone that synthesis has occurred. There is a profound similarity between the religious structures pertaining to the indigenous peoples and the Iberians in New Mexico. The mission churches, reflecting the melding of values in the Rio Grande valley are good examples. These buildings more closely resemble the ceremonial structures characteristic to the Pueblo cultures of the Southwest than to European churches. The low, closed, womblike style of the missions of that era stand in direct contrast to the lofty, intricate and light-filled structures that predominated in Europe during the Late Medieval. Clearly, the limitations of building with adobe could be called into account. But other materials, forests of wood and quarries of workable stone, seemingly more suited to European tastes, were ubiquitous but seldom employed. This phenomenon supports the premise that the imported Spanish Catholic tradition, in both canonical and architectural terms, was not so overwhelmingly successful as the Spanish themselves believed. Quite the contrary. Architect Don Hanlon argues, ". . . . the European system of belief was in many cases accommodated and absorbed by a more powerful native mythic form. Europeans were and to a great extent still are, preoccupied with the superficial effect that their aggressive culture had on an apparently passive people without realizing the degree to which European culture was absorbed and changed by American native cultures."
I suggest that not all native cultures proved so subversively dominant. It is an interesting coincidence that the line of demarcation between the Eurocentric and the predominantly Native style of architecture is the boundary between Mexico and the United States. It is striking that the El Paso missions (Ysleta, Socorro and San Elizario) follow the indigenous format of low, thick earthen walls while just across the Rio Grande in Ciudad Juarez the dressed stone parroqia follows the example of the Spanish. Coming northward from New Spain, the conquistadores seemed successful in importing their architectural aesthetic until they reached Paso del Norte. From there on it is the local, Indian vernacular that predominates.
It is at this point in exploring the significance of New Mexico's vernacular architecture that the meaning of the words "homeborn native" becomes important. If you play for a moment with those words you will realize their exclusionary nature. They reference that which springs from local experience and materials. "Vernacular" describes what Bernard Rudofsky so famously called Architecture Without Architects. As a category, vernacular buildings are most clearly defined by the fact that they are occupied and used by the culture that built and maintains them, and whose identities are unmistakably associated with their own built environment. One cannot think of a native of Taos Pueblo without automatically invoking the image of the earthen village. The significant aspect of that image is that the structures were not designed by architects nor built by professionals. Nor are they maintained by professionals to this day. They are homeborn.
If you accept this definition of vernacular architecture, then you must to some degree reject the idea of "Santa Fe Style" as a purely vernacular architectural expression. I personally can conjure the names of only a scant handful of Santa Feans that, upon their hearing, offer an automatic association with a building. Taken in their aggregate the names Meem and Rapp, Amelia White and Will Schuster, Jesse Nusbaum, Carlos Vierra and Edgar Hewitt do, in a pleasantly nostalgic way, evoke a time and place (which I experienced only as it was passing), but they don't really define a culture, certainly not a homeborn one. The importance of these people is that they recognized a unique cultural and artistic expression and advanced it. Of course the form has become bastardized and "adobe" today in no sense means the same thing as "adobe" did in 1920 or even in 1950. Nevertheless, their contribution, as architects, anthropologists and artists along with their patrons has carried on the vernacular tradition by adding yet another layer, by synthesizing and, without question, expanding the myth.