Sour Cream on Tamales: How Buildings Die
I have occasionally thought about writing a column entitled The Santa Fe Underground Architecture Critic in which I anonymously mock and lambaste design and construction details derived from or inspired, however distantly, by The Style. I have had second thoughts about that approach mostly because anonymity is cowardly (though perhaps advisable for keeping peace with my colleagues who are architects and designer-builders) but also because I am perfectly willing to defend my position. I have chosen to use the present format and venue to tease and critique over a tagline that invites response.
Santa Fe is, naturally, renowned for its mythical architectural style that among other things encourages soft lines and weathered wood and (to misuse a verb) flaunts the color brown in all its tedious, un-earthlike shades. The basis for The Style is the traditional appearance of adobe buildings up until the 1950s or so, during the centuries-long era when the mud was what you saw.
What we see now is faux-mud. Astonishing, isn't it, that we have to imitate dirt? But as they say fatalistically down at Evangelo's bar, "Oh, well."
Though I dislike disguising a material as pure and appealing as earth, there is a recent trend that is even more egregious. That is the use of architectural antiques in new construction.
In my view there are two things wrong with the proliferation of architectural antiques in Santa Fe, or anywhere else. First is the stomach turning pillaging of historic buildings in the countries of origin, and second, the comical mismatching of styles.
It is truly unfortunate that the UNESCO Convention of 1970 that set the standard for regulating the importation of archeological heritage from one country to another for profit did not seek to identify and protect architectural heritage as well. The result of non-regulated trade in doors, wooden screens, decorative columns and all variety of other detail is that thousands of historic, mostly vernacular buildings have been stripped and left to disintegrate. It is one thing to deal in furnishings and appointments, but to tear out the fixtures that make a building, even a neighborhood, characteristic of place is quite another. A structure bereft of doors and windows, columns and friezes is a pitiful sight that symbolizes loss of patrimony with no hope of compensatory gain. The buildings sag and communities weep.
But if the ragged shambles left behind is poignant, the new structures into which the elements get imposed are, at least, amusing. They remind me of the tendency, which interestingly began at about the same time, of serving up a big dollop of sour cream on anything with chili. Perhaps this is a tangible benefit of globalization -- Scandinavian dairy softening the sting of the Aztecs -- but it is also a bastardization.
In the case of architectural antiques it is something like Bali accenting Acoma and the juxtaposition is enough to cross the eyes. On any Wednesday realtors' tour to Las Campanas you are likely to walk through a pintle-hinged gate from Mexico built into a grossly disproportionate wall; stroll under a zaguan supported by elephant-capital columns from India; enter the house through a teak and wrought iron door from Burma; and eventually make your way into a Tuscan-themed kitchen with frescoed vines climbing around a carved stone niche that once held a statue of Shiva. No wonder the place is for sale.
I can turn my back on the mish-mash, but what I cannot ignore is the loss of heritage that led to this sad jumble. In their place of origin these elements were significant and beautiful, in part because they belonged, and certainly because they were compiled into a consistent and unified theme. Here, tossed indecisively into a structure because they momentarily caught someone's eye, they become pitiful clichés.
Eventually we will stifle the market in architectural antiques through public policy in much the same way that artifacts and ancient art are protected. In the meantime, I would like to see homeowners, architects, builders and decorators avoid doing the Bali-thing in their Santa Fe Style home. While they're at it, they should stiffen their resolve and learn to eat tamales without sour cream.