The Underground Architecture Critic
Years ago -- decades, actually -- I lived and was schooled in New Orleans. It was a great place to live even though one could, and I did, get thrown in jail for petty infractions. My overnight stay was punishment for turning left off Canal Street onto Claiborne Avenue, despite my plea of ignorance backed up by New Mexico tags and the arresting officer's acknowledgement that the prohibiting signage had been down for months. Oh, well. It only took a twenty changing hands in a room devoid of all furniture, files, windows, or even a picture of Huey Long on the hideously stained walls to get my honor back. Twenty bucks, however, would buy a superb meal in 1970 even at Galatoire's, so I felt the loss.
Ah, Galatoire's. I liked the food, but the mirrors everywhere made me feel like I was in a barbershop or a moderately priced house of ill repute. No big deal. There are plenty of places to eat in the Big Easy, and I had a great guidebook, The New Orleans Underground Gourmet. The book was ostensibly compiled, written, and updated anonymously, though Richard Collin was, in fact, a well-known local hero. Particularly to hard-up university students. He would review the food, the service and the prices so candidly that you could identify the waiter from the critique if you were observant.
I have thought, and even suggested in this column, that Santa Fe needs such a critic for its architecture. Someone who has an appetite for, but not a vested interest in, the issues; someone who knows materials and understands the value they bring; someone who knows the subject matter from both historic and contemporary perspectives; a person who gives a damn, but doesn't. . . if you take my meaning.
I don't qualify. I have the appetite, yes, and I have an inkling about the topic and know the ingredients. But I do business here and though my sense of self-preservation is waning, I debar myself in hopes of not offending all of my existing and potential clients.
Nevertheless, two months ago, on the occasion of the Real Estate Guide's annual special issue on architecture, I began to reflect on the eponymous Style and how in many respects it has been dealt a mortal blow (thank fortune) by recent developments. The Style, of course, is how the world has come to define Santa Fe's pallid architecture.
Santa Fe has long had an ordinance that statutorily governs what buildings in the several historic districts should look like. Essentially, it gives the consumer a choice: in elevation you can select one of two appearances, Pueblo Revival or Territorial; in color, you can choose brown. Now, I know that I am oversimplifying and am willing to take the heat for that once I make my points.
The first point is that the framers of the statute, in attempting to create a harmonious look and "feel" in Santa Fe, actually advanced bland uniformity.
There are a few really marvelous, 20th-century expressions of Pueblo Revival and Territorial Revival buildings that we all appreciate; they include the New Mexico Museum of Art, the Laboratory of Anthropology, and the old City Hall, which is now the Public Library (and which, incidentally, had a second-floor jail in which I was also briefly incarcerated).
I love all of those buildings and not just because I have a (sometimes checkered) personal history with some of them, but because they are pleasing to the eye and authentic to their time. I find their more recent clones boring in that The Style is too formulaic. Looking at condos and new private homes all over the Eastside, and clearly in the historic district, I am left gasping trying to count all the architectural clichés stacked one on top of the other. Must every building have vigas and corbels, rounded parapets, square windows and carved front doors? In my view, Santa Fe would be a lot more interesting had the statute, from the outset, endorsed other styles as well.
There are two buildings, within a quarter mile of one another that I admire because they fly in the face of the ordinance and have done so from the day it was written. One is the Scottish Rite Temple, a Moorish, pebble-dashed, 1912 structure that reflects a cultural and architectural influence that is every bit as valid as, and a great deal older than, the Territorial. The other is the humble little red house on Otero, between Marcy and Paseo that is unusual and appealing mostly because, like the Scottish Rite cathedral, it is red.
What's wrong with Red? And what's wrong with crenellated parapets and pebbledash finishes?
Aside from monotony, the prescribed styles in their ubiquity make my second point. It has become difficult for anyone who is not from here to distinguish between what is historic and what is not and, even more annoying to me, what is real and what is not. Fakery is vulgar and offensive. If a building is designed to look like an adobe, it should be built with adobe. In this respect I have always applauded the Gerald Peters Gallery because it is one hundred percent authentic in that it looks like an adobe building, and it is. If a building is to be built out of ticky-tack (as the old Malvina Reynolds song so eloquently tags the form), it should be allowed to look like ticky-tack. Were that the rule, believe me, we would have a lot more honest, authentic adobe houses in our historic districts.
The third and final point about The Style ordinance is that it has stifled the physical reflection of changing times. I have, in previous columns advocated strongly that adobe architecture does not all need to look the same. Architects Trey Jordan and Tony Atkin have shown us that, and I would like to see their work in the historic districts.
As the self-appointed Santa Fe Underground Architecture Critic, while I wait for someone else to take over, I will reflect on the "mortal blow" mentioned earlier. I think the Railyard project will have a profound and lasting affect on the way we consider architecture in Santa Fe. Having that commercial/industrial mix so close to center-city is bound to influence both the styles and materials that, I hope, will begin to find their way into our vernacular. And, think what you will about Zocalo, it broke the color barrier. Between those two developments Santa Fe has taken a long overdue step away from faux adobe.