«return to articles listSouthwestern Style Wasn’t Invented, It Developed Over a Millennium

Mar 18, 2014 –

Article by John Kaltenbach; Photos by Jerry Rabinowitz; Reprinted by permission of Su Casa Magazine

Nowhere in the United States is the blending of Native American and western cultures better exemplified than in New Mexico. This unique blend is no better illustrated than in our own special New Mexican architecture. Along with this special style, a unique vocabulary developed. 

The basic structure of earthen walls supporting a flat roof is Native American, a tradition extending back for more than a thousand years. Though they lacked the technique of forming adobe into sun dried bricks, the Native Americans were capable of erecting structures of great size, as the multistoried adobe Taos Pueblo so beautifully demonstrates.

The Spanish adopted this basic structure. Their technique of forming the mud into bricks made construction more rapid. The metal tools they brought facilitated the cutting and working of timber. Thus wooden doors and portales supported by zapatas were added to the repertory of forms. This led to more spacious living areas as well as large enclosed public spaces. Probably the greatest architectural contribution of the Spanish was the single aisle church, which also led to what is commonly referred to as the Mission style.

Another big adaptation in southwest architectural style came with the railroad in the 1800’s. This brought new building materials, (including metal for roofs, glass for windows) and better tools. Also midway through that century the first sawmills were built which reformed the local building technology by processing posts, beams and board.

Along with new materials, tools and technology came a new fashion in architecture, the Greek Revival style. As this style was adapted to the frontier economy and adobe construction, it became the Territorial style. An outgrowth of this influenced by the Victorian style is commonly referred to as Northern New Mexico Ranch.

After the turn of the century the southwestern style continued to develop. The 1920’s art deco movement had a great influence on the southwestern artisans of the time. The cubistic forms of Pueblo and Spanish architecture were juxtaposed with geometric decoration inspired by Pueblo and other Native American motifs to create a style known as Pueblo Deco. The Kimo Theater in Albuquerque and the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe are good examples of this style. Mary Louise Colter was one of the pioneering architects of this form.

In the mid 1900’s, there was a movement to limit architectural styles on the plaza in Santa Fe. This led to the Historic Zoning Ordinance in 1957 which created what is sometimes referred to as the Santa Fe Style. Also during this time John Gaw Meem’s influence on the style for buildings at the University of New Mexico campus lead to the Pueblo Revival style.

Today’s home builders combine many of the best elements of contemporary and traditional design features to create new exciting southwestern style homes. The glossary of terms below will aid you as you experience this beautiful New Mexico architecture.

Glossary of New Mexico Architectural and Decorating Terms
(or “How to Speak Southwestern”)

Adobe – a building material traditionally made of mud and straw, commonly made into brick. Modern practice is to use sand and clay. 

Alcobas – bedrooms, steel or cast iron bed frames

Alacenas – wall cupboards 

Bancos – low (earthen) benches, built into the walls for seating

Banos – bathrooms

Cajas – wood chest for clothes

Canale – water spout or roof drain

Carpintero – carpenter

Cocina – kitchen

Comedore – dining room 

Entrada – entryway

Fogon – a corner set fireplace

Hacienda – territorial mansion

Horno – round earthen wood oven, usually outdoors

Jardines – garden 

Kiva – originally a pit house used for worship, now used to connote shape such as dive (round front) fireplace

Latillas – small saplings, usually used for form a ceiling, often placed on vigas

Olla – basket

Maceta – flower pots, alson an enclosed patio in a hacienda, bright place

Miridor – balcony

Nicho – a niche for a statue

Parapets – wall section above the roof line

Placitas – small plazas

Portales – porches, covered and supported by zapatas

Ramada – free standing canopy 

Rammed Earth – a type of construction where walls are built compacting soil and aggregates in forms on the site

Retablo – painted wood plaque, usually a saint

Ristra – string of red chile

Sala – living room, must have a fireplace

Saltillo – clay or terra cotta tile, traditionally cured in the sun, now often fired; smoother finished version called super saltillo

Santos – wood carved statue of a saint

Stucco – plaster or mud finish, now usually a cement product or may have an elastomeric color coat

Trastero – cupboard, not built in

Viga – round wooden beam, ceiling support

Zaguan – entry, hall or courtyard

Zapatas – corbelled imposts