Snippets from the Southwest

My guest blogger today is none other than my brother, Ming. I can’t tell you how excited I am for him to be contributing to my blog. Aside from the fact that we share the same mom and dad, I think he’s a pretty fab writer and his vast knowledge of the world exceeds that of anyone else I know. He just returned from an eye-opening road trip around the American Southwest and shares some of his thoughts and images about its unique architectural history. Enjoy! 

It’s a hot Sunday afternoon in Mesa Verde, Colorado and I’m standing among the ruins of Long House, the last of several ancient cliff dwellings that I’ve had the pleasure of visiting over the last couple of days in this amazing national park. The ranger leading the tour is explaining how and why the ancestral Pueblo Indians chose these remote sites to build their communities, and as I listen intently I fix my gaze upon the dark clouds gathering overhead and the shifting light inside the large kiva in front of us. It’s the end of July and the monsoons are well underway. It’s also near the end of my two-month road trip through the Southwest, and perhaps a fitting epilogue to the collection of amazing houses and architecture that I’ve witnessed over the last two months.

A few weeks earlier, I was at Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s school, studio, and winter home in Scottsdale, Arizona.

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This is a great place to begin if you’re a fan of architecture, and I quickly learned that Mr. Wright (aka “The Godfather”) had a huge presence throughout the Southwest, particularly around Phoenix and Scottsdale.

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You’ll need to sign up for one of several tours in order to wander the grounds and walk through some of the buildings, but I highly recommend it. You’ll get a sense of The Godfather’s personality, his drama-filled life, and what it took to manually construct this compound in the desert during the 30’s and 40’s. The buildings were designed to make the most of the desert sun and yet keep their inhabitants cool and comfortable. You’ll see his love of Oriental details throughout the campus….

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….and his idiosyncratic design preferences such as the seats in the cabaret theater, where he often hosted guests for dinner and a stage show. Instead of squarely facing the stage, the bench seats are at a slight angle because The Godfather himself liked to sit with his legs crossed, and with the slight angle to the seats his torso ended up facing the stage directly.

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If it was good enough for The Godfather, it was good enough for everyone else.

Phoenix, like Los Angeles, is a hotbed for 20th-century architecture and mid-century buildings and houses in particular. My sister has written about Haver Houses elsewhere on this site so I won’t repeat the details here, except to mention that Ralph Haver and his mid-century homes are quite well represented throughout Phoenix. The Godfather also designed several private homes in the area, and although there are many public buildings that are mistakenly attributed to him (though he was certainly an influence), the only public structure that can truly claim to be a genuine FLW design is the First Christian Church.

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Although it was completed in 1973, long after the man had passed away, it was constructed according to his original drawings from 1950.

The Godfather had a student named Paolo Soleri, and this architect from Turin, Italy eventually became famous as the father of his own particular design philosophy which he called “arcology” and is embodied in his experimental community of Arcosanti, 70 miles north of Phoenix. Construction began in 1970 and continues to this day.

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His basic idea was to develop a town which would foster a lively urban environment living in sync with nature and his buildings and spaces were designed with this in mind. Again, we see structures designed to take maximum advantage of resources such as sunlight, water, and wind, and living areas designed to encourage community interaction.

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These were fairly new ideas among contemporary architects of the 50’s and 60’s when Soleri was developing his concepts. His original plans called for a fairly large community of about 5,000 residents, although only a small portion of that has been realized until now. The current population varies from about 50 to 150 residents, and the community conducts design workshops and holds various events and concerts to help fund the construction, which is carried out primarily by volunteers and workshop participants. In addition, a major source of funding comes from sales of the unique bronze bells and sculptures that are cast on-site.

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Like Taliesin, you are required to sign up for a tour to see the place (with a suggested donation) but it’s well worth it. I think their bronze bells also look fantastic in almost any household. Sci-fi geeks may be interested to know that George Lucas saw Paolo Soleri’s desert structures which then became the inspiration for the dwellings on the desert planet of Tatooine in Star Wars.

As I crossed into New Mexico, the architecture became more earthy and rustic. And old…at times, very old. The operating term here is adobe, that ancient building method that uses some combination of sand, clay, water, mud, manure, and straw that you see all over the state. An ideal place to start is the Taos Pueblo, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the oldest, continuously-inhabited communities in North America.

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It’s the original home of the Taos Indians and most of its structures were built between 1000 and 1450 A.D. There are old pueblos and churches throughout Northern New Mexico and their humble adobe construction has stood for centuries. Of course, it takes regular maintenance to keep an adobe structure in good shape, and communities get together regularly to refurbish adobe structures, sometimes reinforcing the exterior with plaster or stucco.

The beauty of adobe is its simplicity and the organic nature of its shapes, forms, and textures. It is also the perfect backdrop for color and homeowners use this to great effect by adding the right amount of colorful details, such as the blue wooden trim work and fiery red dried chiles in this Taos residence.

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Or the front porch of my buddy Todd’s house in Santa Fe, where I stayed.

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His house, like many others in the Santa Fe area, is very old…as in 300 years old…but it has been well kept and updated over the years.

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For better or worse, real estate in the Santa Fe area has become astronomically expensive, no doubt due to the well-heeled from Hollywood and elsewhere who decide to buy homes there. In the one-horse town of Cerrillos between Santa Fe and Albuquerque, you’ll come across this historic gem that was apparently for sale when I visited.

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It even comes with its own historic plaque.

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As many have discovered, mid-century modern and Southwest design motifs go well together, and no one did this better than the painter Georgia O’Keefe at her homes both on Ghost Ranch and in the town of Abiquiu, west of Taos. It’s that simplicity and starkness of design, the bold primary colors, and the often unadorned shapes and textures that simultaneously catch the eye and calm the spirit.

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Which finally brings me back to Mesa Verde. This national park in Southwest Colorado is home to many ancient cliff dwellings, most of which were inhabited between 1100 to 1300 A.D. I suppose these would qualify as among the oldest houses built in the Southwest, but in them we see the same basic desires that we share with the Ancestral Pueblo Indians: a need for safety, community, beauty, and a location with a kick-ass view. Some things never change, and I hope the magic of the Southwest never goes away.

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Thanks big bro! This is just a tiny fraction of Ming’s wonderful photos from his trip. To see more, click to go to his Instagram page. 

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