on December 18, 2001
The editiorial reviews available on this fine publication only hint at its value to preservationists, architects, and anyone involved with architectural design review boards. Wilson provides a concise history of Santa Fe and the cross-cultural influences that have shaped its architecture. Most importantly, the author examines the influence that early 20th century historic preservation philosophies had in formalizing what has ultimately become the "Santa Fe Sytle." This is essential material for anyone interested in examining how historic preservation can impact, both positively and negatively, contemporary architectural aesthetics.
Chris Wilson has written a superb book which transcends the architectural re-making of Santa Fe, a portion of which is dedicated to that subject, to encompass the meeting and transformation of New Mexico's three primary cultures: Indian, "Spanish," and Anglo. His approach to the New Mexican "story" in general, and Santa Fe in particular, is succinctly stated in his introduction: "Individuals and communities faced with these unprecedented transformations have adopted the practice of reinventing their identities. To this way of thinking, culture has become an ongoing process of creating plausible fictions. Better to accept this situation and try to understand how societies and their symbols change than to continue to lament the passing of supposedly authentic traditional cultures."
Wilson's starts with "Santa Fe Before It Became a Style." It was a grim, declining provincial capital of only 5,000, when New Mexico became a state in 1912, searching for an economic raison d'etre. He reminds us all of some of the harsh truths that occurred after the US-Mexican war of 1846 that created the area of the modern American Southwest, including the fact that by statehood: "...80 per cent of the former common lands of the Mexican farmers and ranchers had been alienated through judicial and legislative chicanery." The pictures, and drawings, including numerous color photos, in this section, and throughout the book, are worth the book's selling price alone.
The second section is on Santa Fe today, I suppose, after it became a "style," and in one telling part, Wilson discusses a TV series highlighting this "style," conducted almost exclusively by Anglos, with nary a "Spanish" or Indian discussing Pueblo style. Wilson conveys numerous rich nuggets of insights, including the survey whereby Spanish-speaking natives are asked how they identify themselves. When asked in Spanish, they normally say "Mexican." When asked in English, they say "Spanish-American." Wilson reminds us of the parallels between adopting the adobe style, a la Disneyland, and Marie Antoninette's picturesque "Hameau," at Versailles, where she could play "peasant," thoroughly distracted from the growing social forces that led to the French revolution. The author's erudition shines throughout the book, with numerous references to the works of John Ruskin, an early 20th Century British architectural critic, citing in particular that "Restoration means the most total destruction which a building can suffer...."
The book is an essential read for any New Mexican, on "why we are the way we are." But it should be enjoyed with pleasure by any individual concerned with trans-cultural issues, which include how we choose to house ourselves, as well as how we choose to re-construct our past. The author's erudition is sufficient for academic circles, where he does teach, but this book should not be relegated to that arena alone. A delightful, informative read.
If you visit Santa Fe, you might think that its adobe and stucco buildings are all part of an ancient architectural tradition. Wilson explains that this is not always the case. When the U.S. took over New Mexico in the mid-19th century, Americans built much of Santa Fe to look like any other American small town. But in the late 19th century, railroads bypassed Santa Fe, causing the city to decline for decades.
In the 1910s and 1920s, city leaders sought to arrest the city's decline by trying to attract tourism, and they decided that one way to attract tourism was to have unique architecture. As early as 1912, a nonbinding city plan sought to encourage a "local style" on a few major streets. In later decades the city enacted design review legislation to ensure that major structures used the "Santa Fe" style; as a result, even houses that contain no adobe often look like they do.
Although this book was generally interesting, it occasionally seemed a bit unfocused; some chapters were dominated by hard-to-follow architectural theory, and others by left-wing rhetoric that did not seem too closely related to the book's core message. Having said that, this is worth reading for anyone visiting (or who has visited) Santa Fe.