Earnest Blumenschein, a founding member of the Taos Society of Artists once called the architectural style of northern New Mexico “…the only naturally American architecture.” This may have been truer at the beginning of the twentieth century than it is today. Nevertheless, the softly shaped adobe forms represented by the architecture of Santa Fe and northern New Mexico have held a romantic attraction for many. This may be in part due to anthropomorphic associations. The rounded shapes may subliminally resemble organic features of living bodies. More likely however, this attraction may be due also to the appropriateness and harmony that this architecture has with its environment.
Historically, the architectural traditions of Santa Fe and northern New Mexico have been shaped by many factors including economic forces and at least three cultural ancestries. During the 1930’s, the regional building style was formalized by notable architect John Gaw Meem and others. This adobe architecture is today termed Spanish Revival, Pueblo Style, and Old Santa Fe Style among its many names.
Originally, structures could be built with little or no money. Walls were made of the very dirt from the site and roofs were framed with the trunks of trees which growing nearby. The architectural style incorporated decorative elements which were derived from the heritage of the three principal cultures which mingled in the area. However, an oft overlooked factor which has shaped the unique architectural style of Santa Fe is the special climate of the region.
Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico are located on a high desert plateau at an altitude of 7,000 feet above sea level. The attenuated air results in significant daily temperature variation. Forty-degree swings from day to night are common. These daily temperature swings together with the scant rainfall have doubtless shaped architectural traditions of the region.
In response to this environment, dwellings are often single story with adobe walls and slab on grade construction. By connecting the home to the earth and to its massive walls, indoor temperatures tend to remain steady despite the extremes of the environment outside. In the past, earthen roofs were used. Today, radiant floor heating systems are popular and this further connects the home to its floor mass. Flat roofs and plaster walls are more appropriate in the arid climate of Santa Fe than they would be in areas of greater rainfall.
Finally, with more than three-hundred days of sun each year, Santa Fe and northern New Mexico has been ideal area for solar architecture. Archeological remains show that since ancient times, inhabitants of the area incorporated passive solar principals in the arrangements of their communities. The same climate realities in the area continue to support sustainable architecture today.