When people think of Modernism in architecture, the concept is often associated with hard materials like glass, steel and concrete — materials that often contrast with natural surroundings. If you travel through the Midwest, for instance, where Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe designed numerous buildings and homes, many modern homes are stark-white with hard edges and huge glass windows that showcase minimalist furniture from the likes of Le Corbusier, Ray Eames, Eileen Gray, Noguchi and contemporary designer Philippe Starck. They are built among grassy knolls, manicured lawns and tall lush trees. These are homes that stand out rather than blend into their surroundings.
In New Mexico, modernist architecture takes on a different character. It blends traditional and natural elements — like adobe bricks made from the earth — with newer materials, such as concrete and expansive glass, in homes that meld with the land. Modernism, here, embraces the ancient practices of Pueblo construction and what it represents.
“It’s our heritage,” said Santa Fe Modern author Helen Thompson. “We owe so much to Indigenous architecture.”
Pueblo Revival style homes are a significant part of Santa Fe’s appeal, and the City works hard to preserve the integrity of their appearance. However, outside city limits, building codes and requirements are less restrictive and architects are freer to design homes that re-imagine Santa Fe style.
In Santa Fe Modern, her third installation of books that feature forwardthinking architecture in the Southwest, Thompson, along with her collaborator, photographer Casey Dunn, explore this movement.
“We were generous with the perimeters of modernism, yet they all follow the basic tenets: functionality, site and form,” said Thompson. “To me, though, Santa Fe represents the peak of site-specific modernism.”
Many architects in the area consider facets of Southwestern living — the light, landscape and climate — when planning homes and buildings. For instance, timber beams serve as a modern version of traditional vigas in one of the homes featured in Thompson’s book. The beams arrange patterns of light and shadows on layered concrete walls that resemble the look of stacked boards. Specht Architects, who designed the project, titled this design “Sundial,” referring to the different phases of illumination created as sunlight passes through a 125-foot-long skylight that runs the entire stretch of the home. Experimentation with materials and shapes has always been a component of modernist thought, as is working with color to express new ideas.
Lori Lanier’s home, designed by Stephen Beili, exemplifies this notion. Taking a cue from Mexican architect Luis Barragán, who blends color and shapes among classic Mexican characteristics, Beili infused Lanier’s home with geometric shapes and bright hues that reflect the area’s natural environment, such as deep pink, yellow and red of cactus flowers.
“When I first came back to Santa Fe from Asheville [North Carolina], I was a bit overwhelmed by so much brown,” Beili said. “I was inspired by the work of Luis Barragán and thought that’s something I can relate to. It made sense to me to find a way to bring in contextual Modernism, along with place and time. And I do love color.”
The interior use of color offers a serene strength that complements the tall white walls and strategically placed art in Lanier’s home. Dynamic and boldc olors coat the stucco exterior that frames and protects an outdoor area with fireplace, pebbled water element and garden. The result is a peaceful refuge among the arid landscape.
“That space is in the front of the home opposite the Sangres,” he explained. “There’s outdoor space on both sides of the home, but that side protects you from the Eastern winds.”
Modernist thinking can be traced in homes throughout Santa Fe, both historically, and now. Many, including Thompson, credit John Gaw Meem as an overlooked pioneer of Santa Fe Modernism.
“There’s definitely a case to be made for that,” she said.
While not officially referred to as a Modernist, Meem used new materials and ideas in his work and placed high importance on how its inhabitants would live in the space and its environment. His pinnacle designs, Los Poblanos ranch house and La Quinta building in Albuquerque, were quite advanced for the time. The star-shaped, blue-tiled fountain within the hacienda-style portal at Los Poblanos was a singular focal point and constructed for year-round enjoyment. The bedrooms at the ranch house were arranged in a way to take advantage of winter sunlight for warmth and less intense light in the summer for coolness.
“People don’t remember that Modernism can be hand-crafted and touchable,” said Thompson. “It’s a very sensual and domestic type of architecture. It’s the ideal for every type of human interaction, and has reverence for the land, sky and stars. Life integrates with the land.”
Irene Hofmann, the former director of SITE Santa Fe who oversaw the reimagining and renovation of the Railyard museum, and her husband Max Protetch, a gallerist who was the first to offer architectural renderings as art, purchased architect William R. Buckley’s former residence in the foothills of Santa Fe. Buckley joined Meem’s firm in 1948 and built the house in the 1970s.
“The house was largely untouched for many decades,” Hofmann said. “[Buckley] designed the home for himself and we noticed a similar vernacular to Frank Lloyd Wright, and echoes of Mid-Century Modernism.”
The couple also knew the home had good bones. It also had everything they were looking for, including a guest house they could re-vamp first to test materials and ideas before renovating the main home.
“I played architect and Irene played client,” Protetch jested.
Working with architect Suby Bowden, the couple decided to convert the four-bedroom home into a one-bedroom and really open up the space. In doing so, Protetch discovered granite rock built into the hillside underneath sheet rock walls on the lower level. The couple embraced the unexpected detail and left it exposed.
“I love that the house is big with large spaces and high ceilings, while also intimate and warm,” said Hofmann, adding how she respects its low-profile and synergy with the landscape. “It’s not the usual building materials you see in Santa Fe, but it works.”
Currently, at the Center for Contemporary Arts (CCA), is an exhibit and accompanying video that feature the homes in Thompson’s book, including the home of Hofmann and Protetch. The CCA plans to expand the show to include panel discussions and talks from architects about how Indigenous construction is taken into account when drafting plans.
“It’s really an art form in its own right,” said CCA Executive Director Danyelle Means. “We want to have an open discussion about it and how traditional Pueblo style influences architects’ thinking about homes in Santa Fe.”
“It’s also kind of a sneak peek into homes you would never otherwise see,” concluded Means.