As you can see, Southwest architecture begins with the land and the sky. It is made of materials from the earth and baked by the sun. Layered over these inherent qualities are the cultures of the region, especially the extraordinary principles of Hispanic town making. The Spanish brought the plaza, the arcade, the well defined street and the interior courtyard or patio. These are all ancient features dating back beyond the Romans, but effectively re-utilized by Spanish architects in the Americas. As other cultures have made this region their home, permutations to the architecture have occurred. The Anglo-Saxon settlers brought the brick, the pitched roof, and the front porch - the building being detached and set back from the street.

Street in Tucson's Barrio Historico  with Sonoran style house
Street in Tucson's Barrio Historico 
with Sonoran style house

The interiors of these Anglo-Saxon dwellings receive more natural light because they are exposed on all sides, the brick was a more durable material and did not require a plaster coating for protection, and the pitched roofs leak less during the infrequent but torrential rainstorms. These are certainly improvements in many ways, but at the loss of the urbanism of the Hispanic city. Now the clear distinction between the private realm (patio) and public spaces (street and plaza) has dissolved and has been replaced by the more ambiguous space of the front and side yards.

Anglo style house in Tucson's  Armory Park Neighborhood
Anglo style house in Tucson's 
Armory Park Neighborhood

What can we learn from the early architecture of the Southwest? Well, for one thing we need to learn to respect the climate and the terrain. This is the first thing that both native people and early settlers had to realize. If they had not, they probably would not have survived for very long. Both groups understood the need for shade along with shelter, and they utilized readily available resources such as mud, and stone. They didn't have to look far for these materials. However, resources such as water, and in many places, wood, were often scarce. Out of necessity they practiced a true sustainability. The early builders in the Southwest also understood the importance of separating the private and public realms of individuals. The street, plaza and arcade as well as the house, garden and patio were all extremely important spaces for human existence. Without these elements, there is a lack of choice between solitude and community exchange. Fortunately these architectural and urban elements are still in our consciousness, perhaps from some collective memory. They can be revived at anytime.

In November 2008 TICRAT AZ/SON held a conference at Tumacácori National Historical Park, Arizona and Pitiquito, Sonora. TICRAT AZ/SON is a bi-national, hands-on workshop focusing on techniques and strategies for conservation and restorations of buildings constructed of adobe and lime plaster during the Mission Period in Arizona and Sonora. Videos of the presentations are available on the Missions Initiative website.

Suggested readings:

Jacobs, Jane. Death and Life of Great American Cities, [New York]: Random House, [1961]. SABIO RECORD

Tucson Institute for Sustainable Communities. Sustainable Design: A Planbook for Sonoran Desert Dwellings, 1999.

Alexander, Christopher. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, New York: Oxford University Press, 1977. SABIO RECORD