Written and photographed by Scott M B Gustafson
“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the handing on of the fire.”
In March 2013 I traveled to Taos, New Mexico to meet with a potential client. I’d driven through the area several times before on trips between Denver and Santa Fe, but I had never spent more than 15 minutes in Taos itself. My design process involves steeping myself in the aura of a place and picking up clues on what is appropriate in a given location. The things I look for are textures, details, ways of inhabiting the land and specific architecture responses to the climate as evidenced in the traditional buildings of the place. I am not looking to recreate the architecture of the past, but to learn from the knowledge and expertise of those previous generations who likely worked out the kinks while eking out a hardscrabble life on the frontier.
In Taos, as in much of the southwestern United States, the vernacular building culture developed several techniques of earthen construction. Massive walls of adobe regulate the temperature of buildings in both the hot and cold seasons, small judiciously placed high windows bring in light while reducing heat loss. Elongated gargoyles funnel rainwater off of roofs and away from the foundations. Rough hewn vigas – roof beams cut from tree trucks – penetrate the exterior bearing walls and animate the façade with their ever changing shadows.
Modern conveniences in construction and relatively cheap energy sources have allowed us to ignore the climate and build thin walls with large windows that bleed heat and air conditioning all year long, ignorant to the wastefulness that such choices bring. But I think the technological cocoon in which much of contemporary society envelops itself with has other dangers. Human culture over the ages has developed a rich tapestry of rituals and traditions that keep us mindful of the cyclical nature of life on earth and the dependence we have on natural systems to provided us with food, clothing and materials for shelter. We run the risk of severing our own roots and our own history and lose the very facets of our accumulated culture that separates us from the animals. We only have one earth to live on and we should never forget how fantastic it is.
“One thing we do know, that we dare not forget, is that better solutions than ours have at times been made by people with much less information than we have.”
See drawings and photographs of the San Francisco de Asis Church from the Historic American Building Survey.
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