Kenneth Krushel | Essays

Santa Fe Diarist

Photograph by Kenneth Krushel, 2006.

What is it about the United States that, more often than not, seems to insist upon appropriating a sense of indigenous culture, only to transform that culture into a mythological theme park? Historical interpretative creations, such as Williamsburg, Sturbridge Village, the frontier ghost town outside Dillon, Montana (and even Epcot) offer overtly educational (and to many, entertaining) re-creations of an imagined past or a foreign landscape.

But there seem to be equally vigorous efforts to commercialize this distant past, embracing a design esthetic that advertises itself as the "essence" of what had been thought to be lost. Then, in re-introducing this historical narrative, an efficient assembly line manufactures it into a commercially lucrative design creed.

Santa Fe is positioned by civic leaders and business interests as a community whose design synthesizes Native American tradition, western folklore, Spanish colonial history and an eclectic history of innovative design. Architecture is dominated by pueblo (adobe) style, allegedly inspired by the simple adobe structures used by ancient tribes. Today, a visitor's first impression of Santa Fe is that of luxury dwellings populating the desert landscape. Real estate ads feature 10,000 sq ft. houses, described as transformational, eco-friendly, practical in dry climates, and influenced by feng shui. These behemoths are sprouting in concentric circles around the state capital, metastasizing north up the high road to Taos and south along the old Turquoise Trail, out to the formerly isolated cluster of state and federal penitentiaries, and even along the interstate leading to the Santa Fe Opera and Los Alamos nuclear research facilities. In other words, Santa Fe is engulfed. It's too late to circle the wagons.

Ultimately, a traveler visits the central plaza area of Santa Fe. When municipal authorities introduced design ordinance, in order to preserve the original flavor of the town, some argued that what was being preserved was an artificial vision based on a fictive past. But ordinances are in place, resulting in an omnipresent design sensibility encouraging massive, round edged walls made out of adobe, flat roofs, rounded parapets (with sprouts to direct rainwater), vigas (heavy timbers) extending through walls to serve as support beams, and latillas (poles) placed above the vigas in angled patterns. There are also numerous examples of enclosed patios, heavy wooden doors, elaborate corbels, beehive corner fireplaces and nichos (niches) carved out of the adobe wall for display of religious icons, or Santa Fe-inspired figurines.

Walking through the central part of Santa Fe, I had a sense that Willa Cather was turning in her literary grave. Here, death had come not just to the archbishop, but to the entire landscape, for as she wrote, the "peculiar quality in the air of new countries vanished after they were tamed by man and made to bear harvest." The harvest, in this instance, is a festive design providing tourists with a Hollywood back-lot of a southwestern frontier town, albeit gentrified and navigated by SUVs. Plastic luminarios and fabricated bunches of chili peppers draped over balconies remain on display throughout the year, not just for Navidad for which they were originally intended; streets are lined with shops flogging western jewelry, southwestern art, faux Ansel Adams-style photography, antiques, western inspired clothing (including $1,000 cowboy boots and $2,000 tasseled, fringed and bejeweled cowgirl ensembles), massage and holistic medicine studios, cafés serving espresso and crèpes, and even oxygen bars to help visitors adjust to the mile-high altitude.

It's one thing for the far-flung suburbs and gated communities to invent the lost past, but here, at the very heart of the community, the epicenter of inspiration is a cenotaph to commemorate colonists who arrived 400 years ago from Mexico. Led by Don Juan de Orate, who established himself as the leader of the 500-strong travelers, the migrants created what was one of the earliest European settlements. They planted European crops, introduced the first horses, sheep, goats, cattle, donkeys, poultry, and supported a cadre of Franciscan priest and brothers who nurtured the settlers and converted the indigenous peoples. Aside the memorial is St. Francis Cathedral with a statue of the town saint, one leg lifted like a ballerina into the air, as if the saint was performing "Swan Lake."

Nearby, art stores offer prodigious sculptures of enraptured Indian braves charging into imagined battle, and statues of Navajo warriors seemingly cathartic as they raise their arms to their pantheistic heaven. The corral of objet d'art gives a sense of collective torture, and, I suppose, demonstrates a market for high-priced paralyzed mythological forms frozen in a fantastical time and place. These sculptures are as alien to the cultural tradition as ubiquitous casinos on Indian reservations.

An hour's drive from Santa Fe, and within minutes from Los Alamos, are the ancient ruins of Frijoles Canyon, protected within Bandelier National Monument. Following the migration of animals which they hunted, the ancients migrated in and out of the area for more than 10,000 years. Over time they became more sedentary, building at first wood and mud structures, which were later replaced by stone structures carved into the surrounding cliffs. The entrances and "windows" of these cliff homes, having endured hundreds if not thousands of years of erosion, have achieved a kind of misshapen geometric form, and without too much imagination suggest ancient ritual masks. Standing before these still and silent cliff dwellings, a traveler becomes aware of a greater presence, something ancient and seductive. There are no zoning regulations defining a heritage, no commercial venue selling cultural artifacts, no land to build upon, nothing derivative or contrived. Just something still, and humble, and in its own way, perfect.

When work is undertaken to replicate the architecture and design of a largely eviscerated cultural tradition, what is drawn from the past to define a vital present? Do we rely upon atmospherics and unearthed remnants to authenticate a sense of replicated antiquity? Is there an "orthodox" original source dictating style and sensibility, or is reinterpretation and creative invention permitted? Certainly this is a large, contentious topic, with an ongoing tension between preservationists and commercial interests. I know of no better example of this collision of interests than Santa Fe. Amidst these Anasazi ruins, there is an overwhelming sense not only of what has been lost, but perhaps more critically, of what needs to be remembered.

Kenneth Krushel is the chief executive officer of Proteus, a leading provider of wireless applications. He is a former journalist.

Posted in: History, Social Good

Comments [18]

What we see here is a perfect example of cultural appropriation, which evidentally through research proves to be intrinsically interwoven with consumerist societies.

And what society in today's world is more consumer-driven than America?

This is precisely why I wish designers would be conscious about these issues.

Good article
Ahmad Ktaech

Very good article. Extra points for avoiding the word "authentic". I wonder how these thoughts could be applied to another desert metropolis, Las Vegas, which is also completely false but without any reference to its own location or heritage... Santa Fe is the opposite: it's imitating (& thus perpetuating) its own self-concept, which makes it harder to pin down what's a real outgrowth & continuation of traditional styles, and what's just a commercial window dressing.

If this kind of cultural appropriation didn't exist, wouldn't these cultural symbols and styles be less common and therefore less remembered by the people of the present?

Of course, I also agree that when this appropriation is done poorly, it can actually cheapen what long lost cultures were about. (Aztecs probably didn't want their legacy to be that their ancient symbols are associated with fast food mexican restaurants)

Obviously because of new technology and cost concerns buildings created to look like adobe dwellings or signs that reflect the Old West will be pale imitations. But if done well, isn't this imitation flattery?

What is the alternative? The current cookie-cutter beige strip mall suburbs? It reminds me of the art of Jean Lowe: The Course of the Empire, where we see our current mall culture juxtaposed with 19th century french design.

At least a strip mall in Santa Fe looks a little different and tries to reflect the area's culture to some extent.

It would be great if every builder and designer were creating new and exciting design that would draw from their region/country but unfortunately, with mass culture this doesn't happen often- you get a style that is bland and boring, but usable in many different situations.

It may not reflect high culture, but isn't this artifice what most people are looking for? When a person travels to Salem, Massachusetts, they want to be transported to old-timey witch trials. When people travel to the southwest, they want to see horses and covered wagons. Even though these times & places are long gone, people still want to experience cultures and history - even if it is through a 21st Century approximation.
Chris Murphy

As a frequent visitor to Santa Fe I think post is very senstively written and I am sympathetic to the author's unease with the city's singular design plan. I often find myself thinking how difficult it would be to be a designer in the midst of such a dominant aesthetic. But ultimately it seems misguided to fault the municipality for being so thoroughly engaged with design. Can you imagine what would surround Santa Fe if these restrictions and ordinances were not in place? I've driven the road up to Taos and I have to say it always strikes me as kind of sweet that even the rich people have to live in mud huts (regardless of how large and hi-tech they may be on the inside). It's the great equalizer—like the subway in New York. The city might be more authentic if it was surrounded by Frank Gehry blobitecture and Italianate mansions but I certainly wouldn't prefer it. I may chafe a bit at the uniformity of regulated architecture but I'll take it any day over having to endure the capricious design whims of the rich. And there is something wonderfully unsettling about pulling up to a Barnes and Noble or a Target and only being able to distinguish it by the sign out front. This is as modern an experience as I have ever had and it is the embodiment of design as a compromise between commerce and culture. Las Vegas and Santa Fe don't reflect this compromise any more or less than Frijoles Canyon. They just haven't been abandoned and allowed to crumble into a romatic state of decay. (Yet.)
dmitri siegel

I can't say it any better than Guy DeBord:
The Society of the Spectacle


In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.
Mark Notermann

And the alternative is ...?
Michael Blowhard

False authenticity, in the United States in particular, is convincily explained in Umberto Eco's : Travels in Hyperreality. New York: Harcourt, 1986.

Useful and dealing exactly with the subject of this post.
Laurent Vonach

there is a wonderful book by george orwell called 'Coming up for air' that deals to some extent with the reappropriation of the past into a distorted commodity, although this is only really apparent towards the end of the book. i won't spoil it, just read it.
Graham Taylor

I agree with Dmitri. As a former resident of Los Alamos, I've seen what a town in a beautiful environment unregulated by strict style regulations looks like - it looks like Cleveland, like Tulsa, like Denver, like any other town with suburban box-houses and mini-malls and neon signage, except butted up against some mountains.

I realize that I am focusing only on one part of the article, but I do feel that Santa Fe's architectural style, perhaps as forced as it is, is a brilliant idea. Coming down to Santa Fe (the Big City) from Los Alamos (the Small Town) is always a breath of fresh visual air. The place looks more... right.

In a world where Bandelier is an archaeological curiosity rather than anything of high cultural relevance, I'd rather see Santa Fes over Los Alamoses anyday.

I am thrilled to see a thread with Guy Debord, Goerge Orwell and Umberto Eco cited so confidently. It is a credit to author of the original post.

My problem with the facile deployment of ideas like appropriation and commodification is that they imply that there was some authentic past to be appropriated. These seemingly post-modern critiques reek of 18th Century notions of primitivism, the noble savage, and the romantic philosophy of Rousseau. Their assertion that we are crassly commodifying culture presupposes that there was an edenic, pre-commercialized era when "authentic" culture existed. I think not. Let's face it, the Roman Forum was a shopping mall and Frijoles Canyon was an apartment building. There has always been comercialization and commodification, the important thing is how we distinguish between the good and the bad. I am not above making value judgements, I just don't think they should be based on exoticizing the past.
dmitri siegel

Thank you Dmitri.

I was going to launch into some hackneyed diatribe against the "cult of authenticity." That somehow the there is an perfect past, free of intercultural exchange and immutable. That the criticism that Santa Fe isn't "real" is the same force that drives its search for a rigid design identity.

But I think you said it better and more academically.

Good and interesting article.

Have to weigh in here - I live in Santa Fe (again) and did back before I was an architect when I thought all the buildings were ancient and made of adobe and I loved living here because it was humanly scaled and walk-able and cultivated with glorious fruit trees and lilacs, stately and serene, brown wall curves and blue sky. Then I got some training and did some research, and I still love it here. Though most of the town has been up-scaled and I can now see through the walls (next to the ample glazing) and see the framing or rastra block below, the idiom adapts well - Legoretta is doing some interesting work here, among many others - and even when the traditional style is adhered to, the ghost of John Gaw Meem (who defined the style out of the multiple ruins around him) has assured we who work here of a palette that is of high quality, "authentic" even (do you fear the word or the context?), with materials like stone and tile and carved wood and stucco... which really is more inspiring than the clapboard platform framed colonial ranch-burgered strip malls that I used to do back East in Dormerville. I really like that notion of subverting Target with the architectural code, but it has been done to death in a thousand up scale strip malls nationwide, to the point where the high priced retail tradmark look is synonomous with a hidden presence (think Tiffiny's). And the 10,000 mountain town stripmalls to our north are just as bad. Those who watch the fabric know the difference between the real and the just kidding. And you know, you can fight the spectacle on its own terms just about anywhere, once you get your head out of that book...
Brett Frauenglass

I've been through Santa Fe, and it's like going over to that great aunts house, who you've never really met, and when you arrive you find out you have to sleep in the bedroom that displays the 2,000 piece Hummel Figurine collection. It's weird and it feels wrong, but not solely because of appropriation or assimilation cultures. Graphic designers and artists have always stolen, to put simplistically, from culture, history, and other designers (stealing from other designers is very bad for our profession, stop it now). In regards to this theft, the question is, as our author points out, "what is drawn from the past to define a vital present?"

Whether the rip-off is of Maria Innocentia Hummel, Native Americans, or Herbert Matter (queue Swatch), designers need to ask themselves a series of questions before stealing. The questions might be, including the one above; Does this communicate my message more clearly? Do I understand the context in which it was originally created? Am I simply responding to a visual style? How is my subject matter related to the thing or idea I'm copying? Such questions help to build up and maintain ethics within our profession, and as an added bonus, by asking such questions to ourselves and collogues we become better problem solvers.

Simply asking questions won't put an end to this problem. It is equally important to admit to yourself and others that at some point in your career you've engaged in thoughtless appropriation. Allow me to be the first. In the past I have copied styles and ideas without considering the effects of doing so. I am sorry for this, and will try in the future to hold myself to greater accountability.

I have enjoyed this post and thread and it raises interesting issues with regard to authenticity, appropriation, regional difference, the culture of global cities, the production of popular and public environments, etc. While it has been alluded to in the thread, I think it important to emphasize more forcefully that one of the key aspects of a place like Santa Fe - that embraces both the good, the bad and the ugly - is the ongoing public debate and imperfect as it may be democratic consensus building that takes place in this city with regard to the design and look of this place. This debate has occured, been memorialized in legislation, and implemented over a period of decades.

What could be more authentic, or culturally specific, or non-specular, or dare say contemporary, then a place that cares to continually tweaks its environmental identity within an ongoing public discourse? I have been at times discouraged by the sprawl about Santa Fe but I have a sense that this city is more publically articulate about its peculiar hybrid regarding sense of place, global lifestyles, and local narratives than most and this is one of the reasons I keep wanting to go back.

Far from being simply a theme park controlled by distant forces willing to rip it all down and start all over again the moment the profit curve is anticipated to dip, I think Santa Fe is one of the more interesting examples of a modern city that is wrestling in a most public way with continually defining and redefining again a a consensus with regard to the production of place. In this regard I feel Santa Fe is one of the most critically modern cities in Amercia and the world.
John kaliski

While one can go to Santa Fe and only see the fake, the background is more nuanced than the author of this post seems to ackowledge. I just happened to visit a museum in Los Angeles that has a good collection of Pueblo pottery which I have long admired, but didn't really understand. Upon reading the labels in the exhibition, I was surprised to learn that this work that is so highly collected isn't really "indigeneous" in that it does not replicate vernaculars specific to one Pueblo or another, but instead represents a tribal interpretation of the Arts and Crafts movement, simultaneous with the same movement in the U.S.. And of course, there are "high" versions of it (pots signed by individuals), and "low" versions of it (pots produced anonymously for the tourist trade) and now, contemporary versions—some copying the older pots, some featuring new forms and colors—but it is obviously not so easy to catagorize this as simply the replication of an eviscerated cultural tradition. A trip to the annual Indian Market (a weekend in the summer when hundreds of tribal craftpersons take over the plaza and surrounding streets of Santa Fe) is, on one hand, a classic hard sell to tourists: but one has to be pretty cynical to not be able to recognize that even this spectacle contains a range of work and attitudes and interpretations that reflect the complex history of Santa Fe itself, going way beyond the current romantic strategies of local real estate interests. "Cultural appropriation" is an inadequate description of what its going on there.
Lorraine Wild

I have a friend from Santa Fe whose family was awarded one of the original land grants from the Spanish court. They have continually farmed in the area for about 400 years.

He owns an adobe house on the edge of town, but lives in Southern California; where his architectural practice has produced many adobe-styled/influenced buildings along the Pacific Coast Highway. He's transformed the adobe "style" (for lack of a better word), through his personal history, into something singular which addresses his and the client's needs.

Now I'm certainly not the expert on New Mexico. I've been to Santa Fe only as a friend of the family and as a tourist; not as an historian. And it's only through this personal connection that this post interests me. But a combination of just walkin' around Santa Fe and ten minutes of Googling lead me to question Kenneth Krushel's conflation of the aesthetics of local trade with land management and zoning issues.

In 1598, Juan de Oñate's motivation upon establishing New Mexico was based on Coronado's reports — in turn, based on local Indian reports — of gold. When Oñate's autocratic methods forced settlers, led in part by Juan Martinez de Montoya, to leave the then capital of San Gabriel, they landed in what is now Santa Fe. Upon learning of Oñate's excesses, the King arranged to have him replaced and Santa Fe named as a town.

Several political machinations and historical characters later, Martinez's original vision of a Santa Fe that thrived on the trading of cattle, sheep, hides and salt to the silver mines of northern Mexico came true in 1608.

So for almost 400 years, Santa Fe has been about trade. Whether Conquistadors searching for gold, cattlemen, or fanny-packed tourists; the specifics change but the basics remain the same.

Who knows; in the future it could be neo-hippies shopping for the best thai massage. (I've been to the Ten Thousand Waves spa just outside of town and let me tell you: I wouldn't be surprised.)

I place great faith in Wittgenstein's axiom that meaning arrives through use. And it would seem that Santa Fe is just as "authentic" as it always was — while conversely, Frijoles Canyon is less so.

I'm also struck by the humor of a non-Santa Fe resident's distaste at seeing SUVs. Imagine how the Indians felt when the Santa Fe Railroad came through.

Try as one can, it's close to impossible to zone what merchants sell. Rudy Giuliani tried to get rid of all the porn in New York, but all that did was it got spread around a bit. Yet, when it comes to recognizing the inherent aesthetic quality of a place, Santa Fe was ahead of the curve. Their preservation/zoning code was passed in 1958; two years before the first National Historic Landmarks were designated by the US government, and seven before the creation of New York City's Landmarks Preservation Commission.
m. kingsley

The unspoken assumption in this post is that architecture is supposed to reflect what seven decades ago Siegfried Giedion called the "constituent facts" of our time. In other words, architecture is supposed to express modern materials like glass and steel. The architects who followed this dictum often pushed the environmental and the human to the side in the process.

Before the oil-dependent climate control of today, Le Corbusier discovered that the all-glass wall had many environmental problems, the most obvious being heat gain from the sun. So having opened the wall up with glass, he shaded it with "brises soleil" — large panels perpindicular to the facade that kept out the sun.

One can argue that's "honest" construction, or one can argue that it's needlessly reinventing the wheel in the face of obvious environmental problems.

In the climate of Santa Fe, in any case, the thick walled stucco or adobe building makes a lot more sense than the generic glass office building you see in Albuquerque and Pheonix (or New York or Hong Kong). The construction is simple and inexpensive, without any need for highly skilled labor or elaborate machinery or fabrication. It's also "honest" load-bearing construction, with an economical stucco coat that performs very well in the climate.

The aesthetic, as its creators clearly said, was an invention of the 20th century that reflected different cultural traditions in the region. It's only Modernist ideologues, who are opposed to overt cultural or traditional elements in architecture, who think this is a bad idea. But the rest of us, which is about 95% of our culture, like to see these very human elements. We think they're usually better than the mechanically repetitive skin of the Pheonix office tower, the new World Trade Center building, or the current wave of New York apartment towers like the Sculpture for Living. And as anyone who has been to Santa Fe knows, the color of the local mud — naturally present in the local adobe and easily introduced to "honest and inexpensive" natural and sustainable stucco — is absolutely perfect for the local light. It is one of the reasons artists like Georgia O'Keefe have always loved Santa Fe.

The residents of Santa Fe also love it. It's peculiar how many ideologues feel the need to tell them they're wrong.

I've written about this more in The Most Beautiful City of the Twentieth Century.
john massengale

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