The average person in Southern California doesn’t know what Mexican architecture is. It’s like putting jack cheese on something and calling it “Mexican food.” There’s no jack cheese in Mexico. The same thing happens with architecture. Americans create what they call “Mexican” architecture. That’s what they like. That’s what they get.
It is not uncommon to hear a San Diegan remark that there is something vaguely Mexican about the city’s visual image. But, when you then try to pin down what exactly it is that is Mexican about San Diego, explanations do not emerge in crystal-clear form — they meander around red tile roofs, “Spanish style” houses, or Old Town’s plaza.
What we do know about Mexico is that her architecture has never really ended at the border. It spills across the international boundary with the United States and is deeply imbedded in the region sometimes referred to as the “Hispanic Southwest.” The Southwest was once located entirely within Mexican territory. Its heritage is strongly tied to a Mexican and indigenous past.
But the Southwest has also been dramatically transformed over the last century and a half. Following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which created the present-day U.S.-Mexico international boundary, industrialization and urban growth spread across the mountains and desert landscapes of the Southwest. During the second half of the 20th Century, there was massive urban growth in the desert valleys of Phoenix, Albuquerque, Tucson, and El Paso, in the lower Rio Grande/south Texas region, in central Texas and along its Gulf coast, and on the California–Baja California border.
Along with the huge, sprawling cities came military installations, railroads, interstate freeways, mining operations, and tourists, feeding out of the cities and into the wilderness areas. This massive deployment of economic infrastructure and modernization permanently altered the cultural landscape of the Southwest. It is not easy to find, amidst all the new development, evidence of Mexican influence on architecture and place identity in the region. And yet there are both disappearing slices as well as new forms of Mexican identity in the southwestern cultural landscape.
In architecture, recognition of the Spanish southwest as a distinct place has been slow to materialize. Mexico is often left entirely out of textbooks on American architecture. Until recently, the Southwest was also regarded as a relatively marginal part of the story of American architecture, with the possible exception of recognition given to the early Pueblo and Anasazi periods.
Spain Designs Early California
Adobe and sandstone were the primary materials used by Anasazi and Pueblo builders. Adobe, a material composed of sand and clay, was essential to the Pueblo culture, and it has continued to influence the traditional cultural landscapes of the Southwest. It is a central feature of New Mexican, Arizonan, and parts of the traditional Californian architecture. Few ancient buildings remain in the region, however, because of adobe’s inherent vulnerability to the elements. Its greatest strength — being organic — is also its biggest weakness. It decomposes too easily when exposed to rain and sun. Too much sand in the mix causes adobe to turn soft and weather poorly; too much clay causes it to crack. No matter how carefully it is maintained, it will eventually return to its organic form — it will melt into the earth. It is therefore a material with a limited life span.
The technique of shaping mud into adobe bricks was brought to the Americas by the Spanish, who had learned it from the Moors. But adobe was a material the Pueblo culture had worked with before, although not in the efficient brick form. The Spanish helped the indigenous cultures perfect the art of adobe construction, and some of the most inspiring adobe buildings came after the Spanish arrival in the 17th Century. Learning to work with adobe meant dealing with the problem of water. Moisture inevitably crept in. Water could be drained off the roofs through canales (roof gutters), but, eventually enough water would get to the roof beams (vigas). The buildings that survived longest were those in which the ceiling beams were replaced periodically. It is interesting also to contrast the design of southwestern roofs with those farther south in Mexico and South America. Whereas in the latter, Spain demanded that decorative domes be built on churches and other important structures, using fired brick, in colonial New Mexico colonists once again adapted to local (indigenous) architecture. The regionally favored flat roof and earthen (adobe) constructions dominated colonial New Mexican townscapes.
California offers perhaps the best illustration of how quickly Spain took control of the southwestern U.S. territory. California, which in the beginning was two territories — Upper (Alta) California, which covers most of present-day California, and Lower (Baja) California, in Mexico — was the last of the northern frontier of New Spain to be settled by Spanish missionaries and colonists. Whereas Santa Fe had been settled as early as 1609, the first mission in California wasn’t built at San Diego until 1769. California was farther by land from the northern Mexican frontier settlements, and it was the last of the mission territories of colonial New Spain.
Once Spain arrived on the scene on the West Coast, it would quickly cover the land with three settlement types: missions, presidios, and pueblos. A string of 21 missions would be built in California between 1769 and 1822. The missions brought more than Christianity to California; they completely transformed the landscape of the California desert frontier. Plush gardens accompanied early mission construction: Spain brought citrus and olive trees, figs, and grapes to create a Mediterranean ambiance on a dusty desert landscape. The Indians of California had not built the kind of durable architecture that the Pueblos had; their simple structures were soon replaced with crude Spanish ones.
The missions were not unlike their counterparts in New Mexico or Texas. They were built in the form of quadrangles, with ornamental cloisters and plush interior courtyards, and housed a plethora of activity — schools, workshops, apartments — inside the walls of the mission compound. Presidios, too, were enclosed quadrangles with walls 3 feet thick and 12 to 15 feet high, many with bastions (towers) in the four corners. The pueblos were self-contained farming areas laid out in the classic gridiron pattern.