An Interview with Stefanos Polyzoides
The Plazas of New Mexico, recently published by Trinity University Press, seems to be that rarity in architectural and urban research today: a panoramic study that looks at a well-defined subject in multiple ways. Such a wide exploration of a narrow subject contrasts to much contemporary urban academic discourse, which produces theoretically narrow readings of wide, heterogeneous trends and global phenomena. The book looks at the form and cultural significance of plazas in New Mexico, one of the most important elements of American southwest urbansim. These plazas have evolved over time, and such evolution is an inherent part of this study. In this study, urban artifacts are alive and evolving, and assume different cultural significances at different points in history. The book profiles twenty-two plaza-based communities in their own chapters, and covers about seventy in total. It is lushly illustrated and contains new photographs by Miguel Gandert specifically commissioned for this study.
Plazas is a collaboration between Stefanos Polyzoides, Chris Wilson, and Miguel Gandert. Polyzoides, partner of Moule and Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists, is a founder of the Congress for New Urbanism, and the author of numerous books and articles including Courtyard Housing in Los Angeles, a groundbreaking study of this architectural type. Chris Wilson is the J.B. Jackson Chair of Cultural Landscape Studies, and the Director of the Historic Preservation and Regionalism Program at the University of New Mexico. Miguel Gandert is a nationally recognized photographer whose work focuses on the culture and people of New Mexico and has appeared in numerous exhibitions and books. He is a Professor in the Department of Communications and Journalism at the University of New Mexico.
I had the opportunity recently to sit down with Stefanos Polyzoides to talk to him about this book and some of its implications for today’s architects and urban designers.
JOHN DUTTON: I just received a copy of this very impressive new book of yours: The Plazas of New Mexico by you and Chris Wilson, with original photography by Miguel Gandert. It’s certainly a larger book than your Courtyards of Los Angeles, one of the best typological studies I know of. Can your talk a little about your approach and the book’s organization?
STEFANOS POLYZOIDES: There are various ways of engaging in documentation, all of which begin of course with observation. One is by observing and writing; another is by observing and photographing; another yet, is by observing and drawing.
We were fortunate to have a historical record of some existing drawings and plans; writings by Bainbridge Bunting, J.B. Jackson and others; and a rich collection of mostly twentieth century photographs, by some of the most prominent photographers of the Southwest. Considering the vastness of the subject matter- the urban history of an entire state of the United States- it became clear from the book’s inception eleven years ago, that all of these techniques had to be used if this were to become a powerful document, distinguished by its scholarship, by the artfulness of its drawings and by the depth of its photography.
JD: There are three parts to the book: History, Cultural Narratives and Place-making. Were these seen as specifically germane for your study of New Mexican plazas, or do you see these as applicable in general to the study of architecture?
SP: They are all relevant dimensions of the study of architecture and urbanism. History is essential because it reveals the structure of time and place. Cultural narrative is also important because it connects the design of buildings and public space to the needs and emotions of specific people living in specific places. Place- making is about the instrumentality of received ideas and their translation through theory into new projects.
There is also a fourth crucial component of the book: Case Studies of some thirty key plazas. Here, theory, history and place- making are brought together in the interest of understanding how to incrementally produce plazas unique to their city or town context. This is in sharp contrast to one of the more disturbing aspects of current architectural culture, producing buildings and places that are frozen in form, beyond further evolution.
The plazas of New Mexico, as well as their architecture, are not closed compositions. Every plaza is actually a piece of a bigger process, an element of the construction of the city and the management of nature over time. How a building or place evolves is as important as what it is at the moment of its construction.
JD: In looking through the book, it’s amazing to see the great diversity of plazas, as well as some often radical changes in their form over time. So can it be said that the type itself isn’t necessarily normative or fixed in any way but varies according to ritual, culture, place, climate, size of city perhaps?
SP: The fact that these plazas have prospered in New Mexico beginning a thousand years ago, speaks to a number of things: To the enduring power of their imagery as the spiritual and public face of their communities. To their serving as the central gathering places for their citizens in times of celebration or of trial. To their climate-modifying design in a desolate border region where living has always been difficult. It is notable that plazas were inserted at the heart of all New Mexico settlements, independent of who the settlers or their cultures were. The plaza form is simply being repeated and elaborated to our day.
JD: How original are these particular plazas- are they a uniquely American, or a Southwestern, phenomenon?
SP: Public space in the form of squares and plazas has been part of the design of towns and cities within all prominent American urban traditions, as well as English, French, German and Spanish. What is unusual about the plazas of New Mexico is that they are first born out of the Native American imagination and its religious strivings.
Then, there has been speculation in recent scholarship that the invention of Hispanic public space in the Southwest of the US through the Laws of the Indies was not only the brutal cultural imposition of a foreign building model onto the native people of pre- colonial North America, but also in part, an adaptation to their space norms.
So, it may well be that the unique dimension of the first two phases of the urbanism of New Mexico is that it is an accommodation between European and Native American ideas. This assimilation of design ideals persists through the design of Anglo American railroad towns in the 19th century. An instrument of internal, American colonization through massive migration and real estate sales to be sure, but also patterned according to the fusion of indigenous and imperial design traditions that preceded it.