Education · Resources · Traditions

Traditions: Southwestern United States

Traditional building, architecture, and urbanism of the southwestern United States is responsive to its culture, climate, and materials. From the Mesa Verde to Santa Fe, from ancestral to colonial traditions, whether stone masonry or adobe, southwestern traditions of building in the United States provide a rich resource for designers today and a wealth of examples of a climate-adaptive architecture.

“Mesa Verde, Spanish for green table, offers a spectacular look into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people who made it their home for over 700 years, from A.D. 600 to 1300. Today the park protects nearly 5,000 known archeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. These sites are some of the most notable and best preserved in the United States.” [Photo: Christine Huckins Franck]

The Southwestern area of today’s United States of America, including Arizona and New Mexico and portions of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah, is a dramatic, demanding landscape varying from arid deserts, hot summers, high mountains, and snowy winters. Between 4,000 and 2,000 years ago, the Clovis Paleo-Indian culture, present in the Southwest for millennia, began to cultivate corn, dig irrigation ditches, and build increasingly permanent settlements. By the end of that period, three distinct cultural groups can be identified: The Ancestral Pueblo, the Hohokam, and the Mogollon. These people lived, raised crops, traded, worshiped, and built impressive, permanent settlements throughout this region.

Ancestral Puebloans occupied the northern areas of Arizona and New Mexico and portions of southern Utah and Colorado and are ancestors of today’s Pueblo people. Traditions of building practised in Ancestral Pueblo settlements like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde still inform us today. Building mass wall structures that kept people cool from the heat of the day and warm from winter winds, Ancestral Pueblos created permanent villages with large, above-ground, multi-storied buildings made of stone, wood, and earth. Read more about Mesa Verde from the National Park Service here: and enjoy pictures below.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the Ancestral Puebloans left their established dwellings for reasons that are still not clear to archaeologists but which are thought to include prolonged droughts, deforestation, and hostile interactions with other people. Over the course of these and the following centuries, the Ancestral Pueblo migrated from their established settlements, transformed into Hopi and Zuni tribes, and Navajos and Apaches arrived in the area. Descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans make up today’s modern Pueblo, still living in the region in pueblos like San Idelfonso.

In addition to the tradition of stone masonry construction, puddle adobe and rammed earth were also used by these southwestern cultures. According to George S. Austin in the 6th International Conference on the Conservation of Earthen Architecture, “common use of earthen construction in the American southwest probably does not predate the 10th or 11th century A.D., when the use of puddled adobe and rammed earth began” and “Spanish conquests of the New World spread the use of wooden molds to produce a standard adobe brick.”

Adobe block at San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe, NM

The first wave of European people in the region came with Spanish missionaries and explorers seeking to establish a foothold for Spain in the region and to convert indigenous people to the Christian faith. By 1598, just a short 60 years after the first Spanish exploration of the region, the Spanish province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México was established and in 1610, the city of Santa Fe was founded.

The Spanish brought with them both a different masonry tradition than the stone masonry construction of the Ancestral Pueblo people and a different urban tradition than that found at, for example, Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon. In these structures in Santa Fe, we can see historic and new examples of adobe construction, merging indigenous and colonial building traditions.

Farther afield, whether at San Francisco de Asis Mission Church at Ranchos de Taos or the Church at San Idelfonso Pueblo, we see the ongoing use of earthen construction and common building forms.

The tradition of building of the Ancestral Peublo culture even informed the Pueblo Revival style National Park Service buildings at Mesa Verde. This National Historic Landmark Theme Study describes these buildings as follows:

These six buildings contain a series of common architectural elements that characterize their style. The principal building material of these structures is sandstone, some of which was reused from prehistoric structures. The stone is usually laid in courses with mud mortar nearly flush with the stone, giving the walls a relatively smooth appearance. The walls have a slight batter and average 18 inches in thickness. Parapets surround the flat roofs of the buildings. The load-bearing walls support simple roof structures of peeled beams (vigas) which protrude through the masonry to the exterior. The vigas on the interior support half-round saplings or split-wood slats (latias) with cedar bark above. The latias in these buildings are for decorative purposes, since a wood decking and built-up roof are the true sheltering portions. The irregular building plans for these simply engineered structures result directly from the shapes of the rooms and their configuration. This “form-follows-function” method of building is typical of both prehistoric and historic pueblo structures, and is used quite appropriately in these revival structures. Larger pieces of woodwork on the buildings–lintels, squared beams, doors, and the like–have adz marks adding texture and a pioneer type of character to the buildings. Interiors have plastered walls, corner fireplaces typical of the southwest, and sometimes flagstone floors and built-in bancos (benches). Pierced-tin lighting fixtures based on Spanish-Colonial and Mexican designs further contribute to the exotic feeling.

Peublo Revival style National Park Service Building at Mesa Verde.

Today, one can learn about earthen construction and its contemporary use from various sources including the upcoming Terra 2021, which INTBAU USA will attend. Additionally, this brief article, Adobe and Related Building Materials in New Mexico provides a good overview and technical information. And this publication “Southwest Housing Traditions,” in which the author “reexamines traditional southwestern designs and materials within the context of the Twenty-first Century housing needs and assesses their relevance today” and finds “that not only are such materials generally cost-competitive with more widely accepted construction techniques, but can also offer unique benefits in resource management and energy efficiency.” (PDF: Finally, if you wish to have hands on experience with earthen construction, we encourage you to consider attending a Terrachidia program in Morocco.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this brief post exploring some aspects of one regional tradition in the United States. Stay tuned for more on the urban traditions of Santa Fe and other places throughout the United States. If you are interested in contributing to this resource, please be in touch with

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