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The Eye by Barbara King

So simple, so natural, so very California

The classic adobe is earthy and embracing. And it's as relevant now as it was hundreds of years ago.

September 25, 2003|Barbara King

Just look at the texture of the walls, their thickness. At the plain, four-paned window and how it lets in exactly the right amount of light, illuminating the old room but not overtaking it. Even in its ravaged state, the house remains beautiful. Desolation and decay have only, in the end, strengthened its integrity, lent it a mysticism and a silence.

Few styles of architecture appeal to me more than the simple adobe. I like the way it cooperates with the landscape, seems, in fact, to be organically entwined with it. It is literally of the earth, a sturdy composition of clay soil, sand and straw that cools you in the heat of day and warms you in the chill of night. There's a directness to it, a lack of self-consciousness that makes it seem grounded in authority yet eternally innocent.

I lived for several years in a series of adobes in New Mexico, three of them historic, and no matter what I put in them -- a needlepoint chair from England, a hand-painted chest from India, leather chairs from France -- it worked. I couldn't miss; nothing ever came off as an ill-advised gesture. The juxtaposition of the textured walls, the soft buff color, the exposed beams, the tiled or brick or dark plank floors, all of it seemed to effortlessly, harmoniously, join forces. The adobe made everything look more natural, more, in a way, like itself. The rooms seemed to wrap around me, and no houses I've lived in since have felt as embracing.

In Southern California, the adobe is more commonly known as a hacienda, and although I've not (yet) lived in one here, its particular variation on a theme is the one I find ideal. Our climate in all its benevolence has made possible -- even necessary, one could argue -- the full employment of the outdoors in our home lives, and it is in the design of the hacienda that the boundaries between outside and inside are most winningly dissolved.

Interior courtyards are the element we most commonly associate with haciendas, and they are, to my mind, as civilizing an architectural feature as any I've heard of. Think of it: All the rooms of a house opening onto a communal outdoor space, but a private communal space, a family center, hidden within the confines of the walls. Each room with its own passageway, so respectful of the individual person and of the character of the individual room.

It strikes me as very much in keeping with human nature itself, reflective of our need for both solitude and communion, and, in the integration of the indoors with the outdoors, our own quest to integrate our interior and exterior lives.

In the introduction to Tim Street-Porter's book "Casa Mexicana," Marie-Pierre Colle says of the courtyard, "It is outside, but it is also a part of what is inside the house. Mexicans have always favored enclosed spaces, be it the entrance to the inner sanctum of an ancient temple, the walled plaza surrounding a pyramid, or later the monastic cloister. Mexicans live within themselves, defining the relationship between outdoors and indoors so as to ensure their privacy."

In this and in two other superb books, "Casa Yucatan" and "The New Hacienda," both by Karen Witynski and Joe P. Carr, there are photos of the many varieties of haciendas in Mexico, and historical information that highlights the four-century trajectory of their evolution.

Haciendas were large, landed estates awarded by the king of Spain to conquistadors and other Spanish notables in the New World of the 16th century. They were agricultural, limited to a few hundred acres, but inevitably grew -- some to more than a million acres. For more than 300 years, they were the economic mainstay of rural Mexico. By the 18th century, they had become extraordinarily elaborate affairs, with an immense main house (also known as a hacienda, just as the whole estate was), lavish gardens, workers' houses, stables, corrals, a school, a chapel, a general store, a jail, a forge.

The Mexican Revolution of 1910-20 effectively put an end to the haciendas, as Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata and Venustiano Carranza raged through the countryside with their troops, destroying everyone they came across and returning confiscated lands to the Indians.

Prominent ranch-owning families such as the Alvarados made the hacienda a familiar architectural style in Southern California, and its classic elements have been constantly appropriated, interpreted and reinterpreted to suit changing tastes and changing times: the grand-scale interior with its high, elegant ceilings, the arcaded portal, or patio, that serves as an outdoor living room, and the brilliantly conceived, ever-beautiful, ever-civilized interior courtyard, my version of the very essence of a well-lived home life.

"I believe in an emotional architecture," said Mexican architect Luis Barragan. "It is important that mankind be moved by architectural beauty. If there are a number of equally valid technical solutions to a problem, the one that delivers a message of beauty and emotion to the inhabitant -- that one is true architecture."


Barbara King is editor of the Home section. She can be reached at

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