visual dictionary of Southwestern style

Don’t know your parapets from your portales? Pueblo style from Contemporary Southwest? Let our Visual Dictionary of Southwestern style help you come to terms with regional design.

Architectural Styles

Pueblo Revival architecture usually includes elements of Spanish Colonial and Mission Revival architecture styles. Its characteristics include earth-colored stucco walls with an adobelike appearance, rounded corners at intersections, brick flooring, flat roofs drained by canales (jutting water spouts), rows of vigas (beams that protrude through exterior walls and provide structural support for the roof), casement windows, usually recessed, with roughly hewn lintels, and stepped-back rooflines that imitate Pueblo architecture.

Spanish Colonial architecture is typified by adobe walls, a one-story building around an enclosed courtyard, and a long, narrow porch (portal) either facing the street or facing the patio. Flat roofs are drained by canales extruding through a parapet. Windows that face the street often are protected with ornamental grillwork, and doors to the various rooms open onto a covered portal or patio.

Territorial style was associated with New Mexico from the time it became a territory of the United States, in 1848, until about 1900. (New Mexico achieved statehood in 1912.) A one-story house built around a courtyard typically would have a flat roof with parapets and exterior walls of adobe coated with adobe plaster or stucco. Sidelights, a stack of small vertical windows, commonly flanked entry doors, and bricks trimmed doors and windows. Brick coping atop the exterior walls protected them from water damage, a constant worry with adobe construction. Pedimented lintels, or lintels with a triangular crown, recalled the Greek Revival style, as did the milled posts and beams that replaced the logs used as vigas and posts in Spanish Colonial homes.

The term Contemporary Southwest covers a broad range of styles reflecting regional influences. It can incorporate Pueblo style cues with modern surface treatments, larger volumes, and refined straight-lined geometry—for instance, a flat roof but squared parapets, earth-tone or vibrantly colored stucco finishes, extensive use of glass, wood or steel vigas, and deep portales. The masters of Contemporary Southwest architecture in New Mexico tend to emphasize design that responds to climate and site, uses materials honestly so they become design elements themselves, and breaks down the barriers between inside and out.

Architectural Elements & Design Features

Adobe is made from mud, basically. Silty soil composed largely of clay and sand is mixed with water, poured into forms to make bricks, and left in the sun to dry. Additives such as straw, manure, and asphalt emulsion strengthen the mixture, which in the old days was also used as a plaster. Nowadays, several coats of cement plaster cover the bricks on exterior walls to improve resistance to the elements.

A banco is a built-in plastered bench, typically in front of kiva fireplaces, along low walls, and under windows.

Canales are drain spouts, often decorative and made with wood or wood lined with sheet metal or roofing tar, that protrude through the roof parapet.

Casa is the Spanish word for “home.” (It has nothing to do with magazines, except in our case.) A casita is a small, usually Southwest style cottage, either freestanding or attached to the main house.

Coping is a decorative and functional treatment to the top part of a wall, often made of kiln-fired bricks in Territorial style New Mexico architecture, originally to prevent erosion of adobe walls.

Corbels are large wooden brackets, in New Mexico often shaped and carved to be both functional and decorative, that support ceiling beams (vigas) and lintels.

A cornice is the ornamental molding, usually of wood or plaster, that runs around the walls of a room just below the ceiling or roof top.

An horno is a freestanding, chimney-less bread oven used by the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest. Like many elements of Southwestern style, the functional horno has become a vestigial ornament used to accent the patio or courtyard of suburban homes.

The kiva fireplace is a classic icon of Santa Fe style. This small semicircular fireplace, usually built into a corner, was apparently named for the round, flat-roofed ceremonial rooms of Indian pueblos. These fireplaces have indoor and outdoor variations, often with an attached bench (banco) that makes a cozy place for fire gazing.

Latillas are relatively straight, slender saplings (1½ to 2 inches in diameter), stripped of bark and laid across the log roof beams, or vigas, as decking. Latillas are laid perpendicularly between the vigas or diagonally to form a herringbone pattern.

Lintels are headers, or horizontal supports, above windows, doors, or other wall openings. Often rough-hewn wooden beams, lintels are left exposed as a design element and often feature designs hand-carved into the wood. The post-and-lintel system (two vertical posts supporting a horizontal beam) is one of the oldest means for constructing an entranceway.

Nichos, or wall niches, are recesses, usually arched or rectangular, in adobe style houses used to display religious objects, small sculptures, photographs, shrines, or small objets d’art.

A parapet is a low wall extending above the roofline in Pueblo style architecture. In modern design, a parapet often masks a slightly pitched roof, which prevents the leaky flat roof syndrome of older Pueblo architecture.

A portal is an attached, covered porch supported by posts with corbels and beams. It makes an excellent spot for a siesta or sunset watching.

A pueblo (Spanish for “village”) often refers to a communal dwelling built by the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest. The buildings were—and still are, in many cases—constructed of stone or adobe. The structures can tower up to five stories high and contain many individual family units.

Vigas are large (6- to 12-plus inches in diameter) usually peeled round logs used as ceiling beams regularly spaced across the width of the room. In traditional Southwestern architecture, the exposed interior vigas, along with latillas, decking, or even plaster, form a strong design element at the ceiling. A classic feature of Santa Fe style, they often are exposed outside, too, protruding through the exterior walls.