Taco Deco: Spanish Revival Revived
It's early in the evening, and I'm having dinner at the Scottsdale
Princess the only way I can afford to: in the Caballo Bayo bar. For
the price of a beer–$3.25–I can graze at a lavish happy-hour buffet
of traditional and nouvelle Mexican snacks. Clearly, I'm not the kind
of customer the Princess would swoon for, but that's her problem,
not mine. I'm here on business, as cultural anthropologist and architecture critic, and I'm learning something.
The albóndigas in wild mushroom sauce are boffo; the chef whizzes
out from the kitchen with a fresh tray every few minutes. The shrimp
chimichangas and mussels stuffed with tomato and cilantro go nearly
as fast. The angulas are a problem.
"Why would they be serving spaghetti at a Mexican buffet?" asks
an elegantly dressed woman, thirtyish.
"This isn't spaghetti; it's angulas–baby eels. See their tiny little
"Ooooouuugh, God! I think I'll pass, thanks."
I like the eels. Not so much for the taste–I'd add oregano, myself–but for what they illustrate about a persistent trend in Arizona
The Spaniards, of course, brought Spanish architecture to Arizona. No need to reprise the wonders of Tucson's San Xavier del Bac here, except to note that after 200 years it remains one of the best three or four bits of architecture in Arizona. (That's a compliment to
the mission's unknown architect, as well as an indictment of the muddlers who followed.)
The Spaniards went away, but the fashion they introduced to their
frontier returned three times, each cycle progressively stronger. The
first was the Mission Revival around 1900, inspired not by San Xavier
but by promoters, developers and real estate hucksters. Houses, railroad depots, filling stations and occasionally even churches were
wrapped in mission tile, arched windows and scalloped gables. The
designs were usually symmetrical and seldom as interesting as even
the most modest missions. In Phoenix, St. Mary's Basilica, completed in 1914, is the prime example.
In 1915, a second wave of revivalism, one more romantic and rich
in ornamentation, swept the Southwest. The Spanish Colonial Revival supposedly recalled the grand life of the dons who had ruled colonial California from pink haciendas with gracefully rhythmic loggias, tiled domes and Islamic courtyards. A lovely image–and pure
flimflam, a fantasia spun over a foundation of myth. Neither that
architecture nor lifestyle ever existed in what is now the United States.
However bogus, this revival left Arizona with several architectural
treasures. The Luhrs Tower at 45 West Jefferson, designed by Trost
& Trost of El Paso, features a smashing Spanish Colonial Revival
portal grafted onto an Art Deco tower. Built in 1929, it's still
Phoenix's best high-rise–yes, another indictment. Brophy Prep
(1929, by John R. Kibby) is one sweet, fleeting moment of grace
and romance on hard-edged Central Avenue. Westward Ho (1928,
by Louis L. Door) is ... well, atrocious. Not everyone who fiddled
with Spanish Colonial imagery got it right.
In the 1930s, Phoenix (and even Tucson) began craving to look
like real cities instead of Iberian fairylands, and this meant merging
into the mainstream of style. Color, ornament and romance became
high crimes, with the result that by around 1970 Phoenix looked
pretty much like anyplace else–a bloated Tulsa with palm trees. Architects and developers looked around and realized, well, this isn't
the answer either. And some of them ducked into the revival tent
This third "Spanish" revival, now in profuse bloom, doesn't have
a name. Two possibilities, suggested by architects, reek of scorn:
"Taco Deco" and "Mariachi Moderne." Developers lean to the
warmer but vague "Southwestern/Mediterranean" or simply
"Spanish." I have tried "Spanish Colonial Revival Revival," but
editors always think it's a typing mistake.
The other day someone suggested "refried architecture," which I
rather like. It's brief, it implies both revivalism and a Mexican connection, and it is not necessarily catty, although it could be if the project
at hand warrants it.
Refried architecture isn't being taught formally in design courses.
Critics and architectural historians feel it's beneath their dignity to
notice it. Roger Schluntz, chairman of the Arizona State University
department of architecture, observes that until the past three or four
years, "mainline" firms in the Valley weren't touching it. Given this
full-court snub from the design establishment, it isn't surprising that
most of the products of this latest revival are dumb and banal.
But out there on the streets, popular taste is clamoring for it. A
recent issue of "Homes & Land of Scottsdale & North Phoenix," an
advertising giveaway, pictured 204 six- and seven-figure houses for
sale. Of those, 94 featured some sort of "Spanish" or "Mexican"
imagery. That's 46 percent.
Bob Gosnell has fashioned his whole Pointe resort empire around
a "Spanish" theme, and even the architects who scoff at it sometimes
admit in the next breath that it serves the public expectation of what
Arizona architecture ought to be.
"The Iowans who come and stay at a Pointe resort think they've
died and gone to heaven," says Mark Philp, a partner in Allen &
Philp Architects, Inc. "They see the arches, the tile, the bougainvillea
climbing the walls everywhere, and it's 'Gawd, Martha, ain't this
Hearing Philp talk like this, it may come as a surprise that he has
done a refrito himself–a big one. The Scottsdale Princess, which
opened January 1, cost $50 million to build, sprawls over 600,000
square feet, and has 600 rooms, eight bars and four restaurants. This
winter, the cheapest room will run you $190. If your name is George
or Michael and you're bunking in the Presidential Suite, plan on
billing the company $1,600.
Philp is pleased with the Princess, yet wary of his firm getting a
reputation as One That Does This Kind of Stuff. On our way out to
tour the resort, he wonders hopefully whether New Times might later
want to do something on his mainstream work.
"We wrestled with misgivings on this one," he admits. "But we
saw an opportunity to do something in this vernacular and do it
well. Besides, it's kind of hard to take an international hotel client
and say, 'Get out of my office!'"
Quit bleeding, Philp. Everyone knows that when you design a
resort, the rules all loosen. People won't pop $190 a night for cool,
cerebral architecture, but they might for a fantasy.
Princess International Hotels asked for "a grand hacienda" to preside over the desert at Scottsdale and Bell Roads, and they got it. My first impression is that the hombre who lives here watches Knots Landing to see how the plebes live. Not that it's unbearably pompous; it's just vast. It takes twenty minutes to walk around it.
The stroll isn't unpleasant, however, because the architects have
done some nice things with rhythm, color and texture–rhythm
especially. The first and second floors are girdled by an arcade with
thick, beefy, square pillars. The third floor has bays of twin Doric
columns, and the fourth lightens to single columns. The effect is
visual music: As the eye sweeps upward, whole notes subdivide into
halves, then quarters, then sixteenths, the tempo effectively quickening as the walls rise. A horizontal band of harlequin tiles gives the whole composition a snazzy buzz, like a bassoon laying down the bass line.
The water feature, de rigueur in every desert resort these days, is a
clever joke on the colonial Mexican theme: A waterfall cascades into
a stepped pit that looks like the mother mold of a ruined Mayan
pyramid. From there the water surges under the building and into a
dark labyrinth of brick-paved islands, gurgling streams, towering pillars and peekaboo slices of sunlight. Herb and Martha Iowa will be impressed as heck.
Other details are not so clever. The "chapel tower," an octagon
capped with a dome and bucking-bronc weather vane, is pure kitsch,
the same sort of Miguelito Mouse architecture you find popping up
in cheap strip shopping centers all across the Valley. The peaky mission tile roofs on the "lantern towers" (lights bum inside, visible at night through slits) make them look silly rather than authoritative, like priests in party hats.
And there's something daunting about the sheer scale of the place;
at times you feel like an ant lost in a maze designed for a rat. Four
years ago, Allen & Philp did another high-end resort, the Boulders
in Carefree, that not only seems intimate, but also embraces the desert instead of fantasizing about it. For all her music, the Princess is a
Revivalism on the Princess' grand scale is a luxury. More often,
the budget only allows the architect to hint at the past.
St. Andrew the Apostle, at 3450 West Ray Road, is a small church;
construction ran a modest $840,000. But out there in the still-underdeveloped suburban tundra of Chandler, you can see it a mile away. The building functions as a billboard, advertising itself.
In 1986, this new parish asked Roberts/Jones Associates of
Phoenix to design a "mission-style" church. There was no dissent,
says the Reverend Joe Hennessey, the pastor. "In the Catholic
Church, we're seeing a real resurgence of interest in the essential
teachings of the church, and one of those relates to the mission movement. The people are looking to get into contact with their roots. And I think this is the type of architecture that fits in the Southwest. When you walk in, it's peaceful and serene. Everybody loved it from the first day we celebrated Mass, this past Easter."
For the architects, the problem was that St. Andrew had to dress
like a Spanish mission but function like a modern church. Most of
the missions of New Spain, including San Xavier, were built on the
"cruciform' plan: a long, narrow nave, two transepts and a stubby
altar. The floor plan looked like a cross. But in the post-Vatican II
church, the people are supposed to be seated as one cohesive body,
usually in a semicircle around the altar.
With no way to resurrect a mission literally, architect Jim Roberts
applied mission mascara. He designed a freestanding wall with
punched-out arches, a cross and a suggestion of a dome and planted
it at the end of the building, perpendicular to the street. It doesn't do
anything but advertise the church; even the three bells hanging in it
are fakes. "Real ones would have cost us another $22,500," explains
Hennessey, not apologizing.
This is Roberts' first revival building, and he's not unhappy with
it, either. "It's entirely appropriate to reinterpret the past," he says.
The fact that Spanish missionaries never called on Chandler isn't an
obstacle. "It's an expression of Catholic history. When you're looking
at Phoenix's past, what are you going to reinterpret? Hohokam?
There's a vacuum here, and you have to borrow from somewhere else."
Sometimes architects borrow more than style. At El Pueblo Shopping Plaza, 8120 North Hayden, Dick & Fritsche Design Group has put a cultural stereotype to work.
Among the scores of "Spanish" shopping centers in the Valley,
this one may be the most appealing. It's rich in interplay of bright
light and deep shadow, and it bursts with color from landscaping
staged so that "something is happening all year round," says project
architect Suzane Schweiger-Nitchals. Cheaper centers employ just
one or two images that read as "Spanish" to make their point, but
this one is a cavalcade of fountains, bell towers, flying buttresses,
rose-shaped moldings (quatrefoils), scalloped parapets and broad,
curving stairways. There's even a gazebo.
And, of course, there's a roof of mission tile. "We wanted a very
handmade, very personal look," says Schweiger-Nitchals, "so we had
it laid up with a lot of mortar, and laid askew, so the rows of tile
wiggle and weave."
Quaint. But would an architect specify such a thing in any other
revivalist style? Would Greek columns lean, as if they'd been erected
by tipsy workers? Hardly. The amateur cultural anthropologist ponders whether such intentionally crude craftsmanship subtly nourishes
all the old gringo notions about mañana and siestas and a desultory
attitude toward work in Hispanic cultures–Mexican in particular.
Are we charmed by wiggly rows of tile because they suggest the
casual, informal character of life in the Southwest? Or because they
reinforce Anglo-American prejudices?
Now let's do some professional cultural anthropology.
One of the curiosities of architecture in the Valley is that the
farther you move away from the Hispanic neighborhoods of central
and south Phoenix, the more refried architecture you see. The style
has been co-opted not by the people who could most legitimately
claim it as their heritage–they tend toward Middle American tract
homes–but by itinerant gringos in search of a heritage to claim.
Among them, it doesn't seem to vary with income level. "When
people in the Valley have unlimited money to spend on a house, it's
taco. In the builders' subdivisions at the bottom end, it's taco," says
Jeffrey Cook, professor of architecture at Arizona State University.
"This indicates at least a universality of taste."
But why? James Griffith, a University of Arizona anthropologist
and folklore hound, has an intriguing theory. "This leads one into
dangerous areas of cocktail-party cultural analysis," he warns. "But
the whole North American attitude toward Hispanic and Mediterranean culture has always been one of romanticization and stereotyping. Maybe this architecture is your chance to project yourself into a feudal society, not as a peón, but as a patrón, where you're surrounded by courteous servants, hats in hand, saying, "Would you like to ride
the palomino today, Señior?'"
Why romanticize a culture that supposedly can't lay tiles straight?
James Byrkit, a Southwest historian at Northern Arizona University,
weighs in with this idea: "It's a method of escape from our Puritan heritage, which is pragmatic rather than sensual." He goes on to quote H. L. Mencken on puritanism: "The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy."
Byrkit, in fact, has traced the roots of escapist Spanish architecture
to what he calls the "neo-mission cult" of a century ago in Southern
Starting in the 1880s, Byrkit says, writers such as Helen Hunt
Jackson and Charles Lummis, both newcomers to the West, discovered what they thought to be a gold mine of lore in the California mission period. In the spirit of Victorian romanticism, they let their imaginations gambol through history, creating dreamy scenarios of
simple but dignified Indians under the tutelage of refined Spanish
priests and kind yet manly dons.
Railroads and real estate interests eagerly promoted and amplified
this image through architecture and literature; it made the West seem
palatable to Easterners contemplating a move. Says Byrkit, "For the
heedless lemmings and incipient lotus-eaters pouring into Southern
California, the mission theme must have appeared as an affirmation
that they were not coming to some barbaric shore."
As for Arizona, by the turn of the century it was in the orbit of
California's cultural gravity, and its pioneers felt the same impulse to
romanticize history. And we're doing exactly the same today, Byrkit
believes. Newcomers–and that's most of us–need roots, and if
those roots are grounded in fantasy rather than reality, so much the
better. Truth may be stranger than fiction, but fiction is never as
So what's wrong with a little romanticism? Why be so puritanical?
Isn't refried architecture just harmless fun?
It has lulled us into sappy complacency, to start with. We figure
that by encrusting houses with mission tile and dressing shopping
centers with bell-less bell towers, we've solved the problem of desert
"It's very similar to what Reagan has done so successfully," says
Tucson architect Judith Chafee, who is revolted by revivalism in any
form. "You revive images from the past and hark back to a time when
there was comfort and opulence. We're not going through the effort
of facing current problems."
The fundamental problem of desert architecture is protection from
the sun. The next one, which Frank Lloyd Wright articulated fifty
years ago, is integrating architecture into this spare, fragile landscape.
Most Spanish revivalism addresses neither concern.
"It's popular image-making, not a reasoned response to climate,"
says ASU's Cook. "The tile roof, for example, works very poorly in
this climate; it absorbs 70 to 80 percent of the solar radiation that
falls on it.
"It's like landscaping with palm trees–the most hateful trees God
ever made. They don't provide any shade, but they've been
popularized by promotional literature. People think, 'Oh, wouldn't
it be nice to go live in such a balmy climate?' But this isn't a balmy
Another problem is repetition. Since architects can't invent forms
in a revival mode, they're reduced to making flower arrangements of
established forms. Shall we put the bell tower at this end, or that
one? Do we paint the stucco tan or beige? Even some architects who
like the style worry. "I've done a couple of others besides El Pueblo,"
says Schweiger-Nitchals, "and you do get kind of a feeling that you've
been there before–that you're cutting out pictures and pasting them
together." Truly new ideas, such as Allen & Philp's inverted Mayan
ruin, are rare; clients willing to pay for them even rarer.
But here's one idea we ought to consider.
If we wanted to revive architecture that made sense in this desert,
we'd look back to the Spanish houses that actually did exist in colonial towns such as Alamos, Sonora. They had thick walls, small windows facing the outside, and a shady courtyard in the middle. The rooms all opened onto the courtyard, and summer became bearable–centuries before air conditioning. The houses were built to
the lot line, not stranded in a sea of grass or gravel.
But doing this requires a rethinking of lifestyle and attitudes toward the land, and few of us are willing to do that. Like that happy-hour crowd shrinking from the sautéed eels at the Caballo Bayo, many people dig Hispanic culture only when it doesn't seem too
strange or demanding. We insist that it adapt to us, not vice versa.
The Official English movement is one manifestation of our nervous
ethnocentricity. Refried architecture, in a more subtle manner, is