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 eyes?
"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 architecture.
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 once again.
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 great?'"
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 step backward.

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 California.
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 messy.

So what's wrong with a little romanticism? Why be so puritanical? Isn't refried architecture just harmless fun?
Not exactly.
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 architecture.
"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 climate."
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 another.