By Shaobai Xiong
When you are driving on country roads in modern-day New Mexico, you will generally see two kinds of houses: Western-Style houses and Pueblo-Style houses. It is not difficult to distinguish the two styles of houses. Western-Style houses always have pitched roofs and are usually built of wood. Pueblo-Style houses always have flat roofs and are usually built of adobes coated with adobe plaster. The coexistence of the two styles of houses is the result of the spread of Western culture into New Mexico. When Western people settled in New Mexico, they brought their architectural styles, which led to the appearance of Western-Style houses. Western-Style houses have no historical root in New Mexico, and on the contrary, Pueblo-Style houses can be traced to the Pueblo Period of indigenous culture.
Actually, the style of modern Pueblo-Style houses is also called Pueblo Revival that was developed in the early 20th century and was inspired by the architectural style of ancient Pueblos. Therefore, it shares many similarities with houses in ancient Pueblos. For example, both were comprised of thick walls made of adobes, also known as mudbricks. Then, they all had flat roofs made of wood and plaster. In practice, the two features were good adaptation to the arid climate of New Mexico. Thick walls function as a layer of insulation that keeps the inside of these houses cool because adobe, the component of these thick walls, has great thermal mass which means that houses built of adobe were more resistant to temperature fluctuation; mud, the raw material of adobes, is easily accessible to local people, which makes adobe a cheap construction material to use; the local arid environment has less precipitation, so adobes will not be easily damaged by water; moreover, flat roof was chosen because it saves more material than pitched roof, and flat roof here doesn’t easily leak here because of the lack of rainfall in this region.
Though Pueblo Revival style inherited many characteristics from ancient Pueblo houses, it is still a modern imitation of an ancient house style that should cater to modern lifestyles. The most prominent difference between Pueblo Revival style houses and ancient Pueblo houses is the role of fireplaces. In the summer of 2019, I participated in the excavation of Gallina Phase unit houses.
In the Gallina unit house, the fireplace is not only the physical center of the house but also the center of daily activities. In ancient Pueblos, a unit house only has one room, but that room has to support five major daily activities including living, cooking, dining, production and sleeping. Fireplace is the facility that is indelible for all these activities: the fireplace works as a stove when people are cooking their food. In winter, the fireplace becomes the hearth, and people tend to work, chat and sleep around the hearth to keep them warm, which makes it the center of social activities. The important role that fireplaces played in ancient Pueblo life is reflected by an archaeological study on coprolites in 2000. These coprolites were found in the hearth of a pit house in Colorado, and by analyzing the component of them, archaeologists suggest that the existence of human protein within them shows that cannibalism happened in the end of the house around AD 1200. A possible interpretation is that probably because of witchcraft persecution, people living in the house were killed by raiders who ate them and defecated in the hearth as a sign of disdain. This example demonstrates that it is because of the sacredness of fireplaces in ancient Pueblo life that the disrespect of fireplaces is identical to the humiliation of the family that lives in the house.
However, with time goes by, the central role of fireplaces is lost with the development of contemporary life. First, it is common for contemporary people to have multiple rooms, each with its specified function, in their houses. In this way, people no longer live in a house that integrates multiple functions within only one room. Modern people have living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom and so on. Because of this, placing the fireplace within the center of the house becomes unnecessary, for the impediment of walls that separates the house into different rooms and hinders the evenly spread of heat into every corner of the house.
Second, modern technology weakens the importance of fireplaces. In the past, fireplaces are used to cook and heat, but the two functions become independent in a modern house. People now have gas cookers, microwave ovens and electric ovens to cook, and they also have modern heating system and hearth to heat. When these functions are no longer integrated into only one spot, people have more freedom to place their fireplaces. As the result, people tend to install multiple fireplaces around their house to satisfy their demand or to put the fireplaces into the most needed place.
In conclusion, from ancient unit house to modern Pueblo-Revival Style houses, there are continuations and changes. Modern people continue ancient designs because their advantage to adapt to local environment and climate. However, with the development of modern lifestyles and techniques, people also choose to give up some previous designs, like the placement of fireplaces into the physical center of the house.