Milli Nath-Chowdhury

Exploring the world of adobe in New Mexico- May 25th to June 4th, 2008

The alarm sounds - it is 4 am on a Sunday morning.  Sleep was the last of my thoughts preoccupying that morning.  In a few hours, we are well on our way to a great journey of altruism, discovery, and cultural refinement – we’ll be building a home for the destitute with Habitat for Humanity and learning of art, architecture and culture uncommon to Montreal.  After a quick hot shower and a small breakfast to awaken my senses, and a final preview of my packing list, I was ready to embark on this journey.  At the Trudeau airport, the excitement of the students and teachers alike floated in the air and soon enough, we boarded the aircraft to take us to New Mexico.

The town of Taos, meaning “red willow” in the Tiwa language spoken by the Pueblo people, was at first a shock to the students.  Arriving from a cosmopolitan and vibrant city, we landed in a town that seemed to have frozen in time.  We were placed in the most exquisite of lodging – the St. James Episcopal Church.  Living in this space and calling this home for our five day mission made us aware of the architecture of this building and the region.  The trademark adobe (sun-dried brick made of mud and straw) construction of our church is typical. 

Each morning we walked along the rugged roads to the construction site. This proved to be both energizing and a study of the distinct Vigo style of construction,using adobe brick and local Ponderosa pines. Observing the elements and volumes in these buildings of the southwest each morning was like a review of the terms learned in our architecture courses of the previous semester.

With a sense of renewed energy we approached the house. We were invariably assigned to build an adobe house, a sustainable green material used in areas of little rainfall such as New Mexico.  For five days, under the extreme heat of the desert we worked away at our little house. Within the restraints of our one week time-frame we managed to complete the roof - by installing the insulation under the beams and joists, adding plywood over the area and protecting it with asphalt membrane. We even worked on the exterior by adding waterproof sheets on the insulation. We also covered the interior and exterior walls with wire mesh.  What a fantastic experience – one which demonstrated such synergy and team spirit within the group.  We were hailed as the best group working on this project! 

Towards the end of our term, we finally met with the homeowner – a financially-distressed single mother with a physically-challenged child.  Hearing her story made us realize the real impact of our work – helping build this home has saved a mother from placing her child in an institution.

While in Taos, we visited a UNESCO World Heritage site still inhabited by the Tiwa people, the Taos Pueblo. We learned that this structure is over 1000 years old!  The structure was intriguing – a multi-storey complex built of adobe and still standing today and engaged in human activity.  One of the remarkable features of adobe is its ability to retain heat during the day and then slowly releasing this heat to the interior at night.  This sustainable use of material in building construction is so beneficial whereby the HVAC system is barely needed thus greatly reducing energy consumption.  It is no wonder that the indigenous people have used this material for hundreds of years in desert climates where the temperature fluctuates from extreme dry heat during the day to cold air at night.  Perhaps we should re-evaluate our modern ways of living and incorporate these age-old structural methods in our buildings as an advancement to sustainable development.  The “Taos Pueblo” is an example of architecture shaped by climate and society, one that was able to withstand changes over the course of many centuries.  It was remarkable to see that this method of construction was still being used today in new construction in southern U.S. Our tour guide – a college student and the daughter of the tribal chief – gave us a brief overview of the history of the pueblo and described her people’s way of life.  That the indigenous traditions and rituals were still practiced and preserved fascinated me. Some of the tribe are moderately assimilated and “westernized” but still follow the valuable lessons past down through the generations. 

The second half of our journey in New Mexico was one of cultural as well as architectural discovery.  One cannot travel without visiting a museum – through these institutions the history of the region is expressed through the art.  Taos Art Museum and Fechin House exhibited artwork by Nicolai Fechin, an artist who migrated to New Mexico from Russia and whose work was heavily influenced by the indigenous culture of New Mexico.  A visit to this museum was a walk through another dimension of Taos seen through the eyes of this artist.  Even more fascinating was the museum building itself which was in fact, the house that Fechin lived with his family.  The house architecture was a blend of Russian and indigenous styles very much like his art.  The Georgia O’Keefe museum in Santa Fe was another artistic stop in our journey.  I was very much impressed by the paintings of this artist and the photography of Ansel Adams – both freezing images of the environment and praising the naturally majestic landscape of New Mexico in their own way.

A very exciting part of the second half of this journey was our visit to the National Bandelier Monument – en route from Taos to Santa Fe.  The monument set in the backdrop of the Frijoles Canyon, contains the ruins of dwellings that were once inhabited by the indigenous people.  Our hike through these cave dwellings carved into the soft volcanic rock of the cliff was a discovery of ancient archaeology that I’ve never encountered before.  Only in literature have I read about such living quarters, but seeing this was astonishing.  From Santa Fe to Albuquerque, we stopped for another hike at Sandia Peak, a mountainous region harbouring the world’s longest aerial passenger tramway!  The aerial view of Albuquerque from the ride on this tramway was simply breathtaking!

As much as this journey was filled with many cultural and educational activities, it would have been incomplete without a trip to an architectural firm.  In Santa Fe, we visited Archaeo Architects, a firm that specializes in residential buildings that use sustainable methods of construction and blend with the landscape.  From the principal architect of the firm, we learned about LEED certification and green building methods in construction.  In Albuquerque, we visited the Studio Southwest Architects Inc., a firm which specializes in institutional and commercial buildings, they are also advocates of sustainability in construction.  In fact, many of their architects are LEED certified so it was stimulating to have an introduction into green building practice from both firms.

After our final tours in Albuquerque, sadly our exhilarating journey of architectural and cultural discovery had to come to an end.  Not only was our trip extremely educational, we had treks through national parks bringing us close to the powerful forms of the New Mexico landscape, we also learned techniques in building construction and were involved in a humanitarian cause. What a journey! It is definitely one that I would take part in again.

The experience with Habitat for Humanity was so rewarding that we hope to start the first college chapter in the Montreal region.  I have learned that volunteering for a humanitarian cause while traveling is really the best way to educate oneself about the culture and society of a region and at the same time, what better way is there of applying the knowledge of architecture gained from school than in practice.
As Mother Teresa once said, “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean.  But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop”, I believe that it is essential to have a chapter of HFH in our Architectural Technology program and integrate building of homes for the less-privileged as a yearly project so that there can always be an abundance of water in the ocean.