Of course, this raises the question of what are the defining characteristics that lead to being considered a real city by me? An important one is that it needs to be old enough to have had some history – that it isn’t just the slight densification of postwar sprawl we now sometimes call Edge City. Albuquerque still has what is referred to as its Old Town – with the plaza and some buildings remaining from the era of Spanish settlement in the 18th century.
When the railroad arrived in the 1880s, it didn’t pass within miles of the Old Town, so a new downtown grew around the station a couple of miles away. This core of Albuquerque was built during the first half of the 20th century – it has a regular grid, and it has classic commercial and mixed-use buildings from this era. Central Avenue, the main east-west street, was part of the old Route 66, and there are many remnants from this era.
We were told by several of our informants in the local culture that the most important establishment in the city, the heart of Albuquerque, is the Frontier Restaurant. It is located miles east of downtown on Central, right across from the UNM campus. Open from early to late, it is the favored haunt of architecture students, and a wide range of locals.
A second characteristic of a real city is that it shouldn’t have completely obliterate its past. We did pass many remnants of the pre-war era, but Albuquerque did have its phase of urban renewal, where they bulldozed areas, and produced the strange juxtapositions and anti-urban buildings that urban renewal always seemed to cause.
The downtown is going through an actual period of renewal at this point. After decades of neglect, business and people are starting to repopulate it. There are some big mixed-use buildings, some a little overwrought, but shops and restaurants and people on the street are in evidence.
A third, and equally subjective, criterion is that cities that feel real to me have maintained this balance between the old and new. In 1950, Albuquerque was about the same size as Phoenix, with 100,000 or so residents. Since then, Phoenix has grown to 1.5 million, and its region to over 4 million. Albuquerque now has under 600,000 residents, and the region has about 1.2 million. So on a percentage basis, the older parts of Albuquerque form a much higher percentage of the total. The outer sprawl of Albuquerque is organized much the same way as in Phoenix, but in Phoenix, there doesn’t seem to be much else besides the sprawl – the vestiges of the old downtown are hard to find, and everything has been subsumed in the sprawl. In Albuquerque, you go through neighborhoods of varying ages and characters – it isn’t the postwar monoculture.
A fourth characteristic that gives Albuquerque much of its character is its natural context. The Sandia Mountains rise just to the east of the city. They provide a stunning backdrop, visible from almost everywhere, and they also limit sprawl in that direction. Here you can even see them from way out on the mesa west of the city.
The sprawl is limited to the north and south by native pueblos, and that points out what might be an important factor in a real city: limits. Just as downtown Portland is bounded by the river and the hills, and Seattle is hemmed in by water everywhere, physical limits seem to encourage using land somewhat sensibly, higher land values, more density. Phoenix is the counter-example – the “Valley of the Sun” is tabula rasa, a giant blank desert which with minimal defining characteristics. Geographical constraints to growth might be a good predictor of urban quality.
The Rio Grande River flows through Albuquerque, west of the downtown. With its flood plain it is a pretty wide boundary, requiring major bridges / causeways to cross. But it is a fantastic resource, with miles of trails and open space along it. For a medium-size city, Albuquerque has a huge amount of open space close by.
We initially thought that these might be the first evidence of Trump’s proposal to harden our border along the Rio Grande, but then we figured out they probably had to do with catching debris during a flood.
This was right near Antoine Predock’s Rio Grande Nature Center, from the 1960s, which shows the young architect in a funky, antiheroic phase of design. The building is a giant duck-blind, setting into the landscape to further the experience of being inside and looking out, rather than making an exterior statement.
Across the river we visited Predock’s La Luz housing project, also from the 60s. It clustered townhouses in one area, and preserved a large amount of open space on site. The buildings are typologically standard, but the unit designs are quite beautiful.
It’s interesting to see how dated these buildings look urbanistically. Fifty years ago, this was cutting-edge environmentalism – clustering housing to conserve open space. But now we look at them and see a project that is still pretty low on gross density, and completely car-based. The building and site design are both well-done (if a little fanatical about privacy at the expense of community), but at the scale of the city, it doesn’t do anything better than other housing developments of the era. It’s a good lesson in how quickly the issues can evolve, and how we can’t ever be too smug that we’ve figured out all out.
On the east side of town, we visited some excellent buildings. This 1956 building is the first active-solar heated building in the world. It was the office for Paxton and Bridgers, a local engineering firm. Coincidentally, Frank Bridgers was my dad’s best friend in World War II, when they were both in the Army Corps of Engineers, stationed in Shanghai. (Frank’s daughter Lynn was my pen pal when I was a little kid, and she provided me my first insights about life in Albuquerque.) As I looked at this elegant building, I pondered the ironies of how careers develop. Both Frank Bridgers and my dad were smart young engineers, starting their firms after the war, responding to the trends in development that would provide professional work. As a mechanical engineer in the desert, Frank thought about the extremes of the environment and pioneered solar design, while my dad was a civil engineer who started his firm in the booming northeast, and designed some of the earliest shopping centers and malls. My dad and I sometimes talked about what had happened. As he said, suburban growth looked like a positive thing in the 1950s, when it was still very limited. In hindsight, it’s clear that such a development type wasn’t going to scale up very well without causing big problems, but that wasn’t apparent to many people at the time.
We also found Bart Prince’s house, a tour-de-force that just looks even better to me now than when I first saw it 20 years ago. (After 25 years of teaching, I think I have a much higher tolerance for crazy ideas now.) I normally rail against crazy, architectural-statement, object buildings. But if you do them this well, I’m all for it.
He also remodeled the house next door, which is were he seems to live now – we caught a glimpse of him getting out of his car and heading inside. Otherwise, it’s a completely normal bungalow neighborhood. Which is probably a good thing.
We spent some time on the University of New Mexico campus. John Gaw Meem was the campus architect, and the dominant style is Pueblo Revival – beautiful solid buildings, which make more sense in this environment than glass boxes.
There is a way in which the language for these buildings doesn’t feel alien or forced, as do many of the other historicist campuses we visited. Perhaps it s the simplicity of the adobe-generated forms, something that modernist architects have responded to for a hundred years.
One of the best is the architecture building designed by Predock about ten years ago. It sits on Route 66 on the edge of campus, with an exterior that combines solid wall areas reminiscent of the rest of campus, with well-shaded curtain walls.
The interior is quite beautiful – elegantly but simply detailed exposed building systems, and a section which allows for circulation spaces and studios to open up and have light penetrate from many directions.
Albuquerque felt like a good place to live. A much more livable climate than the more southern, lower-elevation Southwestern cities. A mix of old and new, wth some pleasing grittiness. A remarkable natural setting. Some very good architecture (and food) spread around. It is another one of the medium-sized, regionally-oriented American cities which work well for the residents, as they haven’t been ruined by the flows of global capital.