The Plazas of New Mexico is an ambitious interdisciplinary project that begins with a seemingly narrow topic, the design of public spaces in communities across New Mexico, and develops thought-provoking and wide-ranging arguments that will be of great interest to urban planners, historians, geographers, and historic preservationists. The weighty volume is the result of more than a decade of research by a dozen scholars connected with the Historic Preservation and Regionalism Program [End Page 410] in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of New Mexico. Co-editors Chris Wilson, a cultural, architectural, and landscape historian, and Stefanos Polyzoides, an architect and one of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism, declare in their opening essay, "This is a book about the past, for the future." (5). They are asserting that human societies built much better public spaces in the past than are built today, and that by studying historic plazas, urban planners can revitalize American cities.
The volume's historical essays analyze three design traditions in New Mexico's vernacular architecture—the Pueblo plaza, the Spanish colonial plaza, and the Anglo American courthouse square—and discuss their original purposes, their evolution, and their use today. Chris Wilson and others examine Pueblo plazas dating back a thousand years as religious settings for ritual dances, Spanish colonial plazas from the late 1700s as tools in the process of conquest, and Anglo courthouse squares laid out since 1880 to advance commercial interests. The authors view all three types of plazas as important shared spaces for community celebrations, but note the decline of these plazas since the 1920s and the absence of new communal areas. They attribute this shift to the rise of automobiles, highways, and suburbs, and Polyzoides and others criticize twentieth-century America's modernist and mechanical landscapes of sprawl, while praising New Mexico's vernacular and natural traditions that created successful gathering spaces between buildings. These ideas of New Urbanism are central to the book, but it also offers valuable insights on other topics, such as the richly textured essays on the impact of tourism in Taos by anthropologist Sylvia Rodríguez and on local debates over historic preservation in Chimayó by geographer Don Usner.
The Plazas of New Mexico is remarkable for it breadth in linking ancient traditions to today's urban design, and it also deserves praise for its depth of detail and its powerful images. The volume is richly illustrated, and the attention to visual images deepens the reader's experience. The book concludes with individual profiles of twenty-two different plazas, and photographs of historic scenes and contemporary celebrations are key parts of each profile. The Plazas of New Mexico showcases the talents of documentary photographer Miguel Gandert, who contributed dozens of evocative black and white images capturing the relationships between everyday people and these historic places. In addition, José Zelaya skillfully executed a vast array of drawings revealing the relationship between buildings and open space in each plaza. The striking images by Gandert and Zelaya are juxtaposed with vivid historical photographs, providing the reader with layers of visual information about the social construction of space. The result is a fascinating book that offers a treasure trove of information about how different cultures have utilized public space. The contributors to The Plazas of New Mexico have begun to revitalize old plazas and design new ones, and urban planners will find their connections between past and present to be immensely valuable. The fact that these scholars are so careful and thorough in their efforts to document historic uses of these places means that environmental historians, urban historians, and specialists in Borderlands and the American West will also find this a book to pore over in appreciation. [End Page 411]