The adobe architecture of Taos is what gives the area its visual charm. Imagine Taos without the Pueblo, the church in Ranchos and the Plaza - where would the enchantment be? But like everything in Taos, there is more to the story than meets the eye.
Take our beehive-shaped adobe ovens, hornos, so much a part of the architectural landscape they look indigenous. The history of the horno is layered, a long story of cultural conflict and confluence that began in the Middle East, traveled to Spain and thence to this continent.
In 1990, I was building a lot of hornos. I was a professional adobe finisher, or a traditional enjarradora. In all cultures where construction is communal and where adobe is used, women are the embellishers and maintainers of the architecture. This phenomena is a natural division of labor based on relative strength.
The builders of the churches and houses of the Spanish conquerors were forced Native crews, including Pueblo women, already expert finishers. Spain was an adobe-using culture, so the tradition of the woman builder and enjarradora naturally became part of colonial Hispanic culture.
The history of the enjarradora is the history of women in New Mexico. But until the 1970s, the role of women in our architecture had never found its way into print despite that women kept 1,000 years of architecture standing and were probably the innovators of such things as the misnamed "kiva" fireplace, another mestiza hybrid. That will be discussed in a future article.
Our adobe techniques, like us, are the beautiful mestizo child that arose out of our bloody history. In 1991, I was invited to Egypt to work for architect Hassan Fathy, winner of the Aga Kahn prize in earth building and author of "Architecture for the Poor." The adventures of a Taoseña traveling alone in the Middle East cannot be squeezed into this column, but the horno parts occurred in two places, where I photographed sophisticated horno techniques.
The first was Gourna, an entire village designed and built by Fathy. It is in central Egypt, almost within walking distance of the Valley of the Kings and across the Nile from the famous ruins of Karnak. It was commissioned by the Egyptian government to relocate a village of fellahin who were plundering the tombs, melting down the artifacts, selling the gold on the black market and giving the Antiquities Department apoplectic fits. The villagers are Muslim, and individual floor plans and the site plan of the village were intended to accommodate a Muslim lifestyle. Oblique entrances allowed women to veil themselves before a guest entered. Rooms were arranged so women could go about domestic duties out of sight. There was a back patio door in every house, opening onto alleyways where women could go to the community laundry, socialize in lively feminine privacy - and use their hornos. That back patio morphed into the Mexican patio de servicio, without which no Mexican housewife could function.
Secondly, the hornos at Taos Pueblo before San Geronimo fiesta show how architecture can encourage communal activity and connection. One woman alone baking 150 to 250 loaves of bread isn't practical. So the Middle Eastern horno morphed into the one we see today in pueblos and Hispanic villages. Arabs have used adobe for about 6,000 years and their technology of dome construction is breathtaking. Domes and arches were not known anywhere in the Americas before the Spanish conquest. Cantilevered arches were used from temples to the temezcal (a large horno used for sweat baths). The "Roman" arch is actually of Middle Eastern origin. Egyptian and Nubian hornos have not only domes, but two floors. That allows for continuous baking. Users can keep on adding firewood instead of having to build a new fire when it cools.