Earthen Architecture

“Filling a space in a beautiful way – that is what art means to me.” – Georgia O’Keeffe

By Jason Takahashi

In 1943, renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe purchased the abandoned ruin of an 18th century Spanish colonial home 50 miles northwest of Sante Fe in the unincorporated village of Abiquiú, New Mexico. She first noticed the property on her way to Ghost Ranch where she famously spent time away from New York City and began her journey capturing the essence of the Southwest. One day she pulled over and scoured the site, finding caved-in roofs, a water well and a long earthen wall featuring a small door that she was desperate to call her own. After the passing of her husband, O’Keeffe embarked on a three year rehabilitation of the property with the help and expertise of her friend Maria Chabot, which would eventually yield her home and studio for the next 35 years.

Designated as a National Landmark in 1998, the O’Keeffe Home and Studio possesses a room that dates back to at least the 1740’s. Records obtained by the artist suggest it was the site for the first Spanish colonial house in Abiquiú, which was only inhabited for a little over a decade due to constant attacks from nomadic bands of Ute and Comanche warriors. However, archaeological evidence also establishes the area as a prehistoric pueblo dating back nearly 5,000 years. Starting around 1200 A.D, it was inhabited by the Tewa Pueblo people, who abruptly abandoned their settlements around 300 years later. The U.S. Department of the Interior calls the site “the most commanding and strategic in Abiquiú,” suggesting the possibility of an on-going evolution of the space and structures present by subsequent inhabitants across time – including O’Keeffe in the mid 20th century.

The mix of beauty and history engrained in this iconic landmark serves as a strong reminder of the legacies our spaces create. Most modern homes aren’t meant to last centuries, something we generally accept. But what if we could extend the lifespan of our homes through sustainable, low carbon footprint structures that use local resources? Furthermore, what if they yielded tangible benefits in terms of improved air and sound quality, reduced environmental impact, and increased readiness and resilience? It’s unlikely many of us would answer no, yet everywhere we look, homes less than a century old are being decimated by extreme weather, or simply being torn down and rebuilt with essentially the same materials that lack the longevity of older building techniques.

This is an excerpt of an upcoming article in the Summer 2023 issue of Technology Designer Magazine.