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Innovations in building technology such as reinforced concrete, glass, aluminum, chrome and steel liberated new buildings from the limitations of historic styles. Avant-garde designers in Europe began experimenting in open plan buildings that emphasized space, light and volume. A “modern” aesthetic heavily influenced by machines replaced traditional systems of craftsmanship. Many New Mexico buildings exist today that used this “new” style, called “modernism,” to create spaces for commerce, theaters, or civic buildings.
Art Deco, a popular style in the 1920s and 1930s, introduced exotic new forms and materials to architecture, interior design, industrial design and fashion. Highly stylized and sensuous curvilinear forms decorated in lush colors and surfaces captivated designers and the public during the roaring Twenties. The luxurious Art Deco designs were often adapted to classy storefronts and leisure business locations such as hotels, bars, restaurants and theaters. The new sensation of neon lighting was often used to accent Art Deco buildings, signage and marquees.
Early architectural experiments in the new streamlined and “minimal” modernist style shocked critics and public alike in the years before World War I and World War II. After World War II, the new modernist style spread globally and across the United States, reaching New Mexico and the Southwest. Prosperous communities in “oil patch” southeastern New Mexico and Albuquerque espoused the new style, and many new homes and commercial buildings were constructed in refined modernist forms.
By the later 1960s, modernism ( for some designers) became stale and boring. A few leading architects returned to architecture’s rich historical traditions for inspiration. Post-modernism reintroduced historical ornamentation, regional materials and planning but broke a few rules along the way. Post-modern architecture, though not common in New Mexico, represents a flexible and eclectic design sensibility which respects regional tradition, new technologies, and a sense of whimsy.
As modernism architectural style evolved into the 1950s, designers used more common materials such as bricks and glass block in minimal compositions. Often simple and elegant Art Deco inspired treatments were the only ornamental expressions on facades. The short-lived “Streamline Modern” style of the 1950s and 1960s soon gave way to a more eclectic and complex modernism known as “Late Modernism” and the revivalist phase of “Postmodernism” in the 1980s.
Many buildings in New Mexico were built in the WPA Modern style between 1933 and 1944, during and shortly after the Great Depression as part of federal relief projects sponsored by the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The style blends beaux-arts classical formalism and symmetry, Art Deco ornamentation, and modernist materials. The WPA Modern style in New Mexico was popular for civic buildings such as post offices and courthouses because of its monumental presence.
After the initial global infatuation with the new “modern” architectural style in the 1930s and 1940s, the post World War II recovery saw modernism become more widely accepted by the architectural profession and consumers. In America, the rise and popularity of suburbs and “baby boomers” enabled modernism to become popular for many uses including “ranch” style houses, roadside businesses such as gas stations and motels, and downtown landmarks such as post offices, movie theaters and office buildings. Late-modern styles became known as “Streamlined Moderne” or “Regional Modernism.” In New Mexico modernism fused well with the ancient adobe forms, and some talents such as Albuquerque architect Antoine Predock have developed unique regional modernist themes.