Albuquerque, in Its Own Place

Review by Benjamin Forgey
Washington Post Staff Writer

There's a cemetery on a patch of flat land some miles north of the city, a modest, well-kept camposanto, or holy ground, serving the Hispanic community of tiny Algodones. A few of the newer graves are elaborately marked, the white stuccoed crosses inset with photographs, the plots laid with Astroturf of astringent blue. All around under the startling big sky are the gray-brown hills and mesas of the San Felipe Indian Reservation–holy ground of another sort. The stillness is interrupted only by the distant whine of cars and trucks speeding between Santa Fe and Albuquerque along Interstate 25, like messengers from another world.

This stupendous, 360-degree sight, complex in meaning yet preternaturally clear to the eye, is not the kind of experience one is led to expect from Albuquerque's generally bad press. Santa Fe is always said to be the beautiful town, and Albuquerque, well, as Tom Wolfe wrote in The Right Stuff, Albuquerque's just a "dirty red sod-hut tortilla highway desert city...remarkably short on charm." Wolfe was reaching back to describe the postwar city, but, though it's much bigger than 40 years ago, Albuquerque's reputation has not improved.

Then again, things may be changing. Albuquerque is the subject of a superior new book, A City at the End of the World* (University of New Mexico Press, 231 pages, $17.95), by V.B. Price, a transplanted Californian and longtime columnist for local newspapers and magazines. Price doesn't idly puff up his adopted city. His clearheaded commentary helps to explain not only its multitudinous woes, but also its secretive charm and idiosyncratic vitality. The book could do wonders for Albuquerque's image and, though not a travel guide in the conventional sense, it's a good companion for the first-time visitor.

Flying into Albuquerque is not the ideal approach for one whose eyes and mind are attuned to eastern cities–the abruptness of the change can be powerfully disorienting. After a thousand miles of plains, the great raw hump of the Sandia Mountains appears outside the little rectangle of the airship's window like an apparition. Then, in a minute's time or less, one finds oneself looking down over architectural earthworks as stunning as any on the planet, structures and paths of unfathomable purpose encompassing huge hills in their entirety. This territory, one later learns, is a locus of Armageddon–the Sandia National Laboratory, where nuclear weapons research has been the specialty.

The suddenness of the change does have one advantage: There's no mistaking that things are to be very different the moment one steps off the plane. The sight of the Sandia labs will reappear as a haunting afterimage during a viewing of a buffalo dance at the Cochiti Pueblo– time honored worldview, a stone-age spirituality kept alive–and at the ruins of an old Anasazi city tucked comfortably and unforgettably in between (and also literally in) the canyon walls of what is now Bandelier National Monument.

The conventional outsiders' rap against the city can be summed up as: Albuquerque is awful but the land is great. And yet, as Price persuasively maintains in his book, the land is the city and the city is the land. "Trying to take New Mexico out of Albuquerque is as futile as trying to take Japan out of Tokyo," he writes. This is true despite the aggressive depredations of postwar growth.

Albuquerque is a sprawling city whose auto-dependence is unrestrained. Most of its "planned community " suburbs on the West Mesa were based on centerless postwar models. Even with its new, rather appealing (from a distance) pyramid-topped skyscrapers, the downtown is largely, if not wholly irrelevant. The strip is the commercial development of choice–relative to population (about 500,000) the city possibly has more miles of strip shopping than any other. Ethnically, culturally and politically, Albuquerque is fragmented and factionalized to an unusual degree, Price points out, a situation that makes large-scale regional land planning very much a sometime thing.

And yet, and yet. Even though much of the city's urban form, as Price says, "is radically at odds with its natural context," that context is never far from sight or mind. The Sandia Mountains on the east remain a constant natural signpost; the vastness of the land in the west subsumes the sprawling suburbs. Unlike many American cities, Albuquerque still maintains rather distinct edges. At dusk the western suburbs glitter like strands of jewels on the border of the beyond. Inside the city, the banks of the Rio Grande with their splendid cottonwood bosques have been maintained and are accessible to the public, thanks to a foresightful open-space program initiated in 1969– a rare, important feat.

Like most American cities, Albuquerque is a collage of harsh architectural contrasts, but along its strips and in various civic and commercial outposts there exists a palpable sense of openness and possibility. This is especially appreciable after a day spent in nearby Santa Fe, where despite clear-cut urban design achievements the long-term enforcement of a rigorous "Pueblo Revival" architectural code (and massive postwar gentrification) has produced a stultifying, spiritless environment. In Albuquerque one senses a certain passion about architecture, be it in the strip-cum-deconstructivist aesthetics of young architectural firms such as Garrett Smith, or in the regionalist-cum-modernist buildings by Antoine Predock, the homegrown architectural star.

The regionalist impulse is strong in New Mexico. As Price points out, it's in the very air of the place: "As a frontier contact zone since the 16th century, Albuquerque and New Mexico have had long an intimate experience with local cultures battling against world powers to preserve their ethnic and political identities." But in Albuquerque, as opposed to Santa Fe, the profound debate between the local and the modern has been engaged with a healthy sort of open-endedness, producing such fundamentally excellent hybrids as the campus of the University of New Mexico–the "pueblo on the mesa" where the concept of Pueblo Revival was born in the early 1900s and where it evolved by the 1980s, into something Price calls "contextual modernism." Price places great hope in adaptive architecture and planning, though he acknowledges the sad irony that "third-world Indian New Mexico itself"–whose pueblos have been scarred perhaps irretrievably by the "rationalist, engineering mentality" of the federal bureaucracy–"will probably never be a beneficiary."

How to maintain and build living and work places with authentic connections to the land and to history are among the most critical questions facing all human settlements as they look to the future. Price may overstate his case concerning Albuquerque's uniqueness–he appears to believe that most other American cities, particularly in the East, already have been gobbled up by the "progressive monoculture of the 21st century"–but his thoughtful passion is well placed, Albuquerque is different, and its magnificent differences will be greatly damaged if not altogether erased by another sustained burst of unregulated growth.

In focusing on Albuquerque, Price has done the city an estimable service: For visitors and residents alike he has sorted out the most exciting, postive aspects of Albuquerque's historical and present-day identities. His book can be read with interest and profit by city lovers everywhere, but above all his messages deserve an appreciative, heedful response in this particular place.

This article originally appeared on April 10, 1993 in The Washington Post

*The new edition of the book has been retitled Albuquerque: A City at the End of the World