Published Oct. 5, 2009
Suburban Americans have bowdlerized the word “patio.” The Spanish word entered the English language in the early 1800s, and in Spain and the American Southwest it means a courtyard, especially an inner court surrounded by a building or buildings and open to the sky.
The traditional meaning of patio evokes images of Spanish culture in the warm and dry Southwest. I picture a family taking its ease in the courtyard of a hacienda while a man plays melodies on a Spanish guitar. The men wear colorful vaquero outfits topped with a serape or cape, and the women wear vivid skirts and white blouses. In the kitchen, a cook rolls tortillas and chops chiles, and sheep graze nearby.
Spanish colonial architecture permeates the American Southwest, a link to the people who settled much of this continent in the 1500s and 1600s, and bears the marks of the peoples who occupied and conquered Spain, just as a person may have his father’s nose, his mother’s eyes, and other features from older ancestors, all tracing back hundreds of years. The Romans invaded Spain when the Iberians lived on the peninsula that bears their name and were succeeded by the Visigoths. The Moors conquered the Visigoths in the early eighth century and drove them northward into the Pyrenees, and they were driven out after 700 years of occupation by successors of the Visigoths.
Spanish architecture began with the Romans, accented by oriental notes from the Moors. The Spaniards of course in the New World built in the style of Spain using material available in New Spain, just as early architecture of the East Coast copied that of England and buildings of the Western Reserve in northeast Ohio look like those in 18th-century New England.
Material used in construction of Southwest Spanish colonial architecture include adobe, which is sun-dried bricks made from mud and straw laid in mortar, heavy beams for roofs with wood ceilings and covered with turf, and stucco and plaster as a wall covering. Materials and architectural characteristics varied from region to region. Buildings in Florida, for example, used coquina, a soft white stone made from crushed shells and coral; and tabby, from the Spanish “tapia,” a mixture of gravel, shells and oyster-shell lime. It’s easy to forget that Spain owned Florida until the 1800s and had explored along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Mexico. It’s also important to remember that Spain owned the Louisiana Territory from 1762 to 1800, receiving it from and returning it to France.
The plan of towns reflected the plan of the hacienda on a larger scale. Buildings, including the mission, walls and gates surrounded a public plaza, or a patio or plazita (little plaza) that included a well, garden or fountain; and arcades or portales (a covered walkway with no arcades but with wooden beams resting on wooden columns) offered shady strolling along the edge of the plaza. The arcades often included columns and arches derived from Roman architecture. Mission San Juan Capistrano in California has a patio surrounded by structures serving as kitchen, winery, storage rooms, olive press and such; and surrounding the plaza on three sides are one side of the buildings that enclose the patio, a wing of quarters and the church.
I love to look at old paintings and photographs of Southwest buildings. I would love to explore the halls and rooms of those buildings that enclose the patio and afterward relax by a fountain in the patio under a subtropical Southwest sky. And I hope someone plays Spanish guitar.
“… a barefoot servant swung the heavy portal aside and Bernardo Leal entered for the first time the spacious entrance chambers of his future father-in-law.
“He found himself in a corner of Spain. There were the solid wooden trunks carved in Salamanca. Above them were crossed Spanish swords from Seville. And in the patio beyond played a handsomely carved stone fountain copied from one in the ancient city of Ronda. …” — James Michener, “Mexico.”
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