In unison Thea Haver and Ethan Aronson quote the phrase—ubiquitous in the '50s—that might have sold many a transplant on the idea of Albuquerque: “Land of mañana, wonder land of today.” During the period of time that has come to be associated with modernist architecture, that is, the '50s to about 1975 (or as Aronson put it, “post World War II, pre-Star Wars”) such slogans spoke to a certain momentum and optimism around Albuquerque's development, which of course, informs the buildings that were designed and erected during that time. That's what is at the heart of the newly established Modern Albuquerque—a business that conducts original research, synthesizes and contextualizes existing records, guides walking tours, and promotes the preservation of the wonders that create our skylines and give many a neighborhood its character.
Modern Albuquerque was founded just this year, but both Haver, the founder and director, and Aronson, who acts as director of guest experience, have had a much longer relationship with architecture and history. Aronson comes from a line of women with something of an interest in the built landscape. “My grandmother was obsessed with architecture,” she explained, and so, would tote Haver's mother around on driving tours of her Dallas neighborhood, taking in the buildings. Later Haver's mother continued that tradition with her daughter. “So, from a very young age, I was interested in space and the spaces that are all around us,” she explained of her entry into this line of work. “Our lives unfold within architecture, the memories that we create are bonded to those things—the photos we have of our family home, our schools—it all has to do with this design that happens.”
Aronson's family have been here since the atomic age, when his grandfather saw an ad for “Sunny Albuquerque,” and applied for a job at Sandia National Laboratory. He brought his family, and lives in the city to this day. This story speaks to a certain historical factor, what Aronson described as “the growth and optimism of the city during this age,” going on to explain that during the '50s and '60s “doubled in population more or less, and quadrupled in land area.” Naturally, the building of infrastructure grew to match the influx of people into the area.
Haver moved here in 2014 and was immediately transfixed by the buildings she saw, especially those that didn't match her expectations of what a Southwestern city would look like. “I was so interested in the architectural diversity here that I looked into the resources that were available,” she said. First, she uncovered a survey done a few years previously that estimated it had catalogued about 60 percent of midcentury structures in town—that is, somewhere around 300. “We found much more than that ourselves,” Haver said. She thought that perhaps growing this body of research might be a casual hobby, filling in a few hours on the weekend, but the work soon became something more like a full-time job. As she added to the record, she was galvanized and others, like the Office of Historic Preservation, became enthusiastic about the collaboration. This momentum gave rise to Modern Albuquerque.
“There are so many people that are already interested or even obsessed with modern architecture,” Haver said. “There's not a lot of repackaging to do. It's just about getting the information out there.” Sharing this history through multiple channels and increasing the general awareness around the impressive history of some of these sites can create positive ripples. Haver pointed to the Simms Building (400 Gold Ave. SW) as a great example of how preservation and maintenance of original architecture has generated interest in the site. This benefits both the public, who interact daily with a “gorgeous structure,” as Havver said, meanwhile, “it has become an asset to its owners.”
“We really want to create something positive for the city,” Aronson continued. “So many people aren't aware of these great buildings and their history. If there's no one out there promoting it, they're just going to decay. We don't want to see that.” For his part, Aronson is fond of the landmark of a building on San Mateo and Central—standing head and shoulders above the buildings that surround it. Now mostly without a name, it might be referred to as the First National Bank Building by those with a long memory, but Aronson prefers the name that the workers who built it gave the structure: “Horizon Pillar.” Even today, onlookers can see where its nickname comes from. It reaches skyward among buildings that stay much more close to the ground. Underlining the building as a monument to the optimism of its age, the tiles on the outside of the building are actually gold plated, gleaming to great effect at sunset, but also reflecting light to cool the building. “The architectural choices are informed by the needs of the structure itself,” Haver summarized—both a projection of wealth (it was a bank) or energy efficiency.
Modern Albuquerque currently regularly hosts two walking tours to introduce visitors and locals alike to modern architecture in the city, these are the “Hairpin Legs” tour, that acts as a primer on the topic, and the 21+ “Retro Risqué,” which addresses more of the underbelly of the era—from tiki culture to fallout shelters. All speak to a time of rapid technological progress, and architectural remnants that illustrate a “a conscientious break from the era that produced the most devastating war in human history,” as Aronson said. New materials, new methods, new designs became symbolic of that departure. This underlines something Haver pointed out, that “modernism isn't really a style, its a set of principles,” which were informed by this singular point in history. The influence of these designs surface continually in modern forms.
Accurate interpretation and presentation of these buildings and how they fit into history is important to Modern Albuquerque. “There's a lot of imagined past out there that's informing the presence,” Aronson said. Buildings reflect social ideas and philosophies just as much as they prize functionality. “It's not just a box to keep us out of the weather,” as Aronson put it, “the best buildings, the buildings that we remember, are ones that change us.”
Explore the architecture that speaks to a distinct era in our city's history, and see how these principles resonate in the present by connecting with Modern Albuquerque. You can find them online at modernalbuquerque.