Contextual Design within a Regional Vernacular

Capital High School in Santa Fe, New Mexico was designed by Ralph Johnson of Perkins & Will Architects.  The school celebrated its 20th Anniversary a little while ago, a good time to consider whether or not its design statement has stood the test of time as well as the quality of the education provided within the campus!

A review of the completed work in Progressive Architecture magazine (August 1989, pages 78+ff), focused on the design intent to incorporate form types of traditional regional architecture (Santa Fe and Pueblo) into the new school design:

  • Colonnades                  =          Outdoor Circulation
  • Towers                        =          Major Entrances
  • Pavilions                      =          Special Facilities
  • Courtyards                  =          Central Internal Plazas
  • Halls                             =          Columnar Outdoor Dining Areas
  • Basilica                         =          Library Reading Room

Architect Johnson acknowledged a debt to the 19th Century theorist J.N.L. Durand, whose “…theory of formal types was an effort to accommodate modern building programs within traditional architectural vocabularies.”  “By reordering the building program into elements…a multi-functional, large-scale complex becomes easier to comprehend.”

The article continued, “The Frenchman’ influence (Durand) is also apparent in Johnson’s handling of the high schools’ Beaux Arts inspired site plan.  Arranged along two axes, one aligned with an adjacent arroyo and the other running north-south, the school imposes upon the site geometrical elements, such as the circular entry drive and a semi-circular colonnade.  They recall at once French landscape ideas and the circular geometries of ceremonial kivas and early pueblos.” 

The over 20-year old site design statement quoted above was a nice try on linkage to the environment, but on the ground review demonstrates that, as realized, the overall statement was more effectively accomplished within the buildings themselves than in the exterior placement and orientation of the building and site design elements.

Actually, many of the design features of the building appear to be the architect’s translation of design “quotes” from the well-liked Bataan Memorial Building in Santa Fe, include colonnades and an iconic tower, applied with a very fine hand to this new facility for a substantially different use.

The High School fits very well into the Santa Fe architectural landscape as translated across centuries of respect for the original Pueblo and later Spanish vernacular translations into contemporary uses and design language, with thoughtful and respectful quotes, and without either slavish replication or egocentric “in your face” innovation.

Sometimes, great work can be obscured by semantic hyperbole – whether thought to be positive or negativce by its authors.   A reasonable recommendation is that we all need to be careful to weigh the words of journalists, critics, and even the designers, but then go beyond the words to consider the physical reality generated through a design. 

Whether or not an attempt at design contextualism within a regional vernacular is successful must be determined not by what was intended.  The determination must be made based upon…

what is real! 

(Visits to Capital High School are subject to school regulations limiting entry onto the campus – check with the school office first, at 4851 Paseo del Sol, Santa Fe, New Mexico, and please respect their rules for the safety of students, staff and visitors!)

(Thanks for visiting “RenaissanceRules”!  This article is part of the “Crafting Places” series, which began on October 4, 2010, with a “Preface”, accessible on-line at  Other previously published posts in the series can be accessed from the “Urban Design” sub-page “Crafting Places” of this site.)

Photo Source: Google Images,


About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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