Sunbelt Modern: Albuquerque's Regional Modernism


Thea Haver


Modern Albuquerque


Regional Spotlight, Albuquerque
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Albuquerque's modernist architecture, spanning the pre-war period into today, has only recently begun to be recognized and contextualized for the roles it has played in the city's development. The city government commissioned its first survey of mid-century modern architectural resources in 2013, followed closely thereafter by the study of select structures by a UNM architecture class. As interest has grown, new resources and research have emerged from a growing group of enthusiasts, preservationists, architects, and historians. Residents, tourists, and even fans of the many programs filmed in Albuquerque have begun to appreciate the style, story, and scope of the buildings that dot the city's built environment.

Located in Central New Mexico, Albuquerque's mid-century past and high desert climate provided an incubator for innovative ideas and approaches to architecture, some merging traditional materials and regional practices with the principles of modernism. Following World War II, the city doubled in population. The expansion eastwards created opportunities for the use of new materials, construction methods, and architectural problem-solving. Today, the city is home to a widely recognized School of Architecture and Planning and boasts a flourishing inventory of residential, commercial, and institutional modern structures. 

Thank you to Modern Albuquerque, Thea Haver, Ethan Aronson, Nick Roth, and Kristen Madden for their contributions to this Regional Spotlight.

Sunbelt Modern Part One
Inside the Weese-designed First Plaza Building

by Thea Haver

Albuquerque’s diverse architectural landscape may be most evident in its downtown corridor, where urban renewal projects are starkly juxtaposed with the city’s railroad past. A notable example is the First Plaza building. Considered the “premier building of the southwest” by more than just its owners, the landmark was designed by Modernist master Harry Weese. The project was funded and developed by First National Bank on a site initially considered for City Hall. Arthur Cinader, chairing the project for the bank, sought out “the best” designer for their money.

Since the end of World War II, Albuquerque has been home to a talented crop of architects, some of whom worked on the Manhattan Project and stayed in the sunbelt state, or later, trained at the University of New Mexico’s School of Architecture and Planning. While their names were known around the region, few had had their work recognized nationally. After hiring a local planner to oversee the legacy building, Cinader was convinced to reach outside of Albuquerque and contact the office of Harry Weese and Associates. The famed architect accepted the job and visited the city to view the site. Harvey Hoshour, a prolific designer who had once worked in Weese’s Chicago office and by then was practicing in New Mexico, would work as a local associate on the project.

Touring the location at the corner of 2nd Street and Copper, Weese drew the would-be footprint of the building in the dirt. While he had been approached to build a skyscraper, the architect observed that a 25-story tower would be out of place in the desert city, where at the time, the skyline and mountain views were mostly preserved by low-rise buildings. Instead, he suggested the construction of a no-more-than 10-story structure to capture the views; ultimately First Plaza would have six stories. It was the first, but not the last design decision made to reflect the regional sensibilities of the city.

Newspaper articles from the early 1970s detail the southwestern influence inherent in the structure’s design, though such influence may not be immediately evident to passersby. While modernist architecture existed in the city prior to World War II, decision-makers and members of the public both were wary of designs they felt did not reflect the state’s regional traditions, especially projects this large in scale. The Albuquerque Main Public Library, commissioned as another urban renewal project around the same time as First Plaza, received public scrutiny for its modernist approach, despite the vocal efforts of its architect to identify the design’s regional influences. (A tour of the library produced for Docomomo US Tour Day 2020 is available to view here.)

At First Plaza, the southwestern influence was evident not only in the low rise of the structure (retaining the human scale) but the color of the concrete and selection of stone pavers in the plaza. An arcade wrapped around the structure, providing shade to those walking by and recalling the colonnades lining the plazas of Old Town Albuquerque and Santa Fe. The building also addressed the sun at its various elevations with different design solutions. At the west, concrete louvers were fashioned to shade the offices during the brightest times of the day. With an emphasis on filtering natural light into the space, Weese observed what many local architects had embraced about designing for New Mexico. He also reportedly described the building as “a horizontal skyscraper,” with its volume tipped onto its side, rather than rising into the sky.

First Plaza represented the largest private development downtown to date. Weese described it as “massively different from any other building complex in the United States, except possibility Rockefeller Center.” The pedestrian-oriented complex opened in 1974 with office space, a walk-up banking location, and restaurants to serve the corporate employees and other nearby office workers. The 330,000 square foot structure was a hub for business. At the start of construction in 1972, developers announced it was to be “a focal point of commercial, cultural, and social interaction.”

As it was originally conceived, the project went unfinished. A hotel, sited for a lot to the east to be connected by a pedestrian bridge, was meant for a later phase of construction but never built. A vast lower-level concourse was not part of the original design. A small underground area had been included in the first phase, described at the time as a “rather unusual feature.” The underground shopping area was expanded in 1975, adding an additional 100,000 square feet of commercial retail space, and named The Galeria. Street access via winding staircases was added; visitors could descend into the mall through new, intriguing entryways.

Built from concrete, the U-shaped structure opens to the east onto a landscaped plaza. Some 900 precast panels were incorporated into the exterior. Despite the concrete and seemingly small windows on the exterior, the building’s interiors were bathed in natural light, and entrances were welcoming and obvious. Exterior ceilings, wrapping the building, were finished in warm wood, contrasting against the cold concrete facades of other projects of the time.

At its opening, there was a large pool that once drained dramatically into a fountain below. The pool has since been redesigned to be less attractive to anyone who may wish to wade into it. In its early days, the building was used as a location in “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” In the film, the pool can be seen under construction from an office window.

In 1973, First Plaza became the subject of a course taught by Harry Weese at the American Academy in Rome on architecture and urban design. In 1976, the structure received an award from the Chicago chapter of AIA. The jury reportedly wrote in their decision, “this is a very discreet building which defines the space of the street and simultaneously turns the corner. Building interior reflects careful planning and space.” That same year, First National Bank was awarded by the Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, in part for the “inspirational value” of the building’s architectural design. The bank donated some of the building’s lower-level square footage to cultural organizations, including the Albuquerque Museum and Maxwell Museum. Explora, Albuquerque’s science center, also opened there.

In the years since opening, the Galeria’s tenancy and attendance waned, garnering the once-bustling hub of activity the dreaded designation, “dead mall.” Corporate tenants of the upper-level offices have come and gone. Clothing retailer The Gap took over the space once occupied by the First National Bank, but they too have vacated the premises.

Today, downtown Albuquerque is undergoing new revitalization efforts. And so is First Plaza. Recently purchased by Carlos and Ed Garcia, the structure has already benefited from millions of dollars of reinvestment. The Garcias, who run the Garcia Realty Group, are preservation-minded. Their family’s success in the automotive sales industry has enabled them to deeply invest in the city they call home. Carlos Garcia considers it “the right thing to do if you believe in the city.” And believe in Albuquerque, he does.

He observed that First Plaza had been largely un-updated since its use as The Gap headquarters. Most original features remained intact, including the vault from the bank (who vacated the space in the 1980s). The brothers have already refinished the Galeria’s floors, commissioned a new fountain, and replaced carpet and ceiling tiles throughout the sprawling structure. Carlos Garcia considers the project a “labor of love.” In response to requests from tenants, the firm Walton and Walton in Texas was employed to replace a set of non-working escalators with what he refers to as a “the million-dollar” staircase. New tenants are signing contracts, and office spaces will soon be bustling with activity again.

It was said by developers at the start of construction that they aimed to develop a “place of significance, rather than just buildings as such,” “a new vision of what Albuquerque can and should become.” One of the most architecturally significant structures in Albuquerque now has the chance at renewal, a recognition of its significance, in both the past and future sense.

Special thanks to Carlos Garcia, Ed Boles, and Edie Cherry for their contributions to this piece.

About the Author

Thea Haver co-founded Modern Albuquerque in 2018. She is the former Director of Education for the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History and she continues to work with arts and cultural organizations in program development, project management, and marketing.  

Modern ABQ is part of the Docomomo US Regional Spotlight on Modernism Series, which was launched to help you explore modern places throughout the country without leaving your home. Previous spotlights include Chicago, MississippiMidland, MIHouston, Las Vegas, Colorado, Kansas
PittsburghMilwaukeeSouth Dakota, and Vermont. Have a region you'd like to see highlighted? Submit an article.

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Sunbelt Modern Part Two
A Sense of Place: Don Schlegel, FAIA