Ancestral Pueblo Architecture


New Mexico has a rich and distinctive architectural history. From the prehistoric great houses of the Ancestral Pueblo people, to the most progressive architects of today, New Mexican architecture has developed with a strong relationship to place and a strong appreciation for indigenous styles.

Basketmaker and Pueblo Periods

The Ancestral Pueblo people of the Four Corners area created the first permanent shelters in New Mexico. Their history is divided into two distinct periods, the Basketmaker and the Pueblo. The earliest Basketmaker shelters were built with rock and made use of canyon overhangs and caves. Shelters evolved into pithouses, underground dwellings with earth and timber roofs. Sometime after the year A.D. 700, rooms were built above ground; this is considered to be the Pueblo I period. The above ground shelters were made of stone and mud, and pithouses were still present in groups of buildings. In the Pueblo II period shelters included multi-storied houses constructed from stone masonry and subterranean ceremonial kivas. By the period known as Pueblo III, the Ancestral Pueblo people had evolved into extraordinary architects, masons and community planners.

Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon is a famous Pueblo III site in the four corners area and Pueblo Bonito, a “great house” in Chaco, is a fine architectural example of  this period. Important characteristics of Pueblo Bonito include a D-shape plan with rectilinear buildings facing south for warmth, a large central plaza, and approximately 35 small kivas and 2 great kivas. The Chacoans were expert masons, and they used local sandstone, which they shaped into bricks and laid carefully in horizontal strata. The ruins that exist today are a testament to how well they were built.

Archaeologists believe that Chaco Canyon was an important spiritual center for the Ancestral Pueblo people, based on the great number of kivas, and the many spiritual objects found in the ruins. There is also a belief that Chaco buildings were carefully aligned in order to observe lunar and solar cycles. Periods of drought, and possibly other strife, caused the inhabitants of Chaco Canyon to leave by the 14th century.

After they left their settlements in the 1300s, the Pueblo people made their way to the Rio Grande and its tributaries, and to more mountainous settlements in western New Mexico. Pueblo IV architecture was made from “puddled adobe” (mud laid in horizontal layers to build up walls), stone and sod blocks. Multi-storied residences were geometrically arranged around large plazas that included ceremonial kivas. Doors and windows were minimized, and ladders were used to access upper level buildings.  They were situated to make use of water and to provide protection from marauders.

Taos Pueblo

Taos Pueblo was first settled during this period and it has been continuously occupied ever since. Over the centuries the pueblo grew into a beautiful arrangement of stacked and clustered blocks of buildings that have inspired architects, as well as painters and photographers, throughout recorded history.

Spanish Contact

Adobe building changed after Spanish contact, beginning in 1593. In subsequent years, Pueblo Indians adopted the Spanish technique of forming mud into sun dried adobe bricks. In the Pueblo V period, which began in the 1700s after the Spanish reconquest and continues to the present day, Spanish and Pueblo cultures shared and adapted construction techniques and design.

Zuni Pueblo

Zuni Pueblo is considered a Pueblo V building. The original, small community built of stone grew organically into a large multi-storied pueblo built with adobe bricks. Fireplaces, chimneys, horno ovens, parapets, and terraces were some of the architectural developments that occurred during the early Pueblo V period.

Curriculum Images

“Mudheads,” Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, 1879 – 1880 John K. Hillers (American, 1843 – 1925) albumen print, 9 7/8 x 12 7/8 in. (25.1 x 32.7 cm) Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA) #37941
Christmas Eve, Taos Pueblo, 1936 Gene Kloss (American, 1903 – 1996) aquatint and drypoint 10 3/4 x 13 3/4 in. (27.3 x 34.9 cm) On long term loan to the New Mexico Museum of Art from the Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services Administration 26A.23G
Ruins – Chetro Ketl, Chaco Canyon, 1982 Paul Logsdon (American, born 1931) cibachrome II 15 1/8 x 19 in. (38.4 x 48.3 cm) Gift of Paul Logsdon from the New Mexico Photographic Survey Project, Museum of Fine Arts, 1981-1984, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts with individual support from Sunwest Bank of Santa Fe, 1985 1985.120.1
A Street in Pueblo of Acoma, circa 1915 H. Arthur Lombard (American, late 19th – early 20th Century) ink on paper, 12 x 16 1/2 in. (30.5 x 41.9 cm) (image) Museum acquisition, before 1964 772.23D
F117A Stealth Fighter, Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico, 1990 Patrick Nagatani (American, born 1945) cibachrome print, 20 x 24 in. (50.8 x 61 cm) Gift of anonymous donor, 1997 1997.61.39
Church – Ranchos de Taos, 1919 (subsequent edition 1948) Gustave Baumann (American, born Germany, 1881 – 1971) color woodcut, 11 x 12 in. (27.9 x 30.5 cm) Museum purchase with funds raised by the School of American Research, 1952 1158.23G
Untitled (study for Past History), n.d. Gustave Baumann (American, born Germany, 1881 – 1971) opaque watercolor 9 x 10 5/8 in. (22.9 x 27 cm) Gift of Mrs. Jane H. Baumann, 1978 3936.23P
Pueblo Bonito, 1937 John S. Candelario (American, 1916 – 1993) unique platinum print, 20 x 16 in. (50.8 x 40.6 cm) Museum purchase, 1997 1997.70.9
Winnowing Grain, Taos, New Mexico, 1929 (printed 1981) Ansel Adams (American, 1902 – 1984) gelatin silver print, 20 x 16 in. (50.8 x 40.6 cm) Gift of the Museum of New Mexico Foundation, 1982 1982.13.15 © 2010 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust
Taos Pueblo – Moonlight, 1914 E. Irving Couse (American, 1866 – 1936) Oil on canvas, 60 x 60 in. (152.4 x 152.4 cm) Gift of Kibbey W. Couse, 1930 352.23P

Discussion Questions

  1. How did the environment and geography of New Mexico influence Pueblo architecture?
  2. Pueblo III architecture style, as seen in Pueblo Bonito, 1937 by John S. Candelario, is often incorporated into more contemporary building designs. Can you think of a building that incorporates these design or structural elements?
  3. In comparison to the other architecture styles found in The Humanities Project, what makes Ancestral Pueblo architecture styles distinctive? How do they differ from other styles of architecture?

About the Artists

A selection of the artists featured in this curriculum are listed below. Click on their names to learn more about each artist.

Ansel Easton Adams was an early environmentalist best known for his rich black and white photographs of the American West. He was one of the founders of the Zone System, which helped to determine proper exposure and adjust the contrast of the final print, allowing the clarity and depth characterizing his photographs. His use of large format cameras provided high image resolution, ensuring the sharp images he sought. Adams grew up considering a career as a pianist, until his interest in photography and love of nature supplanted that earlier passion. His photographs of the West became the foremost record of what many of the National Parks were like before tourism; he skillfully promoted the newly emerging environmental movement through his work. Adams always insisted that, as far as his photographs were concerned, “beauty comes first.”


Gustave Baumann moved to the United States at age 10 with his family, and by age 17 was working for an engraving house while studying at the Chicago Art Institute. Returning to Germany for further studies, he learned the art of woodblock printing. Baumann developed his printmaking technique following the traditional European method of color relief printing using oil-based inks and printing his blocks on a large press in the Brown County, Indiana artist colony. In 1918, he headed to the Southwest and settled in Santa Fe, becoming a central member of the artist community. In 1931, he began carving his “little people”—marionettes that he toured around the state for many years.

Eanger Irving Couse was born in Saginaw, Michigan, where as a child he became interested in the local Chippewa and Ojibwa cultures of the region. He knew from childhood that he wanted to be an artist, beginning his formal training at the Chicago Art Institute, and later travelling to Paris to study at the Julian Academy. Couse and his wife Virginia first came to Taos in 1902, after learning from his fellow American students of the beauty of the New Mexico landscape and the undisturbed Pueblo people who lived there. He immediately took to Taos, though he maintained a studio in New York during the winter months until 1928, when Taos became his permanent home. Couse created images that were highly influential in changing the public’s perception of the West, due, in part, to the inclusion of his paintings in the annual calendar of the Santa Fe Railway Company.

John K. Hillers was German-born, arriving in America in 1852. He served as a New York policeman and Union Army soldier, before joining Major John Wesley Powell in 1871 on his second journey down the Colorado River. Originally hired as a boatman, he became increasingly interested in the work of the team’s photographer, first acting as his assistant, and by the next year, becoming the expedition photographer. In the summer of 1879, he accompanied a team of Smithsonian Institution scientists on a trip to Zuni and other Southwestern pueblos, the first specifically anthropological expedition in America. Hillers spent almost twenty years exploring the Indian Territories, California, the Southwest, and the Southeast, eventually producing an important record of Native Americans and their way of life.

Patrick Nagatani was raised and educated in Los Angeles where he achieved artistic recognition for his highly original photographic images. He pioneered the Contemporary Constructive Movement in the late 1970s, and is acclaimed for his thought-provoking photographs dealing with various facets of the human condition. Nagatani, working in series, creates tableaus—elaborate fictional narratives—made up of two and three-dimensional imagery which he then photographs. He has explored the effects of the nuclear industry on New Mexico, and Japanese-American internment camps from World War II.

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