You are here

Visual Arts Center, Santa Fe University of Art and Design

-A A +A
College of Santa Fe
1999, Ricardo Legorreta with Lloyd and Tryk Architects. 1600 Saint Michael’s Dr.
  • (Photograph by Regina N. Emmer)
  • (Photograph by Regina N. Emmer)
  • (Photograph by Regina N. Emmer)
  • (Photograph by Regina N. Emmer)
  • (Photograph by Regina N. Emmer)

The Visual Arts Center is the first of several buildings in Santa Fe designed by the Mexican modernist Ricardo Legorreta in which he challenged the dominant Santa Fe Style with an alternative regionalism for New Mexico. Instead of tan colors and sculptural forms imitating traditional adobe buildings, Legoretta proposed an architecture that is boldly polychromatic, crisply geometric, and unmistakably modern.

Until his death in 2011, Legorreta was known for creating works informed both by his commitment to modernist systems of form, space, and structure, and by his sensitivity to local landscapes and regional traditions. Instilled with a self-professed “profound respect for Mexican humanism,” Legorreta fell under the spell of Luis Barragán and José Villagrán while studying architecture at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. In his practice, Legorreta combined Barragán’s romanticism with Villagrán’s professionalism and social commitment.” Where Legorreta’s Mexican commissions often developed organically, with alterations to forms and materials as a project evolved, his buildings in the United States were tailored to the expectations of his American clients; his design of the Visual Arts Center included detailed preliminary studies of materials, colors, and spatial effects in order to avoid changes during construction.

The Visual Arts Center was commissioned by the College of Santa Fe with two planned phases of construction. After the College of Santa Fe became the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in 2010, the second phase was cancelled. The first and only completed phase is a 52,000-square-foot complex of instructional, office, and gallery spaces in five buildings for the Santa Fe Art Institute, the Marion Center for Photographic Arts, the Thaw Art History Center, Tishman Hall, and the Tipton Lecture Hall.

The Visual Arts Center was conceived as a pueblo, forming distinct functional units (the buildings) as well as a coherent community (the village). Organized around connecting patios and porticos, the network unfolds inwardly as an experiential narrative. The use of dynamically layered planes to create depth, the manipulation of light and shadow, the play between symmetry and asymmetry, the attention to natural ventilation, and the blurring of exterior and interior space all trace back via Mexico to Spain and ultimately to romantic memories of the Alhambra in Granada.

The two-story buildings are kept to a residential scale, but are made monumental by the use of strong geometries and bold colors. The exterior walls are painted orange and red, while interior walls around the patio courtyards are painted lavender, purple, and fuschia. Complementing rather than mimicking the sage greens and tawny browns of the New Mexican landscape, these colors are also clearly applied to a modern, industrial structure of concrete block, steel, and synthetic stucco.

Legorreta’s Visual Arts Center is a design at the critical edge between competing ideas of regional identity and image. As a Mexican architect, Legorreta could question the supposed authenticity of the Santa Fe Style. Formulated in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, this mixture of Spanish Colonial and Pueblo styles was mandated by a 1957 zoning ordinance for all new construction in the city’s central historic district. While the result appealed to tourists, it was frequently suffocating to artists, especially architects looking to express more contemporary idioms of place. Against what some see as a reductive and increasingly commodified fiction, Legorreta’s design of the Visual Arts Center argues for the actual richness, complexity, and diversity of a heritage spanning multiple continents, people, cultures, and periods of time. Legorreta was also an outsider, much like those who invented the Santa Fe Style in the early twentieth century; ironically, Legorreta’s foreign perspective was needed to see things locally.

Santa Fe University of Art and Design closed in 2018. The Visual Arts Building is now occupied by the Santa Fe Art Institute.


Adrià, Miquel and Jose Castillo. El verdadero lujo está en el espacio: últimas entrevistas con Ricardo Legorreta. Mexico City, Mexico: Arquine, 2012.

Asensio, Paco, Ed. Legorreta + Legorreta. London & New York: teNeues, 2002.

Cervantes, Miguel. Legorreta + Legorreta. Mexico City, Mexico: Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso, 2005.

Eggener, Keith. “Placing Resistance: A Critique of Critical Regionalism.” Journal of Architectural Education 55, no. 4 (May, 2002): 228-237. Taylor & Francis, 2002.

Laviada-Checa, Laura and Carlos Méndez, Eds. Legorreta + Legorreta. New York, NY: Rizzoli, 2004.

Mastretta, Ángeles. Ricardo Legorreta: La pasión en la arquitectura. Xoco, Mexico: Consejo Nacional Para la Cultura y Las Artes, 2001.

Wilson, Chris. The Myth of Santa Fe: Creating a Modern Regional Tradition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997.

Writing Credits

Regina N. Emmer
Christopher C. Mead
Regina N. Emmer
Updated By: 
Catherine Boland Erkkila (2022)

If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.

SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.