Decoding Regionalism among the Navajo
KARLA CAVARRA BRITTON (Lecturer, Yale School of Architecture)
To appreciate architecture is to value it as a work of an architect grappling with the meanings of place, locale, geography, and language. Sacred form is where one sees with particular immediacy a record to the undiminished power that place names have on architectural ideas. Studying sacred buildings provokes us into looking at how an architect aligns the circumstances of a place and its narrative with architectural form, making us question an architect’s search for a fitting expression.
An especially telling example of the enduring force of nomenclature on an architectural idea is the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, in Fort Defiance, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation just north of Window Rock, the Navajo Nation’s capital. Consecrated in 1955, and built by the distinguished and influential New Mexican architect John Gaw Meem (1894-1983), the chapel’s design renders both the history of its name and the name of its location as something much more interesting and indeterminate than might immediately be assumed.
Fort Defiance speaks of survival and defense—themes underscored by Peter Iverson in his book Diné as foundational in the history of the Navajo. Founded as part of the U.S. Military’s campaign to subdue the Navajo, Fort Defiance became Kit Carson’s base for the round-up of the Navajo people in 1864 and its very name continues today to evoke the memory of the 300-mile “Long Walk” of the Navajo to the Bosque Redondo, and the disease, exhaustion, malnutrition, and death of the internment camp.
For Meem this nomenclature must have challenged his working principle in architecture of “remembering and adapting,” as he put it in a 1971 defense of his method. Meem must have understood that what Fort Defiance symbolizes through its name would be juxtaposed to the name of the Good Shepherd Mission, compounding the cultural mismatch between Anglo and Native concepts of the sacred. Nomenclature must surely have been a factor for him when he wrote in a 1955 letter about the building—which was described by the donor as a “cathedral for the Navajo”— that, “The whole church is an attempt to combine Christian tradition with Navajo color and symbol.”
Today one can visit the Chapel of the Good Shepherd on “Kit Carson Drive,” the road leading from the Mission around the hill to the site of the old Fort Defiance military camp. Despite its dominant belfry and cross, the large cubical forms of the chapel are strikingly integrated with its open and arid landscape; built not of adobe but of salmon pink sandstone, the chapel draws particular attention to the colors and textures of the rocky site. Here in the architecture Meem expressed the convictions he described in his writings regarding his sense of responsibility for perpetuating a truly American architecture, born of an awareness of its descent in an unbroken line from aboriginal sources.
John Gaw Meem’s work is not very much in fashion these days among students of architecture. His buildings often stand deliberately apart from International Modernism and are distanced from concerns of global urbanism. As an architect he aligned himself with questions of architecture’s relationship to region and regionalism when these still represented key questions for American architecture. But it is precisely for this reason that the Chapel of the Good Shepherd is rich as an historical and aesthetic experience: as the nomenclature evokes, the building participates in a long and nearly universal trajectory of tensions that arises when an architect seeks to bring into relationship fractured and diverse spiritual and cultural narratives.