For architect Richard Martinez, it was his New Mexico homeland that ultimately gave him a voice.
BY ANYA SEBASTIAN | PORTRAIT BY PETER OGILVIE
Richard Martinez grew up in Albuquerque, and when he left to study architecture at Princeton, thoughts of coming back were nowhere in his mind. After graduation, he went on to complete postgraduate studies at Columbia before joining an architecture firm in New York city and settling into life in the Big Apple. “It was the 1980s and I loved the energy of what was going on there,” he recalls, “but as time went on, I could see that going out on my own would be a challenge, and I wasn’t sure how to go about doing that.”
As he was pondering his next move, his great-grandfather passed away, leaving him a small house in Pecos, New Mexico. “It obviously had great sentimental value,” he says, “but I also knew that it needed a lot of upgrades and TLC. I finally decided to take a year or two off, work on the house, and then go back to New York. Well, as you can see, I’m still here!”
As it turned out, it took Martinez about ten years to finish fixing up that house because he ran out of money along the way and had to take a break to find a job. DeWindt & Associates, an architectural firm in Santa Fe, took him on board and, from that point on, everything changed. “I really began to feel part of this community,” he says, “and before long, people started asking me to design houses for them. The gay community, in particular, was especially supportive and gave me my first five commissions. Their aesthetic sense and appreciation of creativity gave me the courage to try and make it on my own—something I hadn’t been able to do in New York.”
He has now had his own firm, Martinez Architecture Studio, for over 25 years, designing buildings from residential to commercial and historic to contemporary. Several have won awards, including the renovation of the renowned Hotel St. Francis in downtown Santa Fe, which won the Associated General Contractors of America Best Buildings Award in 2011, and a home on Acequia Madre, which won the city of Santa Fe’s Heritage Preservation Award for Compatible New Construction in 2015.
He also designed the much-loved Plaza Cafe Southside in Santa Fe and the recently completed lobby of the Hotel Chaco in Albuquerque. This impressive project, put together with mud, plaster, vigas, and stacked stone, is intended to evoke the feeling of being inside an ancient Native American kiva with a contemporary flair. “My job is to do as much as you can with what you have,” Martinez says. “In other words, to preserve the history, while at the same time realizing possibilities that may not otherwise be thought of.”
In his free time, Martinez still enjoys working on his great-grandfather’s house, where he lives and now shares with his husband, Ron James, an estate manager and a member of the Navajo Nation. Over the years, he acquired two neighboring properties as well, both previously owned by family members. One, basically a log cabin but with the unusual distinction of now being recognized as a historic structure, was built by his grandfather and was the place where his mother grew up; the other he acquired from an aunt. Neither has been fully restored, although the log cabin has been a work in progress for quite some time. “Everything I do has to be approved by the Historical Review Board,” Martinez points out, “and that can take a while.” He is well acquainted with that process, having served for a number of years as a member of the board of the Historic Santa Fe Foundation.
If it seems contradictory that Martinez is now known for is predominantly contemporary architecture—very much in contrast to his homegrown influences—he credits Princeton and Columbia for introducing him to the world of Modernism. “Both were schools with roots in Modern design,” he says, “and they definitely informed and influenced the contemporary feel of architecture at the time. Don’t get me wrong—I still love adobe, stone, and very primal, organic elements—but now I can comfortably work with both.”
Whatever basic materials or style of architecture, his main concern is how people experience the space: how it feels as a person moves through it and how it engages with the environment. “I really like working with the energy of different materials and how they come together,” he says, “and we’re lucky to have such a range of great artisans here. Whether I’m thinking of incorporating stonework, plaster, cabinetry, doors, ironwork, steel, I know there are master craftsmen I can turn to, to make the vision a reality.”
Green building and the impact on the environment are, of course, very much on people’s minds these days, and Martinez is no exception. “We all need to be concerned about that,” he states categorically, “and I always make a point of taking environmental considerations into account when I start working on a project. That means installing solar panels whenever possible, making sure everything is well insulated to reduce energy costs, and basically using the least amount of natural resources possible. While upfront building costs may be higher, outgoings are much lower in the end, so there’s definitely a good return on the initial investment as well.”
One element that his architectural designs all have in common, whether classical, contemporary, or adobe, is clear-cut, clean lines. Each one is also a reflection of how natural light, surroundings, and views are incorporated, resulting in spaces that are dynamically human-centered. “I love drawing all the elements together and coming up with new ideas, pushing boundaries, if you like,” he says. “And I think this is the perfect place to do that.”
Having been involved with the city’s architecture for so many years, Martinez is firmly of the opinion that Santa Fe needs to think more creatively about the possibilities of what could be, rather than repeating the styles of the past. “You see the same old expressions over and over again,” he points out. “It’s definitely time to tap into the creativity of looking at things in new ways and I think the younger generation is ready to move in that direction.”
Martinez can definitely take credit for showing them the way. He envisages one day putting together an exhibition with sketches and ideas brought to him by clients before the start of a project alongside images of how buildings turned out in the end. “You would be amazed at the difference,” he says with a smile. “It just shows you what can happen when you throw out ideas and see where they go.”