Falling Into Place

text by David M. Brown  |  photos courtesy of Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

As part of its Architecture + Art series, Everything Falls into Place When It Collapses continues the fall schedule at SMoCA, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, on the Scottsdale Mall. Mexico City-based artist Santiago Borja, whose large installations and architectural interventions connect art, architecture and ethnography, offers a museum-based project responding to the 80-plus-year-old roof over the centuries-old Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, about an hour south of the Valley in Coolidge. How do we respond to a 700-year-old indigenous people’s adobe structure fitted with a steel-age canopy? When does well-meaning preservation become intrusive?
Foreground: Santiago Borja, Untitled, 2016, plywood and balsa wood. 14 x 24 x 20 inches. © Santiago Borja. Courtesy of the artist. Background: Lon Megargee, Casa Grande Ruins, Starlit Evening, 1914, oil on canvas. Collection of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art: Bequest of the Estate of Mr. and Mrs. Dallas P. Richeson, 1990.004.02. Photo by Claire Warden.

Santiago Borja, Installation shot of Self // Jung Catcher at MARCO, Monterrey Mexico 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.


In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison set aside a square mile of the site as the nation’s first prehistoric and cultural reserve, and in 1918 President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed Casa Grande Ruins a National Monument, six years after statehood. Two years earlier, in 1916, he had signed the law establishing the National Parks Service.

Surrounded by a compound wall, the site includes the central four-story structure whose purpose and function are unknown. Possibly ancestors of today’s O’odham people living in the Tucson area, the people developed irrigation farming and established trade connections for about a thou-sand years until around A.D.1450 when they left the area for unknown reasons.

To shelter this building, known in O’odham language as “Siwa– Wa’a Ki” or “Sivan Vahki,” a roof of corrugated iron supported by redwood timbers was built over the Casa Grande in 1903, and in 1932, today’s steel roof replaced the original. Although done to preserve, resulting from well-meaning input from archeologists, early visitors, artists, political figures and others, the roof was placed without consultation with Native Americans.

Borja’s work at SMoCA examines the “juxtaposition of culturally different concepts of time, questions of legacy and belonging, technologies, knowledge and ideas about the future,” explains Dr. Sara Cochran, SMoCA director and chief curator. These issues include differing perspectives toward archaeological remains, including Native American, white, academic, artistic and administrative; Modernism and its capacity to solve problems technologically and the complexity of interpreting and preserving the material past, ancient and modern.


Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the National Park System, according to Cochran, Borja’s exhibition asks: “How do we live in a physical space that has been inhabited for a very long time and balance the viewpoints of differing people and civilizations?”

Borja, a former student of visual arts at the Universidad Iberoamericana and architecture at the National School Of Visual Arts in Mexico, incorporates art, Modernist architecture and indigenous knowledge into his interventionist works. In Paris, he also completed an MFA in art theory.

Previously, he has paired the work of native craftspersons from Mexico with structures by modern architects such as Le Corbusier and Richard Neutra. His interventions are often spaces of pre-existing cultural or historical prominence such as London’s Freud Museum, the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin and the Villa Savoye, in Poissy, near Paris, France, by Swiss architects Le Corbusier and cousin, Pierre Jeanneret.

Santiago Borja, Installation shot of Self // Jung Catcher at MARCO, Monterrey Mexico 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

“The steel roof at Casa Grande is a wonder of engineering and is a product of the ideas of progress and science as they were understood in the 1930s,” says Cochran. “The question that the roof poses in this relationship is: At which point in the conversation does it become intrusive to the site?”

The desert has made human beings resourceful for centuries, she explains. The Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is a four-story adobe structure made without metal tools or the wheel, and the canals irrigating the fields also show remarkable engineering and planning. So, too, the engineers and preservationists wanted to conserve the building achievement, but because of the period they lived in, they did not consider other voices whose insights should have been included.

“The roof was constructed at a time when it was not considered important to consult with the Native Americans living in the region and trace their ancestry to the ancient builders,” Cochran says, noting that the roof emblemizes the complex relationship between Native Americans and the federal government.

“Although the O’odham people now have an important voice in the stewardship of the remains and the site today, the roof remains as a physical reminder of another time and a clash of ideas, hopes and beliefs,” she explains, noting that, in contrast, three O’odham elders were consulted about this exhibition.


In SMoCA’s large Gallery Four, visitors will experience Borja’s representation of the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument. And, in Gallery Three, they will examine a complex of ideas and relationships about the site. For example, early-20th-century Valley artist Lon Mcgargee (1883-1960), who built his home, now the Hermosa Inn, in Paradise Valley, painted the ruins in 1914 but eliminated the early roof in the spirit of reproducing pioneer Arizona, stripped of its later cultural/technological overlays. To provoke questions, this painting will be juxtaposed with a model of Casa Grande including the roof. In addition, guests will be offered information on the history of the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument.

On October 8, a free discussion probably led by Cochran with Borja participating, will be held at ASU’s Combine Studios in downtown Phoenix, 4-8 p.m., to consider questions the exhibition offers. How do we respond to archeological ruins here at Casa Grande and elsewhere? “When a National Park Service official looks at the roof and the ruins, when a Native American looks at it, when an archeologist sees it, they all see something slightly different,” says Cochran.

The Ruins and The Roof: How do we preserve? Is the Modernist steel a response that is appropri-ate to the site-specific adobe? And, what is the future of the site? Should we rethink it, together as an inclusive community, aligning architectural preservation with cultural sensitivity?

“The exhibition is a conversation,” adds Cochran, “and aligns perfectly with our mission at SMoCA to be a laboratory of ideas and a platform for discussion.”

Everything Falls Into Place When It Collapses

Through January 22, 2017

Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art

Santiago Borja, Installation shot of Self // Jung Catcher at MARCO, Monterrey Mexico 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.

Santiago Borja. Image courtesy of the artist.