Made by Nature
Haciendas, the large estates of Spain's landed gentry in the New World, date from the earliest days of the conquest in the 16th century, and could be found from the North American Southwest all the way to Chile and Argentina. The estates were self-contained, and many were built in Spanish Colonial style, some with classical architectural embellishments. Patios were used year-round, especially in the warmer climates, and the outdoor rooms became extensions of the house: places for dining, relaxing, meeting with friends, hosting holiday celebrations. The spaces were rugged but elegant, durable enough for constant exposure to weather, refined enough to advertise the standing of the family who lived in the house. Materials used for hacienda patio construction were often taken from the site: Saltillo or red clay, sun-dried into terra-cotta tiles; stone walls and arches; weathered wood beams; onyx planters and inlays; indigenous trees and plants.
Stucco walls might be whitewashed or light neutrals -- cream, antique white, beige or pale clay dust. But sometimes splashes of intense hues transformed patio walls -- a wild medium-blue with a hint of green, a pink the color of the deepest flamingo feathers, ochre that captures the sun, orange to rival the terra-cotta pots and pavers, cactus green, red the color of rust, the rich chocolate of mole. The riot of color eclipsed the dusty land that stretched for miles and challenged the tropical hues of birds and flowers. A hot pink stucco wall looming over a gray stone floor casts a flattering light over the patio, even when it is half-covered in the glossy green leaves of trailing vines.
The patio may be built around a focal point, a central feature important enough to command attention, but one with some utility beyond mere decoration. A sculpted clay fountain, surrounded by a catch basin of terra-cotta brick, adds a cool musical note. Brightly hand-painted Talavera tile, set into the stones around the fountain or cemented into the surface of a stone or terra-cotta bench-height wall around a grand fountain as seating, introduces traditional patterns and more color to the decor. The painted tiles might line nichos -- altar-like alcove shelves set into patio walls -- that hold a religious statue or a potted plant. Fire pits are a tamed version of the open bonfire, casting appealing heat and light over the patio on a chilly night. A fire pit, like a fountain, is typically made from the same stone or clay used for the rest of the patio.
All in the Details
Wrought-iron furniture and scrolled gates leading to a garden, or hammered iron sconces and lanterns, evoke the Spanish influence of the Conquistadors. Graceful Moorish arches made of plaster and brick or stone recall the Moorish conquest of Spain in the 8th century and the enduring impact of Islamic architecture. A wall fresco, a la Diego Rivera or a more traditional artist, might grace a sheltered wall and trace some incident of Mexican or Central American history. Large pottery urns, both dried terra-cotta, and painted and glazed, hold a riot of flowers and lush green. Ferns, horsetail grasses, juniper and cypress trees, desert honeysuckle, bougainvillea, orchids, banana plants, yucca, cactus, herbs and butterfly bushes are all candidates for living decor on a hacienda patio.