Architects Reflect on Marfa

by West Texas Weekly on November 12, 2012

By Richard Mark Glover

MARFA – Rice University Professor of Architecture Carlos Jimenez spoke at the Marfa Architecture + Design Symposium this week-end, suggesting the Far West Texas town is a place “you come to discover something.”

“The presence of Donald Judd, the landscape and art of this town magnifies itself in this environment,” said Jimenez at the Crowley Theatre, Friday morning. “Sometimes it is about vastness, beauty, stillness, time, sharpness, distance, light or woven together as in vastness of light or stillness of time. Marfa becomes a marvelous chess game for these attributes.”

The Costa Rican born, award winning architect suggested the inhabitants of the region were in touch with a certain “instruction for visual clarity” and these “Horizonte Tejanos” were, like the famous sculptor Judd, quite aware of the distinct magic of the region.

Architect John Gutzler also presented at the symposium and discussed the restoration of six barracks at the Chinati Foundation, a former WWII army base known as Fort D.A. Russell that was purchased by Judd in the early 1970’s. The six buildings were transformed in 1996 to exhibit the large scale fluorescent light art of Dan Flavin.

“Flavin’s art was very complicated,” said Gutzler. “The tilted corridors, the dispersal of natural light, mathematics – we needed the structures to be subliminal, without ego. So often we superimpose. Artwork should play up to artwork, not the architecture.”

Judd too was a master of pulling things away, rather than adding. “By subtraction you often get more reinforcement to what you’re trying to do.”

A third architect, Rand Elliott, discussed the design of Marfa Contemporary, the Oklahoma City, City Arts Center regional extension that opened last month at the former Webb Brothers Gulf Station at the 4-way stop in Marfa.

“I think it re-energizes the intersection,” said Elliott, wearing black and his signature pony-tail. “It is a canopy important in history and a historic building with a relationship to the future.”

While feats of transformative architecture kept the nearly full house crowd attentive, Jimenez honed in on the relationship between place, structure, time and design.

“Where does the architect begin when encountering the sheer vulnerability of the desert?” Jimenez asked.

Jimenez has completed several projects in Marfa since his first excursion to the town twenty years ago, including Jeff Beauchamp’s “Old Pharmacy Building” at 115 North Highland and what is now Ranch 2810, the former Crowley – Goode homestead located on Nature Conservancy land in the triangle between Highway 2810 and US90 West.

“Marfa has a singularity of topography,” said Jimenez as he projected an aerial photograph of the Crowley-Goode house under construction.

“You can see the daunting task of building in this setting just as you can sense its solitude and beauty the closer you get to the ground. Our intent from day one was to plant as many trees as we could so that they would grow with the house, create a protective ring around the house, provide cooler temperatures or respite from the strong winds, and to accomplish this we needed a battalion of trees. The architecture of the house follows a modular width from space to space, at times dissolving the interface with its surroundings as if it were a porous container,” Jimenez said.

He pointed a red laser on the surrounding mountains in the photograph.

“How do we begin,” he repeated in his Spanish accented English. “The beginning of any project always brings a degree of fear as well as an intoxicating fascination. Architecture tells a story, you can read it just as you can tell it. It is a story where there are many interfacing protagonists, the wind, a freeze, an ephemeral texture.”

Jimenez paused as a freight train rumbled by.

“The immediate view of the world today is globality,” said Jimenez wearing a silvery jacket and white shirt. “We speak of it with ease and naiveté. We can get an instant glimpse of the earth’s immensity but seldom do we get to see the profundity of place, that uniqueness that locates us in this global mainstream. It is the architect’s duty to connect the many components that make up a site: the water, the mountains, the grasses, the stars.”

He looked out at the audience and then back toward the stage screen.

“An image can be a celebration of place as it captures the simple beauty of a sunlit room,” he said, projecting photographs of the finished Ranch 2810 house in prompt succession. “The starkness of snow, the power of the wind or the perpetual trains in the distance, those moving objects across the horizon that locate us in the immediacy of time and come close to allowing us to understand what we intended to do.”

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