“It isn’t necessary for a work to have a lot of things to look at, to compare, to analyze one by one, to contemplate. The thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what is interesting. The main things are alone and are more intense, clear and powerful.”
-Donald Judd, 1967
I first set foot in Marfa in the fall of 1992 through the invitation of a friend and artist who was then working under Donald Judd. It would be quite some time before I realized my fortune in experiencing the Chinati Open House prior to Judd’s abrupt death less than two years later. I was still in architecture school, and my knowledge of Judd was limited to the brief introduction to his work in the requisite art history class, and the reverent paeans often made by architecture professors. That, and free brisket and beer, seemed to be more than enough reason to make the long drive across Texas worth the effort. During that weekend, I found a stunning display of community centered around the profound work of Judd and a few of the artists he most admired.
Naturally, after hearing that the Texas Society of Architects’ Sixth Annual Design Conference would take place in Marfa, I eagerly enrolled in the program, knowing the number of people interested in attending would far exceed the intimate capacity of the conference. A lot has changed in Marfa since my first visit nearly 25 years ago. At the same time, the essence of place is unchanged — an effect made present by the immense, uncluttered landscape of the Trans-Pecos high desert plain and the vast West Texas sky. This made an ideal backdrop for the conference theme: Clarity.
The conference started with a presentation by Carlos Jiménez. With several buildings designed by Jiménez located throughout Marfa, it was a logical place to begin the exploration of “Clarity.” Tapping into the theme as an expression of lucidity, Jiménez contrasted the high desert landscape against his native Costa Rican landscape and the thick wilderness of the tropics. With eloquence and acuity, he presented his Marfa buildings in detail, including the Saint George Hotel and Hall, the Crowley Theater, and Ranch 2810 — a large residential project just west of town that also served as the convention’s congregating space for fellowship on Saturday night. Jiménez also reviewed a large selection of projects from his vast body of work, including his Maritime Front Proposal on the Canary Island of Lanzarote (drawing interesting parallels between the César Manrique Foundation and the Judd Foundation) and the Housing Tower in Evry, France, as well as a variety of other national and international projects.
It was a special treat on Saturday morning to have Christine Ten Eyck of Ten Eyck Landscape Architects also give a presentation of her work. She is a design professional who works closely with architects, and it was refreshing and invaluable to be given an overlapping perspective of the built environment and the theme of clarity. Ten Eyck took us through a selection of her work, interspersing it with the stark and surreal imagery of “The Architect’s Brother,” a book by Robert ParkeHarrison. Highlights of her landscape design included The Capri in Marfa, the South Congress Hotel in Austin, the Belo Center for New Media at The University of Texas at Austin, Pearl Brewery Plaza in San Antonio, and the extensive transformation of the University of Texas at El Paso Campus. Not only did Ten Eyck playfully remind the audience of architects that trees blocking the grand view of their buildings may not be the most valid or relevant way to critique landscape design, but she also illustrated how people come together communally when given the proper mixture of plants, hardscape, water, sun, and shade. As made evident by her energetic spirit, her work is deeply committed to replacing ruthless parking lots and ungracious “corny dog trees” with these magical elements of landscape design.
The final presentation was delivered by Rick Joy, FAIA, who presented his work in the context of core values, which are carried out in “each and every thing that is done by the firm.” Joy laid out his nine principles one by one, illustrating each with indicative project images and colorful stories. Expounding on values such as “being comprehensively observant,” “ensuring the details support the concept,” and “cherishing the site’s spirit,” Joy thoughtfully exhibited his elegant and graceful work. A short selection of the projects that were featured in his lecture includes the Tucson Mountain House, St. Edward’s Chapel (unbuilt), Hacienda de Taos, Desert Nomad House, Princeton Train Station, Amangiri Resort and Spa, and the Woodstock Farm in Vermont.
Dovetailing into the conference’s theme, Joy asserted that “being true to a set of evolving core values” provides the firm with a “certain clarity of purpose” in its work — a useful and inspiring message for all.
In addition to the featured presentations, the conference included many memorable activities, such as touring the recently opened Robert Irwin installation, Judd’s 100 Untitled Works in Mill Aluminum, the Presidio County Courthouse, and various works by Chamberlain at the former Marfa Wool and Mohair Building, as well as many other local landmarks and attractions. Of all these events and activities, one of the most enriching aspects of the conference was the opportunity to have friendly, casual conversations with colleagues, including the featured guests, in warm, intimate settings — forging new friendships and sustaining old ones. Back in Austin, sitting now at my still cluttered desk — but with a clear, refreshed mind — this stunning display of community reminds me fondly of my first visit to Marfa.