• The Sombreada Hasta reestablishes the domicile of a now demolished ranch house. The former yard is defined by a concrete fence base, a few corner posts, and a gate. Set within a pulverized granite-filled precinct and edged by existing trees, Sombreada provides a sheltered place to sit, cook, bathe and sleep in otherwise inhospitable country. Photo by Grant Alford, AIA

Location Real County
Architect Rhotenberry Wellen Architects
Design Team Mark Wellen, FAIA; Cale Lancaster, AIA
Photographers Grant Alford, AIA

The clarity of vernacular rural structures has long been an inspiration for modern architects. Essentially, a roof and a hearth are the only requirements to inhabit a landscape. With these two components, early humans could protect themselves from the elements, stay warm, cook their food, and ward off the terrors of the night (fierce predators, both real and imagined). Native Americans built these shelters in various forms, establishing a pattern for domestic life on the North American continent. Later, pioneers (ostensibly hardy ones of good yeoman stock) followed those same traditions. Informed by their European ancestry, they made more substantial shelters that became the basis for thousands of rural dwellings across America. These simple buildings in their more developed form are the basis for many of the buildings we have been making ever since.

As postwar modernism (along with postmodernism) has developed in Texas, the simplicity and perceived integrity of these types of structures have informed a regional vernacular that has become almost passé in countless buildings throughout the state, often in decidedly non-rural settings. Sheds and service structures, made of industrial materials and unadorned stone, abound in urban centers like Austin, Dallas, and Houston. They are adapted as houses, libraries, commercial structures — even cultural centers and hotels. The idiom is so common it’s not even remarked upon as a displacement from its origins: It is simply vernacular (or, worse, Texas vernacular). The reverse is rarely true, where an urban sensibility for organizing space, acknowledging memory, and defining a precinct is a strategy for creating a response to a rural need. At Sombreada Hasta, the planning is decidedly urban and the result cloyingly refined.

The economy of means and the sure hand with which the complex is detailed indicate a reductive kind of planning that is intentional and extreme in service of a simple-seeming intent. The deceptive casualness is a product of the humble materials — steel, corrugated decking, flagstone, and concrete — not of humble thinking or an ad hoc approach to problem solving. Detailed precisely, allowed to weather and rust, the sombreada is an essay on complex tectonic ideas rendered in a straightforward visual composition, resulting in effects that are not accidental. Its power comes from its clarity and the joy of inhabiting it. You want to participate in the narrative, stand under that roof, and be in that shade.

The refinement of the structure is best illustrated in the acknowledgment of the sun rendered visible through creation of an oculus. Solar movement around the sky is written on the walls of the container (bunkhouse) and “X” literally marks the spot with the shadow of the cross-bracing cables that bisect it. The rich sienna brown palette looks beautiful in this landscape. Bracketed by a silver metal tractor shed and another similar headquarters building, it mitigates between them and creates an inviting negative (open) space as a counterpoint to their enclosed volumes. Strategically placing the structure within the fence line of the now-demolished original ranch house is a memorable touch. It anchors the structure, reestablishing a pattern of habitation of a somewhat hostile landscape.

Michael Malone, FAIA, founded Malone Maxwell Borson Architects in Dallas and chairs the TxA Honor Awards Committee for 2018.

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