Twenty-six miles west of Fort Stockton’s grim truck stops, amid the ancient oceanic and volcanic landscapes of the Chihuahuan Desert, is a typical rest area exit sign that understates an unlikely oasis of stone, glass, and steel: the West Pecos County Safety Rest Area designed by Richter Architects.
The building seems summoned from the earth. The densely stacked limestone masonry undulates and shifts like the striated cuts on the highway that expose layers of sedimentary accretion. The selection and spacing of the stones is thoughtful and effective, while the dry-stacked mortar is clean — quite unlike what is typically seen in veneer stonework in El Paso and elsewhere in the region.
Further adding to the fastidiousness of the building are the details within. Exposed concrete headers span deeply recessed wood plank doors. Mechanical grills are housed and obscured within long horizontal openings spanned with large lintel stones. Immaculate perforated gypsum panels cover the facets of the folded plate ceilings, while cross-angled and tapered natural finish cedar slats punctuate the suspended ceiling planes. The restrooms are more generous than those at typical public facilities, retaining the strong material palette of the main space while adding tile, high-quality fixtures, and one-piece basin sinks that would be at home in a trendy Austin restaurant.
Hovering lightly about the heft of the masonry walls is a wandering shed roof that wends its way around and over the cubic massing of the stone structures in a line that resembles an active seismographic reading. In fact, the random ridges of the form represent the volcanic uplifts of the Davis Mountains on the horizon, toward which views are oriented from within a steel-and-glass atrium below. The atrium itself retains the robust materiality of the building with sheets of glass mounted to a welded Corten structural frame that sits flush with the wide-plank flooring. The interior manages to feel like a lost wing of a San Antonio history museum that grew up out on the ranch. It achieves a significant level of refinement and dignity without leaning on the more urbane, institutional-level components of its big-city cousins with more prestigious programs.
The rest of the grounds are as ambitious and well executed as the main building. Folded plate-steel shade structures host picnic tables and a small playground. There are large stone retaining walls and a rock-lined dry creek that one must cross over to access the outdoor program. The creek bed aspires to tell the story of water in the landscape — not only the way it controls what kinds of plants and animals survive there, but also how it shapes the landscape itself. Most of the rain in the region falls during the summer monsoon season, typically in July and August. During this time, intense storms batter and flood the desert, causing erosion that shapes the caprock mesas and the rock-strewn gulches of the area.
For the architects, this level of regional specificity is key to the project’s identity and success. “In a place like this, our design ethic is to look at the ground, the highways, the rolling topography,” said David Richter, FAIA. “We tend to not be influenced too much by stylistic inclinations or even vernacular ones. Generally, we look toward the geology.”
On a long, monotonous highway that invites speed and motion often in defiance of local conditions, the West Pecos Safety Rest Area finds its strength in doing just the opposite — absorbing, reflecting, and heightening the environment’s effect.
Stephen (Chick) Rabourn, AIA, is an architect in Marfa.