Donald Judd’s building projects in Marfa are as prodigious as they are conspicuous in the remote but highly scrutinized town of less than 2,000 residents. Art and architecture formed seamless fabric for the artist, who gravitated toward the open spaces and underutilized structures on offer during his lifetime in the bright and dusty region of the Trans-Pecos. He renovated relentlessly and exactingly — from the time he arrived in Texas in 1971 until his death in 1994.
Judd advanced his idea of permanent installation for artworks in order to preserve their spatial context, integrity, and longevity. But, as Robert Smithson once pointed out, entropy was perhaps absent from Judd’s hermetic universe, and buildings — especially the historic ones favored by Judd — are susceptible to the sun, wind, ice, and torrential summer storms of the high Chihuahuan Desert. Consequently, deferred maintenance has left a significant number of Judd’s 21 buildings in need of repair.
The Judd Foundation, run by siblings Rainer and Flavin Judd, is currently engaged in a long-term restoration plan that will focus on Judd’s personal, working, and archival spaces, which comprise six of the Judd properties they own. Construction started last fall on the downtown Architecture Office, under the direction of architects Troy Schaum and Rosalyne Shieh of SCHAUM/SHIEH (Houston; New York City). Using Judd’s plans, drawings, and writings, the foundation will not only focus on restoration but also on creating new collection and conservation facilities, as well as spaces for programming, scholarship, and other initiatives.
The Architecture Office — a two-story, 5,000-sf building built in 1907 — was originally a boarding house, with a grocery where local residents can still remember buying candy and magazines as children. Judd bought the building in 1990, removed the paint on the brick facade, and created office and living spaces within. On the ground floor is the permanently installed architecture office, Judd’s space for developing projects ranging from a complex of new concrete buildings for Fort D.A. Russell (unbuilt) to the facade design for Bahnhof Ost Basel in Basel, Switzerland (built, and now called the Peter Merian Haus). Other large-scale works were also in development at the time of Judd’s death. Guided tours will allow access to drawings and models of various projects Judd had on the boards.
Quintana’s Barber Shop, in operation in the building for decades, will also remain on the ground floor, as will an additional 540-sf storefront space reserved for community projects and temporary exhibitions. Upstairs are some Judd-installed living spaces that will be available for visiting researchers and scholars. Final completion is scheduled for 2020.
After working with Architecture Research Office on the restoration of 101 Spring Street in New York City (2013), the Judd Foundation was able to turn its attention to Marfa and engage SCHAUM/SHIEH the following year. Their first task was not only to assess and determine which buildings were most in need of renovation, but also to research Judd’s ultimate plans and goals for each of them. After renovating the art studio at Las Casas (a ranch complex 80 miles south of Marfa), they turned their attention to the Architecture Office due to the compromised condition of its brick facade and the degradation of its west-facing windows, which have been boarded up for years. As a prominent building in the city’s increasingly busy downtown area, the foundation also felt it was important from a community perspective.
The Architecture Office sits among a cluster of downtown Judd buildings that includes the formidable Chamberlain Building (formerly the Marfa Wool and Mohair Building) that houses John Chamberlain’s 22 sculptures in painted and chromium-plated steel. The Chinati Foundation is planning to begin restoration work there later this year.
Judd’s relationship with architecture is at once widely accepted and little known. He was a master preservationist who managed to insert radical modern art into historical vernacular buildings without dissonance or irony. And he did so while respecting the work of the craftspeople who built them and not corrupting the essential qualities of the originals.
These interventions reinforced the native exterior characteristics of the buildings while enhancing the impact of their internal volumes. Most of the changes were accomplished by stripping away unnecessary elements rather than introducing new logics or systems. Judd’s vision, reverence, and restraint regarding existing buildings speak to his conservationist instincts regarding the labors of the past, as well as to the disdain he held for imposing new buildings on the natural environment.
Regarding architects, Judd held a special enmity for the freewheeling and glib approach of Philip Johnson, the historical pastiches of such postmodernists as Robert Venturi and Michael Graves, and the tendency of many architects to employ sculptural forms when designing art museums. But he prized the three-dimensionality of Classical architecture and admired Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright — and he felt deeply about proportion, scale, and the external expression of interior volumes.
Judd’s approach was as practical as it was principled, however: Construction is expensive and especially difficult in far-West Texas. Much of the craft that Judd admired in the buildings he bought was lost to the local trades by the time he got there or else had never been locally based. Adobe masons, glass installers, and roofing contractors were brought in from around the region. But he also utilized and cultivated local trades and talent whenever possible, especially in service to his furniture production.
For the Marfa restorations, local companies and tradespeople are being used wherever possible. A Marfa-based construction company run by Juan and Jose Martinez was selected to repair and re-point the brick facade, under the direction Alpha Masonry, a consultant from Canada. Gaps in the mortar joints were causing portions of the brickwork to fail and creating water damage within. Troy Schaum said the work was necessary for the health of the building, and every effort was made to keep the new work from impacting the existing aesthetic. The work had a subtle yet noticeable effect on the building, tightening up the lines and reinforcing the original flourishes of the brickwork at the corners and the cornice.
The most dramatic effect on the building may be in the storefront glazing on the ground floor and the new windows to be installed on the second story. Due to leaks and damage to the original windows, most of the openings had been boarded up for the past few years. Artisan John Antonides built new wood windows in his shop in Marfa to be installed over the course of several weeks starting in late January.
A more delicate matter will be meeting the challenges of preserving the artifacts of the installed spaces themselves, which ideally exist within a narrow range of temperature and humidity. The project team determined that the advanced mechanical systems typically used for museums and preservation were neither feasible nor desirable for the Judd spaces in Marfa because they would be difficult to maintain, and because the cost of energy required to run them into the foreseeable future would be prohibitive. They partnered with the Image Permanence Institute to research and specify systems that instead focus on passive and light mechanical systems to achieve the required interior conditions.
The first phase of exterior work — which cost around $600,000 — was supported by a grant from the Brown Foundation. A second phase that will address the interiors will be funded by individual, foundation, and board support, and additional projects to follow in upcoming years include: The Block; Print Building; a new conservation and storage facility; the Ranch Office; and Las Casas.
Stephen (Chick) Rabourn, AIA, is an architect in Marfa.