• The Winter Garden hides in plain site off the SW corner of the Block, revealed by a single shuttered opening. - photo by Alex Marks © Judd Foundation

While Donald Judd’s artistic output was a matter of public concern during his lifetime, revealing the extent to which he cultivated his private spaces in New York and Marfa has been a work in progress for the Judd Foundation since his death in 1994. The Winter Garden, an exterior courtyard located at Judd’s Marfa residence known as La Mansana de Chinati, or “the Block,” is the latest space to be rehabilitated. It opened to the public for the first time with a lecture held during the annual Chinati Weekend last October. 

Tucked into the southwest corner of the site along Highway 90, the Winter Garden was built around the early 1980s and is, like most of Judd’s architectural works, a symbiosis of found and created elements. Perhaps most enticing in this case is the compression of the narrow space captured between the nearly 10-foot-tall walls of exposed adobe, which creates an upward release toward an isolated sky. Whereas the dominant perspective of the central courtyard of the Block emphasizes an expansive horizontal plane, the Winter Garden creates one of verticality in an intimate space. 

A series of linear adobe columns and two small brick pools were originally overgrown with bamboo and ferns, creating a lush environment where architect Troy Schaum, AIA, encountered a turtle on his original tour of the site in 2013. “It really is like an outdoor room,” says Schaum. “And with the window looking out into nature, it is pretty special,” he adds, referring to an opening in the northwest wall with a hinged wooden shutter. 

Schaum’s firm, SCHAUM/SHIEH, based in Houston, led the restoration efforts, which included extensive foundation work and the making of new adobe bricks. Located on the bank of an arroyo that can run like a river during heavy rains, the exterior site walls’ foundations had been compromised over the decades. Pat Arnett of Silman Structural out of New York was brought in by SCHAUM/SHIEH to engineer new foundations that can handle running water. 

Local adobero Sandro Canovas oversaw the making of the required new adobe bricks by local artisans, who incorporated earth from the Winter Garden’s original west wall, which was taken down to build the new foundation. The original adobes for the Block’s site walls came from various sources—some were recycled from two demolished Marfa motels, and many were made on-site until the pits became too big (according to artist Jamie Dearing, Judd’s longtime studio assistant and de facto documentarian from 1968–1983).

Judd favored adobe as a building material and used it often, believing it reflected the local landscape and culture without mimicking the contrived Pueblo style of the Southwest. His walls are famed, and sometimes derided, for their use of cement-stabilized mortar, which creates a lattice of mortar joints as the earthen bricks within erode over time. Schaum says this effect made it easier to cleanly harvest the earth for recycling when demolishing the walls. 

The conspicuously trapezoidal plan derives from the original military layout of the site, which Judd modified only slightly, according to Schaum. There are no known writings or plans for the Winter Garden from Judd himself. Most of what is known about the garden was found on-site or in period photographs taken by either Dearing or Lauretta Vinciarelli, a noted architect and artist who had a personal relationship with Judd and with whom he collaborated on architectural projects. 

While it is not possible presently to pin down any specific contributions of Vinciarelli to the Winter Garden design, there are many drawings by her documenting other designs for exterior spaces at the Block and for other sites in Marfa from the same era. It is safe to say that she was working with Judd at the time the garden was being constructed and that their shared ideas are most likely embedded therein.

While the garden originally featured exotic species plants like bamboo, Judd Foundation president Rainer Judd worked with landscape designer Jim Martinez to ensure the new crop of plantings was native to the local Chihuahuan Desert. Says Judd: “The winter garden plantings are an example of how we can work to restore the imbalance which has been created by man-made decisions in the region. … An integral part of our restoration work at Judd Foundation focuses on the rehabilitation of the ecosystem through the reintroduction of native species.”

I find the Winter Garden exciting because it takes advantage of a small slice of leftover space and creates something novel. Like other spaces at the Block, the garden feels both invested with and haunted by Judd’s clarity of vision and control, a force of will that used physical objects to communicate ideas that continue to resonate with energy and invention.

It’s incredible that we are still untangling Judd’s ideas and efforts. At a 1989 conference in Santa Monica, architects, artists, theorists, and critics came together to discuss the relationship between art and architecture. Before an audience that included Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman, Cesar Pelli, Michael Rotondi, Michael Graves, Robert Irwin, John Chamberlain, Jean-Louis Cohen, and Christopher Knight, among others, Judd introduced himself as an artist and an “uncertified, but active, architect.” 

This confidence no doubt stood out among a group of self-critical architects who profess to enjoy being challenged by others and by circumstances but also lament their lack of freedom as compared with artists. Judd saw no limits for himself or his ideas but did not live long enough to take on larger architectural projects as he intended. Perhaps what we lost in quantity we gained in clarity.  

The Winter Garden can be seen on regular Judd Foundation tours of the Block and during special events. 

Stephen “Chick” Rabourn, AIA, is an architect in Marfa.

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