The absence of descriptive or obvious stylistic embellishment creates an aesthetic so spare that it is, at times, almost aggressive.
—Karen Stein, “The Plain Beauty of Well-Made Things”
In January 1972 the artist Donald Judd moved to the “utter isolation” of Marfa, Texas, to escape the growing commercialism of the New York City art scene. It was in Marfa, surrounded by the open desert landscape, that he sought to build a world for himself, for his family, and for his work—while simultaneously maintaining a property on Spring Street in SoHo.
In 1978, supported by the Dia Art Foundation, Judd acquired the site of former Fort D. A. Russell, now the Chinati Foundation, subsequently opened to the public with the mission to preserve and present art in direct dialogue with the landscape. Originally conceived to present the work of Donald Judd, John Chamberlain, and Dan Flavin, the foundation has expanded to include pieces by many other artists including Carl Andre, Ingólfur Arnarsson, Roni Horn, Ilya Kabakov, Richard Long, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, David Rabinowitch, and John Wesley. Each artist is exhibited in the renovated military buildings on the 340-acre site, creating a campus of autonomous buildings, each with a specific relationship to the landscape. The foundation is unique in its treatment of art and its context as a permanent condition. By always positioning art within a landscape, the work is continuously defined by its surroundings: its scale, its expanse, its relationship to the sky and to the horizon, to the desert and to the terrain. This permanence between art and landscape creates a unique terrain in which work can be experienced as stable artifacts, “specific objects” unbeholden to the increasingly market-driven world of art.
Today, however, Marfa is firmly on the international art map. No longer a place where “only 10 visitors might drift in annually,” by 2016 the number of visitors had risen to 40,000, such that Marfa is now “popularly perceived as an outpost of Manhattan in Far West Texas” (Josh Franco).
The impact of this growing popularity has been mixed; and nowhere is this more visible than in the experience of visiting Marfa. Judd’s exceptional artwork is carefully curated by the Chinati Foundation and by the Judd Foundation, with thought given to the establishment of artists’ residencies. Visitors’ accommodations, on the other hand, are provided by commercial ventures more typical of the generic American built landscape. As a result, while the architecture of Judd’s work has lost little of its power, the architecture that has grown up to service those who travel through the desert of West Texas to experience his work is notably less compelling: the growing popularity of Marfa has been accompanied by a robust growth in the banality, both cheap and expensive, that supplies the demand for accommodations. This poses a challenge to those who are committed both to preserving the qualities that first attracted Judd to Marfa, and to deepening the impact of Judd’s legacy.
This studio aims to respond to this condition by proposing more satisfying alternatives for the visitor that might offer a more immersive experience of the place and of Judd’s work than is currently afforded. Students are therefore asked to design accommodations not for artists, but for visitors. There will be three components: a point of arrival, a common space, and individual sleeping accommodations. The first two are to be located on a site within the city limits of Marfa; the nature and location of the third is negotiable.
Students may, within certain constraints, determine the scale and the site for their individual projects, and are free to define the precise nature of their proposals. The governing intent, however, is to permit an experience of Marfa that engages as directly as possible both with the nature of the place—landscape, material, light, climate, and history—and with the specific concerns of Judd’s work. Students may wish to learn from precedents that are programmatically related, such as the cabin at the Dia Art Foundation’s Lightning Field. Alternatively, they may draw on typologies—such as pilgrims’ hostels or monastic guesthouses—that ostensibly serve different ends. The scale of their projects can be small; but ultimately the studio aims to propose a model that might be more broadly influential.
The student must choose a single material that serves as part of the visual expression of the architecture. This material will not only influence the project’s structural and tectonic ordering system, but will also profoundly affect the architecture’s relationship to the landscape.
The project will also present an opportunity to critique the project of Marfa. Although originally intended to create a space in which art could exist apart from the culture of consumption, Marfa now participates in that same culture it tried to escape, perpetuating the partnership between art and capital. How can a project reveal and undermine this capitulation? In what ways can a new space in Marfa interrogate Judd’s original intentions and reclaim an ethos of restraint, clarity, and autonomy? Both in practice and in the academy, there is a constant swing between an over-rationalized (didactic) architecture and subjective formal expression. This studio will aim for pure form, moving past narrative, image, and abstraction to experience. It will accept the uncomfortable and unresolvable realities of design as it grapples with several key questions: Is it possible to create architecture which is not an abstraction? Is an unselfconscious form possible? Is it possible to reconcile architecture with the landscape, without compromising the integrity of either? Projects should aim at pursuing an idea of form that is both archetypical and decisive, evading the anecdotal and the symbolic. What are the spatial and territorial implications of an enclave within a desert? The studio will explore the contested sovereignties between art and architecture, between interior and exterior, investigating notions of the precinct, the portal, the facade, and the threshold.
Before traveling to Marfa, each student will conduct a series of spatial experiments, presented in the form of models, designing a set of interior rooms without an exterior form, open only to the sky. Through a sequencing of spaces for living—sleeping, bathing, dining, leisure—each project will interrogate the territoriality of the interior: a building full of rooms, without exterior form or facade. This ritualized interior will be an opportunity to develop the intimate spaces of living independent of external pressures from landscape and context.
During Travel Week the studio will visit Marfa according to the following (provisional) itinerary: Mon. 2/11 am travel to Potomac, MD (Glenstone Museum), pm travel to Dallas/Fort Worth, TX Tue. 2/12 in Dallas/Fort Worth, TX (Kimbell Art Museum and Nasher Sculpture Center) Wed. 2/13 am travel to El Paso, TX, and on to Marfa, TX Thu. 2/14 in Marfa, TX (Chinati Foundation) Fri. 2/15 in Marfa, TX (Judd Foundation) Sat. 2/16 pm return to New Haven.
Earlier in the semester the studio will also plan a tour of Judd’s residence and studio at 101 Spring Street in New York City, to be coordinated with a visit to the offices of Thomas Phifer and Partners.