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Marfa Lights

With help from architect Michael Morrow, a former boarding house in West Texas becomes a quiet escape for a Houston art collector.

Light from one of the light boxes filters into the living room just above the built-in shelves and the Stuv wood-burning stove.

 

The following is an excerpt from Texas Made/Texas Modern: The House and the Land ($50, monacellipress.com), which debuts Oct. 16.

Marfa has become a destination, if not a refuge, for many city dwellers looking for peace and quiet. They cite the arid high-desert landscape as one reason; the steadfast linearity of its long horizon seems calming. There is magic in Marfa, too, in the vast sky and the light that accompanies this wide-open space—so much of it unencumbered by intervening objects such as trees, buildings, power lines, and other flotsam of modern life. In addition, the sky is an ever-changing scene, and residents enjoy watching storms roll in and stars glitter against the black night sky.

These elements inspired the renovation of a former boarding house near downtown Marfa. The globe-trotting owner, a native of a distant rain-forest region who had moved to Houston, is an art collector. In 2012 he made the nine-hour trek from Houston to Marfa to see the aluminum cubes and other work by Donald Judd as well as Dan Flavin’s large-scale pieces in colored fluorescent light on display at the Chinati Foundation. He came to appreciate the easy sociability of the tiny metropolis of 1,747 residents and decided to buy a building. “It was a bit of a beast,” the owner recalls about the much-amended long rectangular structure that had been divided into four units to accommodate workers at a nearby tomato farm. At some point in the past, a long porch was added to the back, and it had both stylistically and functionally become an essential part of the house. With the help of Houston architect Michael Morrow and Marfa-based builder Billy Maginot, the decision was made to take the house down to the original adobe, a material that is often used in the area because it can be sourced on site. Its components—mostly earth, water, and straw or dung—are perfectly suited to the climate there, and its earthiness grounded the renovated building in its setting.

As the inspiration for his redesign of the long adobe residence, architect Michael Morrow referenced ranch utility buildings that are ubiquitous in most of Texas. He added five light boxes on the roof, all sided with Eternit, a corrugated fiber cement material that evokes the corrugated metal roofs that are a staple for agricultural buildings, but in a softer and more textured version. 

That act of grounding, though, presented a problem for both architect and client: The street-level views of nearby dwellings were uninspiring, and the house was dark. Morrow wondered how to embrace the sky, which was what had attracted the peripatetic client to Marfa in the first place. “It dawned on me,” he explains, “to put light boxes on the roof so that the house would have views of the sky and also would have light inside.” The architect designed five “lanterns,” each with glass windows on its south-facing side. The boxes slice east and west, through the roof and into the ceiling, opening up to the interior spaces. “As soon as the sun comes up,” says Morrow, “light begins to move through the building, changing from minute to minute as the day progresses.” For the owner, a frequent visitor to the James Turrell light composition Twilight Epiphany Skyspace at Rice University, the ever-changing display of the materiality of light in his own home was a revelation. “Light has become an active component of the house,” he says. At night, too, even without the benefit of illumination, the repetition of rectangular shapes that constitute the house’s facade confer on it a primal appeal. “Its profile looks like Stonehenge,” the owner observes. And, as befits a place where the importance of art is honored, the owner has discovered that his dwelling developed an identity all its own. “The house,” he says, “has turned out to be an objet d’art.”