September 13, 2018

KinneyMorrow Architecture Brings the Marfa Sunshine Inside

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.

Behind the Design of an Adobe Abode in Marfa

A wood burning stove in a room with gray walls and a brown couch with a cowhide rug
Light from one of the “lanterns” filters into the living room just above the wood-burning stove. Photography by Casey Dunn.

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 Marginot, the decision was made to take the 2,875-square-foot structure 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.

A Materials Palette That Reflects the Local Landscape

The kitchen features gallerylike white walls and a black island with minimalist stools and handing black light fixtures
All kitchen appliances are concealed in the quartz-topped island; the stools are by Jeff Covey. Photography by Casey Dunn.

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 lightboxes 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.”

Natural Light Informs KinneyMorrow Architecture’s Design

Adobe walls in the primary bedroom are gray
Finished with a layer of Portland cement, the adobe walls in the primary bedroom serve as the headboard to the custom bed. Photography by Casey Dunn.

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 design,” 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. “The house,” he marvels, “has turned out to be an objet d’art.”

Art hangs on the living room wall near a leather brown sofa and a skylight
Hot Dog Wrapper by Isaac Layman hangs on one living room wall. Photography by Casey Dunn.
Pebble pillow accent a vintage hanging chair near the bedroom door
Pebble pillows accent a vintage hanging chair, while floors throughout are poured concrete ground down to reveal the aggregate and then sealed with a matte finish. Photography by Casey Dunn.
The exterior of the home features a ground-level patio
Morrow added five light boxes on the roof, all sided with Eternit, a corrugated fiber cement material that evokes the metal roofs that are a staple for agricultural buildings. Photography by Casey Dunn.

Project Sources: Eternit: Light Box Cladding (Exterior). Schoolhouse Electric: Pendant Lights (Kitchen). Stûv: Wood-Burning Stove (Living Room). Saporiti Italia: Sofa. Garza Marfa: Steel-and-Wood Stools (Living Room); Blanket (Bedroom). Marginot Builders: General Contractor.

Images and excerpted text from Texas Made/Texas Modern: The House and the Land, to be published in October, appear courtesy of The Monacelli Press.

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