29. Marfa, TX

Adapted from Wikipedia's TX county maps by Set...
Image via Wikipedia

Plenty of architects plan vacations around a famous building. Architravels are not uncommon among the most dedicated and passionate designers. There is an innate desire to experience first hand the great buildings of starchitects and underdogs alike. Historical buildings and modern creations make the must-see list: St. Peter’s Basilica, the Eiffel Tower, the Guggenheim. All of these great buildings made important impacts on both society and architects alike. The list goes on to include opera houses, theaters, civic buildings, courthouses, and private residences usually scattered throughout Europe. All of these places show up on the architect’s bucket list in well deserved slots. If you were to hand the list to any non-architecture person, the various locations would come as no surprise as a vacation destination. However, the reader would give pause when they came to one particular name on the list: Marfa, TX.

While any other location on the architravels list would make perfect sense, this one stands out from among the rest. As a town of just over 2,000 people in the middle of rural west Texas, Marfa has little more than a VFW, courthouse and city park. Yet architects hold Marfa in such high esteem that many make annual pilgrimages there to volunteer at the Chinati Foundation’s Open House. Never mind the fact that accommodations include sleeping on the floor of the VFW or that the architect will spend most of his time telling visitors not to touch the metal boxes that would entice even the most disciplined art lover to caress one.

The Arena at Chinati Foundation, Marfa, TX.

Image via Wikipedia

For European sites, the draw is obvious: a plethora of culture, history, and romantic ambiance. As for Marfa, concrete and metal sculptures seem to have the same pull for architects. Maybe it’s something in the water that keeps them coming back. Possibly its the thrill of discovering the phenomenon behind the ‘Marfa Lights’ that entices architects here year after year.

Perhaps architects are drawn here because it is a place that boasts of ‘art and design’ in such a way that commands anyone with artistic or creative inclination to seek it out; once the truth of Marfa is revealed (a middle-of-nowhere town with some shiny boxes on exhibit), the architect tries to save face among his other designer friends by exaggerating the pleasantries of Marfa and in doing so, perpetuates the mystery of the place. Maybe Marfa is the place that architects can go to feel like hipsters, and can claim that they ‘get it’ to their less traveled friends as they relate useless tales of philosophical conversations had around campfires that ‘inspired them’ to be a better designer.

Donald Judd's Boxes - Marfa, Texas

Image by OneEighteen via Flickr

Quite possibly, architects might actually like shiny and smooth surfaces enough to drive over six hours from the nearest big city just for the chance to touch a Donald Judd box. That may explain why the rest of the architects go: to feel incredibly powerful as they tell the architect that just drove over six hours, “please don’t touch the art,” and watch him squirm in agonizing defeat.

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  • It seems to me that this Marfa phenomenon is a bad case of “the Emperor’s new clothes”, and you are the brave innocent child who had the nerve (and wit) to proclaim that he is in fact naked. Brava!

    • haha, great analogy 🙂 It is definitely a quiet, serene place, but I just don’t understand the huge draw. So many architects I know are obsessed with Marfa. Maybe I’m missing something.

  • Edwinarkie

    We like these shiny boxes because they are magical.   My eighth grade son, unhappy at being dragged to this place, angrily plopped down at the end of the room and stared at the boxes.  They seduced him. He found all manner of interesting things that I had not seen from above.

    • I agree – they are magical! I must have taken dozens of photos of the same box “because the light hits it different now!” Thanks for stopping by.

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