Client The Chinati Foundation
Architect Ford, Powell & Carson Architects & Planners
Design Team John Gutzler; Gary Coombs, AIA; Timothy Apgar, AIA;
Adam Reed, AIA; Celeste Taylor; Michelle Rios
Photographer Mark Menjivar
The culmination of a 15-year collaboration, the Robert Irwin Project — the most recent addition to the Chinati Foundation’s permanent collection in Marfa — challenges the traditional division between art and architecture. “It was on our shortlist immediately, because of not only the power of Irwin’s work but the collaboration,” says juror Julie Snow, FAIA. “Where architecture stops and art starts, there’s something incredibly powerful about that blurring and lack of distinction.”
The site had been home to the long-abandoned remnants of a 1919 army barracks, which later served as the hospital for Fort D.A. Russell. With floorboards and roof entirely rotted out, the windowsills of the concrete shell hit just at eye level. Irwin was immediately taken with the framed views of the West Texas landscape created by the unusual sill height — just a sliver of land with an expanse of sky — calling to mind similar compositions found in Dutch landscape painting. The artist, Chinati Foundation board, and architects Ford, Powell & Carson (FP&C) struggled for years to save the old hospital. However, because of the building’s unreinforced concrete walls, somewhat irregular window spacing, and wings that weren’t quite parallel, the team opted to construct a new building to precisely execute Irwin’s vision, while preserving the memory of the old hospital in the new design.
Symmetric along its north-south axis, the U-shaped building sits atop the original footprint of the ruins and surrounds a central courtyard containing a 250,000-lb installation of basalt pillars, placed slightly off-center to break the project’s otherwise perfect symmetry. Visitors may enter through either wing after passing through an open-air antechamber that references the decaying structure of the former ruins. All 92 windows have slightly canted sills placed at a 61-in height, preserving the “big sky” views of the Chihuahuan Desert that had inspired Irwin.
While the project is formally symmetric, the east and west wings are distinct in their opposing themes of dark and light, respectively. The east wing features tinted windows and two closely spaced, 160-ft-long black scrims centered along the corridor — and the west wing, white scrims with ultra-clear Starphire glass windows. The connecting corridor contains a series of single scrims — three black and three white — that create multiple thresholds between dark and light. Even the facade reflects this division between the two halves, with the building’s heavy dash plaster walls transitioning between two slightly different grays at its center line.
The seemingly simple project required meticulous detailing to execute. FP&C principal John Gutzler says: “Our job was to take it into reality. You can’t have the art in a free-standing building without the architecture, so we became technical experts to make it an artwork.”
Juror Andy Tinucci, AIA, summed it up by pointing out how the project highlights the “potential for architects and practitioners in other fields — artists, filmmakers, photographers — to truly collaborate on environments that we all benefit from, environments that expand our culture’s potential to express itself and leave behind a legacy and a memory.”
Anastasia Calhoun, Assoc. AIA, works at Overland Partners in San Antonio.