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"Fifty-Five New Ways of Looking at Marfa," Texas Architect (FEATURED WORK)

Excerpt: 

"Marfa. Say it loud and there’s music playing. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying. Say it three times and it acquires a shrill, Brady Bunch-esque insistence: Marfa, Marfa, Marfa! Stories of a transcendent escape to here are heard everywhere, and are met with a supportive ear or a dismissive smirk, depending on the listener’s persuasion. The town is undeniably in the midst of a boom as its cultural star soars ever higher, thanks to the hard work of its artist-citizens. Their efforts offer serious reasons to visit, beyond the more important smorgasbord of celestial beauty or, below, the rolling high desert landscape itself.1 Take, for example, a possible schedule at this year’s CineMarfa festival: Where else could one screen an Agnès Varda film, participate in an afternoon video synthesis workshop, and, later, eat Thai food and watch a free Tortoise concert inside a former lumberyard? Only in Marfa, as they say.

When the town was featured on 60 Minutes in 2013, Morley Safer offered reductive descriptions of the town’s “artful coexistence” between “cowboys and culture,” but a clear evolution was present in this “capital of quirkiness,” obvious even in national television coverage. Though still thoroughly addressing the long shadow of Donald Judd’s life and work, the town supports new generations of working artists in addition to the more steadfast economies of Border Patrol exercises and ranch operations. A split between locals and artist types is an easy — and still mostly accurate — binary classification, but the truth acquires complexity as the factions mix and as artist types establish sincere roots in this remote outpost.

Marfa’s tourist economy has grown considerably in recent years, but it remains strapped for adequate lodging. According to a 2015 Big Bend Sentinel article by Sasha von Oldershausen, Marfa had at least 12,493 visitors but only 104 hotel rooms in four establishments (not counting the funkier, camp-like accommodations at El Cosmico, or the many vacation rentals). Meanwhile, Alpine, to the east, recorded only 4,461 visitors but sports over 600 hotel rooms. Weddings or large events in Marfa saturate the available lodgings, leaving the overflow visitors to spend their nights and dollars elsewhere. Due to the demand, there are many VRBO or Airbnb vacation rentals, a trend that increases housing costs for the town, putting further pressure on its lower-income residents.2 Visitors now arrive in about the same numbers to see art as they do to see the Big Bend region’s “beautiful country mountains,” as Donald Judd himself wrote to his mother via telegram in 1946 when he saw the region for the first time. Constant promotion through celebrity sightings and rave travel reviews shapes the town’s cultural image around a core practice of high desert bohemian relaxation — New York City prices in a Trans-Pecos environment. Throughout, cooler-than-thou insider zingers abound (make no mistake; this is one of them).3

Tourism is a double-edged exchange. Von Oldershausen wrote: “To those who reside in Marfa, the incessant tide of tourists has become an ever-present reality and, at times, the source of vague amusement. And yet, this is also the source of its survival.” The prose invites a comparison to water’s power in arid lands: A constant trickle with seasonal downpours supports life as we know it, but unnatural deluges alter the ecology of a place. Such is the context for Marfa’s recently opened Hotel Saint George." Full Text

-Jack Murphy, Assoc. AIA

Carlos Jimenez