Between Green and Violet

It’s easy to fall in love with Marfa, Texas. The effort of getting there is rewarded by the treasures revealed — Donald Judd’s perfect metal boxes, his Chinati Foundation’s rows of barracks filled with world-class art, the galleries and art studios. There’s the historic town square with its Second Empire style courthouse, and the beauty of the landscape — the desert; the scrubby plains; the crisp, clean air; the darkest of dark skies at night; and the unyieldingly bright sun by day — it’s a unique experience. 

For architect Rand Elliott, FAIA, who lives and works in Oklahoma City but is licensed in Texas as well, the Marfa experience is powerful. He and his wife Jeanette have been going back and forth to Marfa for some 20 years, he says, and it was at his suggestion that his friend Christian Keesee came to the town to evaluate it as a place to locate a first satellite extension of the Oklahoma Contemporary Art Center (OCAC), which he founded. Keesee was smitten. “It was just right,” says Elliott. “There is a legacy of great art in Marfa, and a kind of independence.”

Those attributes were channeled into the OCAC’s Marfa Contemporary, a 4,720-sf adaptive reuse of an old gas station building. Located at one corner of the only stoplight in this 2,000-person town, the 1940s Gulf gas station/Chrysler dealership was transformed into a 2,156-sf gallery, administration offices, an artist-in-residence studio, a pizza restaurant, a small car-sharing rental office, and indoor and outdoor dining areas. Elliott is no stranger to adaptive reuse, and he chose to embrace the raw qualities of the original structure. “It’s a simple building,” he says, “and without working too hard we wanted to show something new and non-intrusive.”

The interiors very much retain their auto-shop feel, especially in the gallery, which juxtaposes roll-up doors and modified bitumen roof, along with a single-slope linear skylight, against the modern art on the walls. Lighting was carefully placed to allow the sun to do most of the work without damaging the art. The place shows art by respected contemporary artists both local and global, including photographs by Canadian rocker and artist Bryan Adams and Marfa-based painter Ann Marie Nafziger. The quirky building somehow makes the ultra contemporary artwork seem less precious, which Keesee says is his intention, as educating the public about modern art without pretension is the organization’s goal. “It is important that Marfa Contemporary be totally non-intimidating and 100 percent accessible,” he says, “both from the obvious perspective of a visitor who may have some type of physical challenge, but also from the point of view of a visitor who has never visited an art gallery before. Rand’s design is forward thinking, clear, crisp and uncluttered. The reuse and reinterpretation of the building fit with the style of the organization, but also are in keeping with the minimalist aesthetic of Marfa.” 

Honoring the building’s past lives was important to the project. Elliott incorporated the old Gulf station’s original blue and orange into the design, leaving the orange door where it was on what is now the artist studio, and incorporating blue accents throughout the exterior, 

including a translucent blue polyurethane canopy over the entry. “The light in Marfa is overbearing,” says Keesee. “Especially in the summer when the sun is so intense, I sometimes wish I could wear two pairs of sunglasses. The entry cover lets in some sunlight but also casts a magnificent blue hue over the area. It’s good-looking.” 

In architecture and beyond, Elliott’s creative vision is wide ranging. He finds poetry in everything he does — he’s published a book called “Word Paintings,” full of eloquent musings on form and beauty and, yes, color — but he says the architecture he designs always comes from a place of intention. “I’m not a free-form creator,” he says. “I’m not Zaha Hadid. Those buildings are works of art.” Elliott never uses color “for the sake of decoration,” he says, “but always to accomplish a certain thing. It’s purposeful.”  The architect’s considered approach to color is a thread that runs through the course of his career. “My thesis in college at Oklahoma State University was called ‘Form, Color, and Structure,’ ” he says; “the use of color has always been important in my work.” 

In fact, the Marfa Contemporary, with its brilliant but monochrome presence, barely hints at Elliott’s simultaneously whimsical and pragmatic use of color in other projects. The four parking structures he recently designed for Oklahoma City-based oil and gas company Chesapeake Corporation provide a startlingly modern contrast. Parking structures are, as a rule, dark and scary — unattractive afterthoughts to the main structures they accompany. Not so, the five parking garages (or “car parks”) decorating the 120-acre headquarters campus of Chesapeake Corporation. Through thoughtful application of dramatic lighting in the structures, Elliott fully transforms a building type that’s usually functional at best. The car parks have been described as “uplifting” and “surprising” by visitors, which is just what Elliott intended. With central atriums that direct air circulation through the buildings, the five parking structures use high-efficiency fluorescent lighting on the interiors. Cold, cathode lighting serves a practical purpose, separating floors by color to make wayfinding easy — creating, in addition, an architectural phenomenon.

“My work is very purposeful,” he says, “with a point of view involved.” In his Chesapeake car parks, Elliott’s point of view about the value of color, both aesthetically and functionally, is abundantly clear. He deploys color as wayfinding mechanism, as an impression-builder, and as a way to make you smile. “It’s never color for the sake of decoration,” he says, “but always to accomplish a certain thing.” 

The Marfa Contemporary, so different in spirit and execution from the Oklahoma car parks, displays both that discipline and its brilliant execution — hallmarks of Elliott’s approach — in action.

Ingrid Spencer is the newly appointed executive director of AIA Austin.

Originally published in the May/June 2015 issue of Texas Architect.