Intersecting Interests

In 1971, the Los Angeles-based artist Robert Irwin embarked on a solitary driving tour of the country’s perimeter. A year earlier, he had completed an installation at the Museum of Modern Art that — while unnoted by the art world — had led to an important personal breakthrough, leading him to leave his studio for good and embark on a new phase of a career in which he has routinely questioned and shed the inessential. The MOMA installation transformed a small, squat room through three site-specific interventions indicated by the title of the work: ”Fractured Light” — “Partial Scrim Ceiling” — “Eye Level Wire." For the first time, “instead of overlaying my ideas onto that space, that space overlaid itself on me.” 

At a rest stop in West Texas — seemingly in the middle of nowhere — Irwin sat with his customary Coke in hand, when by chance his friend Donald Judd walked by. Judd, then based in New York, was contemplating the creation of a new form of museum, one that would house installations in a permanent space intended for that purpose. “Somewhere, a portion of contemporary art has to exist as an example of what the art and its context were meant to be,” Judd later wrote. Irwin and Judd discussed their work, then parted ways. This chance encounter would be their first and only meeting in Marfa, Texas.

Judd realized his vision on the former site of Fort D.A. Russell in Marfa, with the establishment of the Chinati Foundation in the late 1970s. The almost-too-good-to-be-true story comes around full circle with a major project by Irwin, now 87, set to open this summer at the location of the fort’s former hospital. It will be Irwin’s largest permanent project and the only free-standing structure dedicated to his work. “There’s no place you can go to see the quintessential Irwin artwork,” says Jenny Moore, executive director of Chinati. “We’re incredibly honored to do this for Bob, and, frankly, for art.”

Built in 1919 as a barracks and converted to a hospital in 1921, the 13,000-sf, C-shaped building had concrete walls and floors, and a tar-paper roof. When Irwin first encountered the hospital in 1999, it was in ruins. The floors and roof were gone. Walking between the crumbling walls, Irwin was struck by the “Dutch-landscape” view captured by the 3-ft-by-5-ft window openings that ran along the walls in rough 10-ft intervals. Framing a view 18 inches higher in the absence of a floor, the line of windows revealed a thin strip of land while exaggerating the expanse of sky so quintessential to the West Texas landscape. “I fell in love with the building from the very beginning,” said Irwin, in a 2012 interview. He described it as “very functional, very straightforward, low-key, but … amazingly right for that situation.” 

Irwin considered several schemes throughout the project’s 15-year gestation. Early proposals preserved the existing structure in its dilapidated state, introducing additional elements such as a wooden lattice structure in one version and translucent colored roofs and windows in another. The final scheme is a strategic reconstruction — facilitated by San Antonio-based firm Ford, Powell & Carson — that retains the footprint and general volume of the original building while 

elevating its capacity for heightened perception through refined proportion, rhythm, and light. A further series of interventions divides the building experientially into light and dark.

Though the project is under construction, the essentials — floor, roof, walls, and openings — are in place. In the center of the courtyard sits a magnificent cluster of basalt rock pillars. The pillars, which rise from the back to confront the entry, are bound by Corten edging and will be flanked by two rows of paloverde trees. Visitors may enter the building from either wing, and the gable roofs have been pulled back to create transitional vestibules open to the sky. The concrete floor sits below the original elevation, and the windows have been placed at 61 inches, preserving the view inspired by the ruins. The concrete floors and plaster walls will be tinted white in the west wing and gray in the east. These 200-ft-long wings will be bisected lengthwise by a floor-to-ceiling scrim that catches the ever-shifting light from the rhythmic windows. The windows will be manipulated with tinted film in a pattern yet to be determined. The impossibility of visualizing such interventions is inherent in Irwin’s work, which requires one’s presence to perceive the heightened conditions of space and light he has created.

Over the past 16 years, FP&C has played a critical, though quiet, role at Chinati, renovating the barracks and stables for the Dan Flavin Installation, Wesley Gallery, and Temporary Gallery. Though the Irwin Project shares similarities with the previous Chinati renovations — exposed concrete floors, heavy-dash plaster, and corrugated metal roofs — the elevated role of this building calls for heightened detailing and materials. “There’s been a huge effort to make [the building] fit in, but make it just a bit more special,” says FP&C Principal John Gutzler. Such details can be seen in the roof, with a deeper overhang, paired fir outriggers, and a thin steel edge; in the extra deep 16-in structural CMU walls; and in the custom windows, designed to disappear. 

Irwin’s decision to rebuild the hospital brings to mind the following statement from Judd, in reference to the Fort Russell structures: “Due to the prior existence of the buildings, my interest here in architecture is secondary. If I could start over, the two interests would be congruent.” Though Irwin’s conception is not parallel (the building remains the generator), the project represents a new phase in his trajectory. Intervention and site have merged. It is thus a slight departure from other projects — the lower Central Garden at the Getty Center, and Dia:Beacon — in which he has already dismissed disciplinary boundaries between art, architecture, and landscape architecture.  “Nothing can exist in the world independent of all the other things in the world,” says Irwin. Come July, the resulting insights of the integration will be revealed. 

Jen Wong is the director and curator of the Materials Lab at The University of Texas at Austin.

Originally published in the March/April 2016 issue of Texas Architect.