Small is Beautiful

Upon arriving in Marfa from the east on Route 90, turn left at the Dollar General onto Spring Street and left again across Alamito Creek, onto Dallas Street. This will bring you to the Marfa 10 x 10 Lightbox, a minimal dwelling of 320 sf by San Antonio-based architect Candid Rogers, AIA.

This outpost is an exercise in restraint: Two 10-by-16-ft volumes, a 5:8 proportion, are stacked and offset by 8 ft, creating a double-height interior space and a cantilevered upper room. (For reference, the units of Donald Judd’s nearby concrete works are 1:2 in proportion, measuring about 8 ft, 2.5 in by 16 ft, 5 in, in plan, a clean 2.5-by-5 meters.) The 10 x 10 dwelling is framed conventionally, with 24-ft Microllam beams that run the length of the building to support the suspended second floor. Corrugated Corten steel siding — vertically oriented on the first floor and horizontally on the second — has oxidized, leaving a rusty patina.

The project won AIA Design Awards locally (San Antonio, 2007) and nationally (2008). The Lightbox, explains Rogers, was initially a  “destination of thought,” the altitudinal reward, if you will, of climbing more than 4,000 ft in elevation from the Texas coast into the Chihuahuan Desert. Inspiration came from tours at the Chinati Foundation and numerous walks in the town, on which Rogers noticed the ramshackle agrarian forms and the “utilitarian nature of the ranch structures with simple, single-material cladding[s] and smart orientation.” 

The prominent upper-story window, measuring 10-by-10 ft, speaks to these two influences and can be seen from as far away as San Antonio Street (Route 90). The lower-floor windows are obscured for privacy. The cruciform division echoes the Suprematist window mullions favored by Judd in his renovations, but this reference was not preconceived: Rogers notes that originally the window had “a more abstract, asymmetrical pattern,” but temporary bracing during construction formed this cross, a reference that was noted, deemed appropriate, and preserved.

Since the lot is small, efficiency combined with a desire for elevated views dictated the design. A bathroom and small kitchen on the first

floor open fully to a southern porch shaded by a steel-grate canopy. This indoor/ outdoor arrangement expands the living area to an exterior patio that looks southeast across the plains. The upper bedroom loft, accessible via an alternating-tread stair, looks north through the main window to the Davis Mountains. Thin operable windows puncture the longer elevation, offering cropped glances of the endless landscape.

For Rogers and most others in the town, Marfa’s magic is in its sky. Though small, the house admits light from each of the four cardinal directions: through shaded southern openings, east and west sliders for cross-ventilation (reduced to limit solar gain), and a generous north-facing aperture. Because the three rooms are small and furnished only with basic items, light, as it changes throughout the day and year, becomes the main interior decoration. Rogers poetically describes how, upon waking, “the richness of colored dawn’s light enters the linear, east-facing window at daybreak, as if it were the morning news on the nonexistent television set.”

The architect first designed the Lightbox for himself as a retreat for hosting students and friends, but it has since been sold to an owner who resides primarily in New York City. Such is the Marfa real estate market these days, it seems. “The tiny size of this project, I feel, goes beyond most people’s willingness to use it as a single, permanent residence,” notes Rogers. “I think this type of project is still an anomaly.” While Rogers does see downsizing trends, a cultural shift toward embracing “micro-housing” is still on the fringe of what the mainstream public is looking for in a home. The 10 x 10 Lightbox continues to inspire Rogers’ ideas today, which originate from his imperative to minimize spatial consumption while maximizing experiential aspects. Donald Judd felt similarly, penning a series of theses in 1987 that included a brief fifth directive, titled “Small Is Beautiful.” He wrote: “Never make anything (politically as well) bigger than necessary.” 

Jack Murphy, Assoc. AIA, is a designer at Baldridge Architects in Austin. 

Originally published in the January/February 2015 issue of Texas Architect.