When architect Michael Morrow of Kinneymorrow Architecture redesigned this classic house in Marfa, Texas, he had two things top of mind: light and mindset.
The light in this West Texas town is often remarked upon. “It’s one of those places where the light has a special quality about it,” says Morrow. “It seems to imbue the place with a unique nature, and it’s one of the things that draws people here.”
Mindset is a bit harder to define. “It’s very calming to the mind to visit the desert,” says Morrow. “After you’ve been here a bit, you feel like you’ve reset.”
That’s precisely what Lye (he goes by a single name) and Joy Ohara (his ex-wife) wanted Morrow to perform on the old adobe brick house they christened the “Joy House”: a reset. The phrase “turn-of-the-century adobe” likely brings a certain romantic picture to mind. That is not what this home looked like when the couple purchased it.
“The original structure had been added onto over the years, with additions happening in the early 1900s and 1920s—it just kept getting longer and longer. In the end, it had three units,” explains Morrow. “As the years went by, it had become buried under decisions that were pragmatic, weird, and just plain bad. A lot of the job involved stripping back the layers and bringing it back to what it had been.”
But Morrow did more than conjure the past; he wrote the next chapters of the building’s future. The original dwelling was a row of adobe brick units. To those, Morrow added modern additions. The spaces between them became courtyards.
The long roofline of the original building is now home to a series of five “lanterns” (tall, angular structures with windows along the north side) that let light into the building. “This style is notoriously dark on the interior,” says Morrow. “The lanterns capture the light and direct it inside. They make a regular pattern on the exterior and, through the light they let in, on the interior as well. Inside, they become something like a camera for the the sky.”
On the exterior of the original structure, you can see the original plaster finish that covers the adobe brick. The beginning of the new is marked by a material shift from earthen bricks to sheets of corrugated fiber cement from Marley Eternit. “The new material starts on the roof, and then wraps down and around the new addition,” Morrow says. “This material is perfect for the desert. The corrugated form vents itself, which helps with heat gain. It doesn’t rust or warp, and it blends with the palate of the desert.”
Pairing very modern additions with very old architecture might sound like a study in contrasts. But the truth is the old and the new have more in common than you might think.
“Minimalism has dipped in and out of architectural history,” says Morrow. “Once we removed the tacky, misguided features from the old adobe, it was essentially a minimalist building. The unadorned, gray-cement-stucco interior and the clean modern addition live comfortably together. In some ways, it’s like the lines are blurred between them.”
The new aesthetic takes a cue from some of the oldest built environments that exist: temples and monasteries. “There’s something monastic about the place,” Morrow says of the house, which has no television or Wi-Fi. “When you step into this home, you have the feeling of stepping out of everyday life. I’m not going to say I modeled it after a church or a religious building, but the way the light comes in, coupled with the heavy masonry, references certain sacred spaces. When you are inside, your eyes are constantly drawn upward.”
At first, Lye’s feelings for the home were more corporeal than ethereal. “Like Donald Judd, my then-wife and I were drawn to Marfa by the light and sky,” he says. “I am from Malaysia and live in Berkeley. I am used to lush environments. Even though I love the bold-strokes lushness of Berkeley, Marfa is a beautiful contrast, in a dramatically more spare and stark way."
Ohara, who loves modernism but has since moved on from the project, was drawn to the challenge of remaking the building. Lye was attracted by the central location and rental income. “I’m a real estate investor, so those elements appealed to me. I liked the way the numbers pencilled out,” he says.
But a funny thing happened during the designing and remodeling of the project—he started to appreciate it for more than its monetary value. Today, he keeps one unit for himself and uses the others for guests or as artists’ retreats. “It turned out better than I ever expected,” Lye says. “In the mornings when the sun comes in at a certain angle, it’s like living inside my own personal James Turrell.”
That said, he’s not sure that he could live in the house full time. “For long-term living, it’s almost too spartan,” Lye says. “But as a retreat, it’s perfect. It’s a true escape from chaos.”
The contractor for this project was Billy Marginot.