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Marfa state of mind

An adobe dwelling is reborn a modern, monastic home

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.”

A vintage metal chair hangs from the ceiling. It’s decorated by pillows crafted to look like stones. A bed is visible through the doorway. Walls are troweled gray concrete.
A vintage chair hangs near the entrance to the bedroom.
A corrugated, gray siding covers the new part of the building.
The roof and the facade of the new addition are clad in a corrugated fiber cement from Marley Eternit.

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.”

A large, black steel island is surrounded by metal and wood stools and topped by a line of black light fixtures.
In the kitchen, the custom steel island is topped by black Isaac pendants from Schoolhouse Electric. The Covey stools are by James Covey.
A rock is displayed as an accessory.
A rock from the building site is displayed on a concrete counter.

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.”

A black wood stove is centerstage in the living room. It has a modern Eames chair and two low stools in front of it.
A Stûv cube stove is the focal point in the living room. It’s fronted by an Eames fiberglass chair and a pair of Alvar Aalto stools.

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.”

Tall, gable-like structures line the roof. They have windows on the sides that allow a diffused light to enter the house.
Architect Michael Morrow designed a series of what he calls lanterns for the roof of the house. They allow a diffuse light to enter the once-dark interior.
A photo of Lye, the homeowner. He’s a man with dark hair and glasses.
At first Lye appreciated the home for its development potential. Later, he came to respect and value the design.
Carlos Chavarría

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.”

A red and brown blanket on the bed makes a bright spot of color in the neutral environment.
A striped Desert blanket from Garza Marfa provides a splash of vivid color in the neutral environment.
The bathroom has a black vanity, black countertop, and black faucet. The shower curtain is pure white. A single bulb is the light fixture.
In the bathroom, the vanity features a fixture from Astra Walker and Paperstone countertops. City pendants from Schoolhouse Electric hang overhead.
A brown leather sofa sits beneath a large window seat.
A Saporiti Onda sofa by Giovanni Offredi sits beneath one of the lanterns on the roof.

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.”

A night shot of the home shows light pouring from the skylights and windows.
In the evening, the building glows from within.

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.