Observing Marfa RenChi

In mega cities with millions of residents, public places with life and vibrancy are commonly expected. Observing dynamics in a high desert small town with only 2000 people could be more fun, for it may lead to better insight into what created RenChi attraction in the large canvas of natural landscape.

Located between the Davis Mountains and Big Bend National Park, Marfa was first founded as a waterstop in the early 1880s. In 1971, minimalist artist Donald moved to Marfa from New York City, later developed a vision of housing large collections of individual artists’ work on permanent display in this area. Today, Marfa is a major center for Minimalist art and tourist destination. While people’s gathering in this town was primarily defined by their interest of art and culture, my Marfa visit was started by deep curiosity into its mysterious social and life style underneath the surface scene of galleries, foundations and art installations.

Initial impression of the place was far from imagined – flat horizon and disperses architectural massing revealed a scale of countryside village, simply developed along two main roads. One cannot immediately experience socially dynamic squares and cute adobe architectural landmarks as memorable moments. But through subtle hints, the art village activities are emerging, from corner galleries, hotel lobbies, vending trailers and its cooling and entertaining evening stop – the bars.

My designer intuition could not help but to spin every episode of Marfa’s common urban landscape tour into a deliberate and compelling story. After whole day of driving, and being transformed by the region’s dramatic landscape and collections of art work, I wandered around to seek relaxing places where people are drawn to – perhaps a healing garden in the tough desert zone. Two music nights at Patres Bar and Planet Marfa beer garden were particularly interesting, as those places illustrated a lot more life and social play than what you would find in Bigger Texas cities’ ice houses or garden spots. As only choices people have in this town for night life, they were rather a mix of complex social agenda and multiple experiences held by tiny public space – a real piazza.

I was impressed by how it may just serve as a perfect example of “The Power of 10+”, which is a concept PPS developed to evaluate and facilitate Placemaking at multiple city scales. The idea behind this concept is that places thrive when users have a range of reasons (10+) to be there. These might include a place to sit, playgrounds to enjoy, art to touch, music to hear, food to eat, history to experience, and people to meet. Ideally, some of these activities will be unique to that particular place, reflecting the culture and history of the surrounding community.

Planet Marfa only occupies a land area less than quarter of a block (about 100 feet X 50 feet), but its locally materialized courtyard and beer garden created more rooms at multiple levels: ground level, balcony and sunken space covered by a yurt structure!… Different types of garden room was curated with different material, canopy, furniture, decoration, ambience, and therefore used for different purposes and activities: seating, socializing, watching music band, dancing, drinking, eating, playing dart, playing ping pong, enjoying art exhibition, enjoying some privacy in minivan, overlooking the garden and crowd from the balcony. The culturally enriched placemaking elements reflected a strong flavor of West Texas architecture and Art, while the big canopy trees enhance a relaxing and informal feeling of the place.

photos by Peiwen Yu

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