Lake Flato’s Marfa Ranch House emerges as a geometric mound in the Texas desert

Marfa Ranch House designed by Lake Flato appears to have emerged from the landscape of Marfa with its ranch-style design, rammed earth walls and contextual architecture.

by Sunena V MajuPublished on : Oct 03, 2022

Once considered a very radical change in the residential architecture of America, the ranch houses are now stories of the past. Post the Second World War, the house buyers of the United States, who once revolved around the housing sphere under the principles of convenience and resale value turned to innovative, progressive and modern beauty of architecture. It was during this shift of thoughts which created an optimistic approach to everything that the ranch-style homes saw a boom. The 1950s saw a sudden increase in the number of ranch houses around the country, irrespective of geographic location or contextual consideration. What attracted the Americans to it was the open plan, indoor-outdoor relation, the backyards and the linearity of the overall architecture. However, soon the 1960s saw a decline in the style too. Though there was a revival in the 1990s, the ranch-style homes had become a tale of the past, a memory of the American frontier. While many styles, thoughts and philosophies of the past have resurfaced from time to time in the 21st century, modern architects have picked up the ranch homes to give them contemporary alterations. Adapting to new world technologies, contextual architecture and climatic considerations, modern-day ranch houses seem to be an amalgamation of both times. Presenting a modern adaptation of this is the Marfa Ranch House in Texas by American architecture firm Lake Flato.

  • Marfa Ranch House appears to be a modern adaptation of a conventional ranch house | Marfa Ranch House | Lake|Flato | STIRworld
    Marfa Ranch House appears to be a modern adaptation of a conventional ranch house Image: Casey Dunn
  • The residence appears to be a rectangular volume in the middle of the deserted site emerging from within the context | Marfa Ranch House | Lake|Flato | STIRworld
    The residence appears to be a rectangular volume in the middle of the deserted site emerging from within the context Image: Casey Dunn
  • The open flat land demands a thoughtful arrangement of rooms and practical approach to materials to enjoy its challenging environment | Marfa Ranch House | Lake|Flato | STIRworld
    The open flat land demands a thoughtful arrangement of rooms and practical approach to materials to enjoy its challenging environment Image: Casey Dunn
  • Inspired from the area’s earliest structures, the rooms of the house are organised around a courtyard | Marfa Ranch House | Lake|Flato | STIRworld
    Inspired from the area’s earliest structures, the rooms of the house are organised around a courtyard Image: Casey Dunn

In the town of Marfa, between the ecoregion of the Chihuahuan Desert and the rich rugged terrains of Davis Mountains lives a small ranching and art community. A little further from the desert city and its art hub lies the Marfa Ranch where you find a linear earthy form emerging from the ground. In a city that shares its name with the “paranormal phenomena” (as onlookers state), Marfa lights, the presence of this rectangular volume in the middle of the deserted site is a curious case in itself. Adding to this peculiar feature is it's rammed-earth construction which appears to be a continuation of the site, much like a geometric mound that arose from within the ground. In this 495 sqm house, the architects have merged the characteristics of ranch houses and the contemporary architecture of modern American homes.

  • Reflecting on the landscape of the context, the house is built of two-foot-thick walls of rammed earth | Marfa Ranch House | Lake|Flato | STIRworld
    Reflecting on the landscape of the context, the house is built of two-foot-thick walls of rammed earth Image: Casey Dunn
  • The courtyard becomes a cool respite from the sun-drenched desert grasslands beyond the walls | Marfa Ranch House | Lake|Flato | STIRworld
    The courtyard becomes a cool respite from the sun-drenched desert grasslands beyond the walls Image: Casey Dunn
  • The house is situated on a low-rise area providing the residents with dramatic views in all directions | Marfa Ranch House | Lake|Flato | STIRworld
    The house is situated on a low-rise area providing the residents with dramatic views in all directions Image: Casey Dunn

Drawing its inception from an old water cistern which existed on the site, the architects designed the house as an extension of the site’s memory of the past. While holding close to an open floor plan and close-to-the-ground profile, the house is designed to function between the ranch and the courtyard. The functional spaces of the house wrap around the courtyard with parts of the layout grid opening up to the exteriors. Though the residential design presents the house to be a single structure, it takes shape at the convergence of eight volumes. With each of these volumes hosting a different function, they are tied together by the extensive corridors and breezeways lined by a series of recycled oil field pipes. The courtyard design resembles the ranch character with native mesquite trees and a small fount of collected rainwater that extends to the presence of the old water cistern. Contrasting the conventional nature of courtyard houses to look inward, the Marfa Ranch House interestingly connects the exterior landscape to the courtyard.

  • While holding close an open floor plan and close-to-the-ground profile, the house is designed to function between the ranch and the courtyard | Marfa Ranch House | Lake|Flato | STIRworld
    While holding close an open floor plan and close-to-the-ground profile, the house is designed to function between the ranch and the courtyard Image: Casey Dunn
  • The functional spaces of the house are wrapped around the courtyard with parts of the grid opening up to the exteriors | Marfa Ranch House | Lake|Flato | STIRworld
    The functional spaces of the house are wrapped around the courtyard with parts of the grid opening up to the exteriors Image: Casey Dunn
  • The natural textures and layers on the rammed earth wall extend a resemblance to the natural topography of the desert land | Marfa Ranch House | Lake|Flato | STIRworld
    The natural textures and layers on the rammed earth wall extend a resemblance to the natural topography of the desert land Image: Casey Dunn
  • A mirador, perched above the main bedroom, connects the visitor with the remarkable landscape beyond | Marfa Ranch House | Lake|Flato | STIRworld
    A mirador, perched above the main bedroom, connects the visitor with the remarkable landscape beyond Image: Casey Dunn

The material palette adds to the spatial planning that places nature at the centre of architecture. Structuring the modern adaptation of the ranch house in rammed earth architecture elevates the identity of the building to relate more to the context and immediate surroundings. The natural textures and layers on the rammed earth wall extend a resemblance to the natural topography of the desert land. Furthermore, beyond the aesthetics of appearance, the two feet thick walls also act as effective protection from the harsh weather of the region.

  • The thick rammed earth walls protect the house from the extremes of the region | Marfa Ranch House | Lake|Flato | STIRworld
    The thick rammed earth walls protect the house from the extremes of the region Image: Casey Dunn
  • Providing much attention to framing the views, the sill heights of the windows also differ depending on the functions of the space | Marfa Ranch House | Lake|Flato | STIRworld
    Providing much attention to framing the views, the sill heights of the windows also differ depending on the functions of the space Image: Casey Dunn
  • Complementing the rawness of the rammed earth, the interior design uses exposed concrete and wood as the main elements | Marfa Ranch House | Lake|Flato | STIRworld
    Complementing the rawness of the rammed earth, the interior design uses exposed concrete and wood as the main elements Image: Casey Dunn

Occupying different functions such as bedrooms, an office, gym, art studio and the combined space of the kitchen, living and dining areas, each of the volumes hosting these spaces are carefully placed considering the climatic conditions. Providing much attention to framing the views, the sill heights of the windows also differ depending on the functions of the space. The living room is the only space with floor-to-ceiling windows, while the other windows are placed higher to frame the farther horizons. Complementing the rawness of the rammed earth, the interior design uses exposed concrete and wood as the main elements. In a colour palette of natural tones with a significant presence of black, Marfa Ranch House simultaneously expresses a coming together of vernacular architecture and modernism.

  • Contrasting the conventional nature of courtyard houses to look inward, the Marfa Ranch House interestingly connect the exterior landscape to the courtyard | Marfa Ranch House | Lake|Flato | STIRworld
    Contrasting the conventional nature of courtyard houses to look inward, the Marfa Ranch House interestingly connect the exterior landscape to the courtyard Image: Casey Dunn
  • The connection to the larger landscape is a long boardwalk that reaches out and unites the house with an old water cistern | Marfa Ranch House | Lake|Flato | STIRworld
    The connection to the larger landscape is a long boardwalk that reaches out and unites the house with an old water cistern Image: Casey Dunn
  • The building that doesn’t seem forced into the natural landscape of Marfa | Marfa Ranch House | Lake|Flato | STIRworld
    The building that doesn’t seem forced into the natural landscape of Marfa Image: Casey Dunn

While designing for the site, the architects have created a building that doesn’t seem forced into the natural landscape of Marfa. Even at the contemplation of the project, every element and intervention appear to be added to the site without disturbing its actual identity. To frame a residence that feels like home for the user is common but to make a building that feels like home for the site too, takes much understanding of the context in itself. So, while architecture aims to create for its users, what happens when it also exists for the other elements on the site - the tree, waterbody, rock, mounds, and birds? Can architecture help in reviving the relation humans had with nature by designing spaces that accommodate both equally?

Project Details

Name: Marfa Ranch House
Architect: Lake|Flato Architects
General Contractor: Pilgrim Building Company
Landscape Architect: Ten Eyck Landscape Architects
Rammed Earth: Enabler Austin
Mechanical Engineers: MJ Structures; Positive Energy
Building Envelope: Positive Energy
Millwork: Flitch

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