Becky’s Birthday

As Laugier’s hut contrasted with the excess of its rococo context, so this modest ranch shelter provides an antidote to the intemperance of contemporary architecture.

Plagued by an acceleration of excess and bombast, architecture periodically needs a course correction, a return to what is fundamental and authentic. Just as Marc-Antoine Laugier’s primitive hut contrasted with the excess of its rococo context, so a modest, elegant ranch shelter near Garden City, in West Texas, provides an antidote to the intemperance of contemporary architecture. Designed by Rhotenberry Wellen Architects, it stands as a basic response to the circumstances that bred it.

The client, Becky Reynolds Cotton, grew up nearby, part of a prominent West Texas landowning family. She purchased the 14,000-acre Flying B Ranch in the mid 1990s to consolidate her holdings in the area. Cotton asked architect Mark Wellen, whom she had known for 20 years, to design a shelter for the property where she could stay while doing business in the district. Wellen’s first scheme occupied the most luscious site on the ranch – hard beside a spring-fed creek and a spectacular pecan tree. Complications of the flood plain and extremely high foundation costs moved both client and architect to reject the scheme. The original dramatic, but troublesome site was replaced by an amenable clearing 100 yards away, adjacent to a compound of existing ranch buildings and a fine cluster of pecan trees.

The simpler site evoked a more modest design response. Wellen decided against using a San Antonio or Midland contractor in favor of a local builder who had never worked with an architect. He based his design on a standard 16-by-24-foot steel bay system commonly used for barns and sheds, repeated five times. The two bays to the north and one to the south are open; Wellen enclosed the other two with sliding corrugated-metal panels and screens. A sleeping loft perches above the kitchen and bathroom, which line the north wall; a fieldstone fireplace occupies the southeast corner.

Wellen produced a sketchy set of drawings and initiated a process of good-natured wrestling with the contractor over details, coaxing quality design from the project through on-site decisions and hard-nosed bargaining. Wellen salvaged wood for the interior partitions from a little one-room building on the ranch where Cotton grew up. He left weathered red paint on the antique pine, and assembled the boards in the most straightforward way possible. Recycled stone came from an old smokehouse and was laid, with coaching from the architect, by the contractor’s regular mason. The corrugated galvanized-metal skin is a staple on Texas ranches; it will dull over time to a matte gray and rust in 20 to 30 years, which is what the architect intends.

The building occupies its site and the larger landscape with ease and confidence. In summer, pecan trees to the west block the hot afternoon sun, and prevailing southeast breezes cool the house when the large sliding walls are open. The generous south-facing porch looks across a meadow to a creek beyond, catching the sun in the cold West Texas winter and protecting its occupants from bitter north winds. Clearly a working ranch building, the shelter is comfortably compatible with the preexisting structures around it.

The poetic authenticity of this little “hut” nestled in a powerful landscape has a heritage its architect quickly acknowledges. Wellen’s mentor, Frank Welch, was a pioneer of fine modern design in West Texas a generation ago. His exquisite Birthday House (1964), now sadly altered beyond recognition, inspired this project, which Wellen calls Becky’s Birthday as an homage. Welch and Wellen share a tough, real tradition of modernism that is less about modern forms than about modern life. It embraces industrialization, prefabrication, and straightforward building methods. It makes magic out of practical considerations of sun, wind, and climatic orientation. It revels in an appreciation of everyday things akin to Le Corbusier’s reverence for the common wine bottle.

Laugier’s hut is often singled out as the beginning of a modern sensibility, which in the mid 20th century became a style. To its credit, this West Texas hut recalls the sensibility more than the style, and reminds us how rich and responsive modernism can be.