Cities of rock in West Texas
Posted on July 8, 2016
Vast infinite stillness overcomes you in far west Texas. Earth opens up to the sky exposing deep cuts and gashes and the very space between molecules seems to expand. For the 4th of July holiday I wanted to see the stars arc above me again and sleep outside. The long drive is perfect for daydreams and random associations, and somewhat strangely brought to mind the work of Hugh Ferriss and his urban landscapes. By his hand, buildings fade into fog and become impressions of buildings filled with atmosphere. As I watch the country pass by my window, I reflect that the drawings are also reminiscent the mountains and rocks. I watch the landscape continue to expand and open up as we drive, and I can’t wait for my own city to fade in memory to be replaced by the high desert and the Davis mountains.
Hugh Ferriss was trained as an architect, but soon became known for being a delineator–creating architectural renderings for other architects’ work rather than designing buildings himself. Early in his career, he worked under the architect Cass Gilbert–he designed the famed Woolworth building in NYC–but because his work was often published and used in shows or advertisements, he acquired an independent reputation and went on to become a successful designer in his own right.
New York City passed landmark zoning laws In 1916 that were intended to counteract the tendency for buildings to occupy the whole of their lots and be built as tall as possible. It was hard to understand how these laws would effect design going forward and in 1922 the skyscraper architect Harvey Wiley Corbett commissioned Ferriss to draw a series of images illustrating the architectural consequences of the zoning law. These drawings would later be used in his book The Metropolis of Tomorrow, 1929.
I am brought out of imagining as we hike into closed canyon. Crossing into the slit in the earth the shade is such a relief from the hot direct light that casts constant stark shadows and the temperature seems to drop. How long must it have taken to create this canyon–It’s hard to even imagine. Nothing about this country seems new, it’s as if you can see the passage of time. I have visions of dinosaurs and icebergs and violent melts of water.
When we emerge to head back to the truck, I feel my very tiny place in the world emerging from this dramatic fissure. Another artist comes to mind, Georgia O’ Keeffe’s early New York paintings only hint at the city that inspired them.
I think it is the heat, but I start to think about ice–ice melts so quickly in the desert. I think about how the patterns of fissures of ice also recall the shapes of the mountains and of cities. We head back to town and towards a shady spot to while away the afternoon–even dreaming of ice is no longer keeping the heat at bay.
We are staying in Terlingua–a ghostown and on the National Register of Historic Places. In the mid-1880s the discovery of cinnabar (mercury is extracted from cinnabar) brought around 2,000 people to the area to work the mines. Today, the only remnants of the mining days are some scattered ruins and the remains of the Howard Perry mansion, owner or the Chisos Mining Company.
The mid afternoon heats rises in waves off the rocks from a full day of solar absorption. We go sit in the shade and protection of the general store and Starlight Theater to visit with the locals and watch the weather. We are amazingly lucky, a sudden rainstorm moves across the mountains–thrilling for locals and tourists alike–we are all transfixed.
With a pang of sadness we pack up to go home–I know I won’t see the stars or the milky way this way again until my next visit, but the memories and the realization of space, as always, will change and sustain me.