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Design Did This To Me

Subin Yang


I want to forget about Marfa. But I can’t. My illness reproduces the hotel. My first migraine was in the newly built Hotel St. George. There. In Marfa, Texas. A building, my architect friend says, with four backsides. “They built a hotel with no front!” I say, “A block of dry ice.”


I enter the lobby and feel hemmed in, as if the street’s been roped off. Like trying to look back into a dream. Large windows cloaked in white gauze, thin curtains that amplify and disperse the light, now blinding, while also obscuring the view of downtown, and thus any competition for design. It felt manipulative. To enforce this suggestion: the hotel’s boundaries. My friend Tim’s bookstore is located inside the hotel. I am in the lobby on my computer when Tim says, “I’m taking the afternoon off. I have this horrible migraine…” I stay for a reading, where a poet says this line that makes another poet gasp. Something like, “A poet can live with one arm, but can a poet live on one income?” The sun as it’s going down cuts into the high, rectangular windows. Light darts in and gets trapped. Like a bee through an open door visits every other closed window. That maybe light requires something other than an opening in space! In some ways, the hotel feels like a cave. Corners the trapped light isn’t. What creates these temperamental conditions? It’s painted bright white, with very little furnishings or softness. Glossy cement floors. In the bar, shiny black tables, half-empty wine glasses, full water glasses. Where is light’s friend? What is a friend to light? It hurt to look anywhere. Given only mirages to land on, nothing to illuminate, only something to bounce off of.


One minute I’m looking around for a place to sit in the lobby; the next minute I’m seeing light auras, translucent worms in my vision squirming around causing blind spots, and there’s a pressure deep inside my brain. I leave, thinking it’s a fluke. I go back a week later. The same thing happens. Of course you’ll say the hotel cannot be blamed! What good does it do to blame a block of dry ice? It was no doubt a physiological orchestration, more than a couple improperly tuned instruments: stress, hormones, mold elsewhere, etc. Which poet quoted which theorist who said all disease is due to capitalism? These random migraines have since developed into chronic dizziness. My neurologist mentions Mal de Debarquement Syndrome: “land sickness.” For a couple months, I can’t walk. Not because my leg muscles don’t work, but because my mind won’t let me. Light won’t allow it. I’d walk into a grocery store with their fluorescent lights and I’d barely shuffle along. The hotel as trigger. Or, all I really know is that this hotel didn’t used to exist. When they built this hotel my migraines were built. What was once no-space became a space of dis-ease. Disease. Dizzies. I take notes reading Why I Burned My Book: [1] “Handicaps result from an individual’s reaction to social and built environs. Disability portrayed as problem of self-acceptance and emotional adjustment rather than sociological discourse. People view disability thru paradigm of ‘personal misfortune.’”

I write in my notebook:

Women display sensitivities stemming from their environments, affecting their health, embodying what’s otherwise imperceptible or ignored by the collective who are not yet aware or forced to confront the mutations…how women became an “infection” of a society gone off the rails.

I think I was writing about climate change. A poet from Austin named Lisa Olstein visited Marfa when the bookstore was still in the old wood mill warehouse. She read poems about her migraine disorder. I feared its wrath, however unknown it was to me at that time. I don’t remember asking about her “triggers.” To empathize meant to imagine her pain was mine.


Design did this to me. I am not a designer but a poet, and so I am subjected to design. To be young, sick, and female [2] in small-town Texas means this: there aren’t many places to go. To be young, sick, and female might also mean there are many places one is invited under the conditions that…I can hear in my head, “If you don’t like it, leave.” But this isn’t about liking a place. To be young, sick, and female is about the impossibility of being somewhere and remaining in one piece. Design did this to me. Every time I leave my house a new man is yelling at me. Even the priest! He’s in my rearview mirror telling me how to park. An oilman yells at me in a café, literally falls on top of me while demanding to know why I won’t talk to him. “If you can’t handle this honey, then leave Texas! You’re too sensitive for this place!” He screams. The majority of my family lives in Texas. Cattle ranchers. My Grandfather is from Texas. His name is Tex.

When I look over the landscape, there are people and there are buildings. Buildings are the inanimate younger siblings of young people. Our equals. Both of us take up space and are responsible for caring for one another. So largely, we’re to accept each new building as a gift, in the name of the gift of development, a.k.a. extending the family. Whose family? And why is development touted as an unquestionable good? “The term ‘development' is a minefield that eclipses the real issues.” It fails poor people and doesn't focus on rights and accountability [3]. I leave and head home to find painkillers. My migraines are now the spatial fabric of the hotel. My light auras, the floating leopard print.


Instead I visit the website: “Steeped in the history and culture of Marfa, the hotel stands on the site of the original Hotel Saint George, built in 1886.” Whose history? Whose culture? The “original?” “Built?” Suddenly every word doesn’t make any sense. Means the opposite (is the opposing site). Or makes too much sense. Is loaded. Is code. This word “stands” feels exceptionally violent. As in Custer’s Last Stand. As in, something mortally wounded that should fall over and decompose but instead STANDS. The statue stands. The statute stands. A black-and-white photo of the original hotel features 40 men standing in a line out front. “…In the 19th century, the building dethroned the monument,” writes Henri Lefebvre, quoted by Quinn Latimer in her essay Your Bungalow Is My Pavilion [4]. The same essay in which Latimer writes, “Where are the women in this imagined memory? So many men and their desires.” When someone asks this they must be prepared to answer why it matters. Which is to say, we’ve never listened to why it matters.


Saint George excelled in killing. The “original” original: a soldier from the Roman Empire. Though, as a Christian, he was eventually executed. Decapitated. I leave the hotel and never return. Though my book is still sold there but probably not for much longer. My face on the cover in profile—during the day I lay on their table, as if the table is my bed and I’m lying on my side, sick in bed. Can I pull my book from its sick bed? I heard healthcare in west Texas referred to as “frontier healthcare,” since there’s few doctors, few hospitals. My friend tells me he’s the on-call ambulance or something. “So wait, I call 911 then you show up?” I ask. He’s been drinking. His paintings are in the kitchen of a dilapidated and abandoned house next door to him. A museum. During WW2, Nazi POWs were housed in Marfa, some of whom, according to the Midland Reporter-Telegram, were “talented artists painting large scale murals on the walls of their fort.” [5] The same fort bought by Donald Judd that now houses permanent art installations under the Chinati Foundation. The article goes on to compare Nazis to Michelangelo. The article never refers to them as Nazis, only “soldiers.” Marfa being a “frontier town.” Elmina Castle, also referred to as St. George’s Castle, is the oldest European structure in Ghana. People were held captive there during the West African Slave Trade before exiting its “Door of No Return” and sold abroad. Why do we keep re-writing racist history through design? We discuss “legacies.” Amos Kennedy, in his DWP Main Stage talk about Detroit, states that segregation is designed by pros. The professionals. A profession. To profess. As a writer and not a designer, I can no longer connect all of these things.


It seems impossible to talk about Marfa without someone mentioning Judd more than once. So here goes. Marfa was made “famous,” in part, because the artist Donald Judd defected from New York and went “nowhere.” Which was already somewhere to a lot of people. He discovered Marfa in the same way Columbus discovered the Americas. Some say Judd “saved” the town from dying. Can I say Columbus turned the Americas into a hotel for his cronies and for his cronies’ cronies? Tourists, here, you would not believe. They have so many ideas for what they want to do in Marfa. Businesses they want to start, pop-ups, houses to rehab. The Hotel Saint George is a modern-day fur trading post. The best part of Judd’s work—in my opinion, and since living here I am forced to interact with his work—are the interiors of his own personal living spaces, for which there were many. A bed low to the ground, thin blanket tucked tightly in at the corners. Minimally furnished. Except the kitchens, which are full of cast iron dishware and wooden cutlery. And except those living rooms that appear as stolen museums, collections of indigenous artifacts, blankets, rugs, ceramics. A bandit stashing loot in a cave. Judd—from what I can tell—was able to create empty space from what already existed and was empty. Meaning, the best of Judd, him at his finest, was when he seemingly did nothing.


What does it mean that this town is deemed “no longer dying?” The cinema is gone. Buildings are empty, meaning, they used to not be. I’m supposed to believe someone, a couple of men, saved this town from dying? What about the people who lived their life working this place, who gave birth and stayed? Or who never arrived but were here before the annexation of Mexico? What credit are they given in terms of “design?” You don’t see Architectural Digestinterviewing a generation of people, or workers. Why does it so often seem that design is a manifestation of a single person with money imposing their will? I’ve seen more heart in a well-worn wastebasket in Japan. My mother is a designer, I remind myself. Am I confusing the designer with the developer? The developer who uses design, designers, to give meaning to their will?

Before we even step inside something we must design it. And yet for me, paradoxically, when something is built it has yet to be designed. Actual design must come afterwards. Once the human is inside and decides to envision a life for themself. Living alongside something must be its design. The body’s insistence must be the designer. About Judd’s old truck, “Because of the glare, he painted the hood black to kill the reflection.” [6]

  1. Longmore, Paul K. Why I Burned My Book. Temple University Press, Philadelphia. 2003.
  2. In this line I hear Lorraine Hansberry’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black.
  3. Doane, Deborah. “What’s So Bad About Development?” The Guardian. Sep 1, 2014.
  4. Latimer, Quinn. “Your Bungalow Is My Pavilion (This Room Is An Island).” Like A Woman. Sternberg Press, Berlin. 2017.
  5. Smith, Tumbleweed. “German POWs Painted Murals on Wall of Marfa Fort Where They Were Housed.” Midland Reporter-Telegram. Feb 8, 2011.
  6. Chang, Richard S. “An Artist’s Truck That’s No More Than What It Needs To Be.” The New York Times. Nov 2, 2012.