The Vision for a 21st Century Drive-in

Way out in West Texas, a grand plan for a drive-in movie theater promised to invigorate an entire community.

Photo by Corey Leopold / Flickr

There’s something consistently inspiring about the sky over Marfa, Texas. Between the Davis Mountains and Big Bend National Park and hours away from the nearest big city, the small town of 2,112 serves as the foreground for heavenly views of the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert and the stars above.

The dramatic setting was featured in the films No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood. Starting with Donald Judd in the 1970s, Marfa has gained cult status among contemporary artists and their fans, who flock to experience world-class sculptures and installations just as often as they do the overhyped “Marfa Lights” phenomenon.

Marfa, in other words, is a special and wonderful place for stargazing of all kinds.

Fully aware of the magic of the local vista, in 2012 arts organization Ballroom Marfa set out to create a new, unique community performance space that utilizes and engages the landscape.

Image by MOS 2012

And that’s how the idea for the Ballroom Marfa Drive-in was born. The concept proposed to combine some of the best elements of the classic drive-in movie with a world-class outdoor amphitheater.

To realize that vision, the organization enlisted some nationally renowned designers: Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample of New York architecture firm MOS, and landscape architects from OLIN, based out of Philadelphia and Los Angeles. What they conceived was an unexpected blend of the traditional and contemporary that integrates the environment while facilitating community interaction.

In their vision, the base of the structure imitates the “bandshell” concert venue design of the 1920s and 30s, but with an integrated, modern, acoustically sensitive honeycomb design. For the “drive-in” part, a flat screen perches above the shell for film projection. Meanwhile, the design for the grounds that surround the structure calls for a “series of berms” that provide “ideal viewing angles” for the audience, whether they are in cars or on picnic blankets.

Photo by Nan Palmero / Flickr

Ballroom Marfa describes the project as “a combination of a gallery, cinema hall, music hall, theater, and park” designed to “rekindle the community spirit that existed around the original drive-in theaters.”

To house the Drive-in, Presidio County granted a 99-year lease to Ballroom Marfa for a little more than eight acres of the city’s Vizcaino Park. Unfortunately, since then, cost estimates for the construction—about $4.5 million—have come to exceed the organization’s expectations. This year, out of concerns that the fundraising effort would limit Ballroom Marfa’s capacity to carry out its existing programs, the organization’s board voted to “indefinitely defer” the project.

While the drive-in theater renaissance may not start in Marfa after all, Ballroom Marfa, the city and Presidio County are moving forward with cultural programing in Vizcaino Park, including festivals, concerts, and yes, even stargazing.