Marlon Blackwell Architects
Having already secured a prestigious Cooper Hewitt National Design Award this spring, Marlon Blackwell Architects has now landed the top spot in the design category of this year’s Architect 50. Indeed, it’s been a banner year for the Fayetteville, Ark.–based practice, and a look through its portfolio shows why.


Recent small projects like a Montessori school in Fayetteville and a practice facility for a golf club in the Ozarks demonstrate a rigorous and sometimes daring vernacular Modernism, fashioned on very lean budgets. But the firm’s talents don’t stop at the jewel-box scale. It has also designed a 356,000-square-foot high school expansion in Fayetteville, and collaborated with James Corner Field Operations to remake Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, one of the largest urban parks in the country.

Fayetteville Montessori Primary School in Arkansas
Timothy Hursley Fayetteville Montessori Primary School in Arkansas
Fayetteville Montessori Primary
Timothy Hursley Fayetteville Montessori Primary

Founder Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, and his partner in work and life, Meryati Johari Blackwell, AIA, say the small size of their office (currently 10 people) allows them to be involved in every stage and detail of a project. “I think the advantage is, you can have control and you are also able to manage all the projects that are in the office,” Johari Blackwell says. On any given building, “we would know what type of finishes [are being used] … both Marlon and I would get down to that level of detail”—something their clients appreciate, she says.


“From a design standpoint,” adds Blackwell, “being close to the project allows you to edit that project continually because you’re engaged. My observation is that a lot of architecture is not edited enough. Too many ideas, too many moves, too many materials, too many voices, all kind of competing for a similar level of attention.”

Shelby Farms Park Visitor Center in Memphis, Tenn.
Timothy Hursley Shelby Farms Park Visitor Center in Memphis, Tenn.
Shelby Farms Visitor Center
Timothy Hursley Shelby Farms Visitor Center

The designers’ willingness to both sweat the details and edit themselves may be the key to how they work wonders on tight budgets. “We have developed an agility, a facility to hang onto the core of the idea, no matter how value-engineered a project can become,” Blackwell says. “If it’s a good idea, it can be realized at a variety of price points.” For example, says Johari Blackwell, switching from a limestone to a metal exterior can express the same idea if executed well. “You’re still going to get the spatial quality without … the [same] cost per square foot.”

Their commitment to protecting the essence of a design wasn’t lost on the jury. “Of all submissions, this collection of work conveys the most succinct, clear, and rigorous design ethos,” one juror noted. “This is design with conviction.”

Blessings Golf Club Indoor Practice Facility in Johnson, Ark.
Timothy Hursley Blessings Golf Club Indoor Practice Facility in Johnson, Ark.
Blessings Indoor Practice Facility
Timothy Hursley Blessings Indoor Practice Facility


Design Judges

Eric Höweler, AIA

Höweler is co-founder of Höweler+Yoon Architecture, a multidisciplinary studio established in 2005. He is an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Sarah Dunn

Dunn co-founded the Chicago-based firm UrbanLab in 2000. She is an associate professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Before starting Urban Lab she worked at OMA.

Joshua Aidlin

Aidlin is a founding partner of Aidlin Darling Design, established in 1988. His recent work includes the first LEED NC Gold commercial building in San Francisco and the Windhover Contemplative Center at Stanford University. 

Check out the list to find out which firms rose to the top,and discover who made the cut in each of the three categories: business, sustainability, and design.

Read more about top firms William Rawn Associates (business) and ZGF (overall and sustainability).

Also check out some key data submitted by firms and our methodology.

Fayetteville High School in Arkansas
Timothy Hursley Fayetteville High School in Arkansas
Fayetteville High School
Timothy Hursley Fayetteville High School
Fayetteville High School
Timothy Hursley Fayetteville High School
Fayetteville High School
Timothy Hursley Fayetteville High School
Fayetteville Montessori Primary School
Timothy Hursley Fayetteville Montessori Primary School
Fayetteville Montessori Primary School
Timothy Hursley Fayetteville Montessori Primary School
Shelby Farms Visitor Center
Timothy Hursley Shelby Farms Visitor Center
Shelby Farms Visitor Center
Timothy Hursley Shelby Farms Visitor Center
Blessings Indoor Practice Facility
Timothy Hursley Blessings Indoor Practice Facility
Blessings Indoor Practice Facility
Timothy Hursley Blessings Indoor Practice Facility