Oriana Fenwick

Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, founder of Marlon Blackwell Architects in Fayetteville, Ark., has built his practice around community-based projects that are delightfully ambitious and also demonstrate a keen sensitivity to place—a nearly three-decade career that has earned him the Institute’s highest honor. Here he responds to our architect's version of the Proust questionnaire.

What led to the founding of your firm?
A desire to be a liaison between the academy and the profession. To practice what you preach.

What’s the best way to describe the personality of your practice?
Single-mindedness of purpose, hardworking, agile, and responsive.

What’s the best way to describe your approach to architecture?
Our approach is one that is place-based, resourceful, and bold.

What project of yours best illustrates that approach?
The Saint Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Christian Church in Springdale, Ark.

What projects are you most drawn to?
Just about any project that has social impact and spiritual effect. Those are largely public, institutional, educational, health care, and recreational.

What impact has Fayetteville had on your work?
Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas have provided an opportunity to tap into the culture-made and nature-made particulars of a place that shows up in our work through abstractions of local form and how we use materials and straightforward details.

What was your most rewarding collaboration?
It has to be my ongoing collaboration with Ati [Johari Blackwell], my partner in design and business and life. She continually encourages me and challenges me with her insights and talent. She’s been essential in our development as a firm and getting me to take more risks. I’m fortunate and grateful.

What’s one building you wish you had done?
The Monastery at La Tourette (Le Corbusier).

What’s one building you wish you hadn’t done?
That’s a trick question. Like my children—I love all of our buildings equally (wink-wink).

What’s the one design/project that got away?
The Cabins at Fallingwater (a competition we would have loved to have won).

What compels you to teach in addition to running your practice?
The opportunity to develop the sensibilities and agency of our future generations of designers and architects. Teaching allows me to understand the many possibilities for solving a design problem and the necessary union between criticality and instrumentality. I find it very stimulating and it certainly invigorates my passion for practice.

What is the greatest challenge facing architects today?
With all the distractions and issues to address—social, economic, and environmental—it’s important that we don’t forget our core values that allow us to build well. If ultimately we don’t make meaningful buildings and places that people care about, what’s the point?

What would you have been if not an architect?
A cartoonist.

When did you first realize you wanted to be an architect?
When I read that most cartoonists have an alcohol problem.

What jobs did your parents have?
Father was a sergeant in the Air Force; my mother kept the house and did part-time cleaning for the local church.

What, if anything, did you learn when working as a Bible salesman during college?
I learned many things. In particular, how to think on your feet and how to relate to people from all walks of life. In the morning, I might visit with a sharecropper. In the afternoon, a millworker, and in the evening a state legislator. I learned to engage with each considering their own background, needs, and desires in a sincere and earnest way.

What is your favorite building?
The God Barn. An old barn here in Fayetteville—every inch of it was covered in biblical text/graffiti. It’s a humble structure with a universal message—not unlike the outsider art works of Howard Finster. It has since been torn down. It's usually the first image of any lecture I give. Aside from that I often find myself drawn to the Pantheon, another God Barn of sorts.

What is your greatest extravagance?
Cuban cigars, rare bourbon, and cool attire from John Varvatos, a great clothing store located in the old CBGB in the Bowery in New York.

What is your greatest fear?
The lack of opportunity.

Which talent would you most like to have?
I’d like to have a great singing voice.

What does architectural misery mean?
Doing the best to do your least to make the most.

What does architectural happiness mean?
Putting purpose before profit.

Which artists do you most admire?
Robert Irwin, Mary Miss, Francis Bacon, Thomas Eakins, Caravaggio, and the Quiltmakers from Gees Bend, Ala.

What’s the last drawing you did?
I use a thick lead 9B pencil, charcoal or conté for most any drawing I do, and most every day, and on every project we do. The last drawing I did before answering this question was a series of park structures for Hermann Park in Houston.

Which five architects, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?
Alvar Aalto, Le Corbusier, Borromini, Zaha Hadid, and Sam Mockbee (I’m not sure but I think this might turn into a food fight).

Which living person do you most admire?
Mick Jagger/Keith Richards. I see them as one entity joined at the hip. I admire their tireless persistence and reverent dedication to their craft.

Which book(s) are you currently reading?
I’ve currently bought a lot of books to read. They are like insurance for me: there if I need it. I just don’t take time to read books as much as I should. Currently I’m moving back and forth between The Art of Living by Epicteus, The Evolution of Beauty by Richard Plum, and The Man in the Glass House: Philip Johnson, Architect of the Modern Century by Mark Lamster. It’ll probably take me the rest of the year to finish.

Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
It’s a tossup between Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) in the film Casablanca and Robin Hood (more anti-hero than hero in my mind).

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I would like to learn another language, to be multilingual.

What do you hope your legacy will be?
Someone will figure that out before I will.

What’s the one question you wish we had asked (and the answer to that question)?
You would ask me, “Is it a true story that you once wrestled a bear?” To which I would say, “Yes, it’s true, that it’s a story.”

What does winning the Gold Medal mean to you?
It is the ultimate affirmation by and from my peers of the ethos that sustains us, which is that architecture can happen anywhere, at any scale, at any budget, and for anyone. It underscores the good work that is happening by small, impactful firms working outside the centers of fashion. It’s a big win for all of us in the middle—places some folks call flyover country. By recognizing the middle this way, we unite the whole country, all of us, around the cause and importance of architecture to improve everyday life.