I often am asked to answer one of those impossible questions, such as: “What is your favorite building?” or “Who is your favorite architect?” At least I now have an answer to the latter, albeit with a few qualifiers: Marlon Blackwell, FAIA. After a day spent touring his buildings recently, I can say that I do not know of any other living American architect who is as accomplished at the making of buildings in and for communities as this Arkansas-based designer. There certainly are others with a greater state of accomplishment, such as Frank Gehry, FAIA; or who are better at creating structures where the craft of joinery and material use are delightful, like Tod Williams, FAIA, and Billie Tsien, FAIA, or Steven Holl, FAIA; or who consistently push the discipline in new directions, such as Diller Scofidio + Renfro. Blackwell’s work, however, represents something very important at the core of architecture: a commitment to making fully developed and beautifully shaped buildings that are affordably made, and that are both part of and help transform their communities.
No architect works in a vacuum, and Blackwell has been particularly lucky in being located in northwest Arkansas. Always a place of pastoral landscapes at the foothills of the Ozarks, it was traditionally a poor corner of the rural American south. Then Walmart emerged out of a small store in Bentonville to become the biggest retailer in the world, bringing billions of dollars into the local economy. As luck would have it, that was not the only big business to transform the area: The second largest chicken and pork processor in the country, Tyson’s, and the third largest trucker, J.B. Hunt, are also based there. The money is evident in some houses Blackwell has designed for wealthy share owners, and in a few commissions for Alice Walton, one of the Walmart heirs. You can also see it in the work he has done for schools and country clubs, as well as a WeWork-type office structure, that would not have been possible without the boom economy those companies and their owners have produced.
Blackwell’s base in Fayetteville also shapes his designs. The town boasts the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas, where he teaches and for which he created a simple, but striking addition. The institution has also benefited from the favorable economy while building on the innovative tradition that was started there by its namesake in the 1950s and is now carried out by a remarkable cohort of faculty members and students.
The first structures for which Blackwell became famous were certainly attention-grabbers. He made headlines and magazine covers in 2000 with the Keenan TowerHouse, a one-room rural retreat perched high above a wooded lot in the middle of Fayetteville. This little watchtower took the forms and materials of the local rural vernacular, stretched and deformed them, and turned them into a small building that was as much a portrait of its owner and place as it was a residential haven.
Blackwell then received a commission to convert an industrial shed along a stretch of highway into a church for the Greek Orthodox community. Finished in 2010, the structure is a paean to simplicity and luminosity. Blackwell reclad the original box with metal siding, cut holes into the skin, and inserted box windows whose colored glass both marks the structure as out of the ordinary and provides a tinted glow to the interior. He extended a tower up to gesture to the passersby on the adjacent road. Inside, the architect squeezed all the spaces the small congregation needed into the tiny box. However, according to their traditions, the worshipers still needed a dome. So, Blackwell traded a case of beer (in his telling) for a satellite dish, embedded the disused receiver upside down in the ceiling, and had a painter decorate it with the necessary angels and saints.
If some of Blackwell’s more recent work is less either exuberant or clever in its mastery of minimal means, it still combines the ability to make a big statement utilizing basic composition with great finesse, and then carries the resulting forms out with an inventive and simple use of both materials and space. Two houses he has designed recently—one for a retired trucking executive in a golf course development (he was also responsible for the club house), and one for the director or the Walton-funded Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art—continue the pulling apart of basic living functions into loosely stacked bars that he used to compose his own house almost two decades earlier. In that earlier home, Blackwell bridged a local stream and created an exterior courtyard that is as much a vertical slot of space as it is a more traditional outdoor gathering area. In the two new houses, he also bridges, but this time over sloping sites, and the courtyards are stepped miniature amphitheaters that invite the landscape into the heart of the home. They decompose and open up the standard development boxes around them.
Even more remarkable is the two-year old, 500-student Thaden School, a skills-oriented high school in Bentonville. Also supported by the Waltons, the school is a pay-as-you-can venture, assessing fees based on family income, that organizes its curriculum around three areas of study: agriculture, theater, and bicycle manufacturing and repair. The campus Blackwell helped design consists of low-slung structures whose roofs undulate up and down along the gently sloping site. In keeping with the surrounding residential neighborhood, the various classroom buildings play down their metal-clad volumes, except at the two ends. At the one closest to the center of town, the larger theater building forms a marker announcing the school, while on the opposite end, toward a park, a red-painted wood Bike Barn houses sports activities.
The insides of these buildings are remarkable for the manner in which they wrest light, space, and variation out of the basic elements and low budget that are the standard in our secondary education buildings. Skylights, windows placed to accept light that rakes and opens up the space, angles that break up the long institutional hallways, and a generous slathering of plywood all make the Thaden School’s places of learning and gathering into pleasant and complex spaces that invite social interaction. The Barn, meanwhile, is a magical place of light and structure that decomposes the standard elements of rural architecture (a trick Blackwell admits to learning from Faye Jones) into an open and luminous cage. Together, the buildings of the Thaden School are a new kind of institutional monument, one that is modest, a bit funky, and very much part of its place.
Two other recent designs are tougher, but just as generous in the way they invite shared activity and social uses. The Ledger building, designed by Michel Rojkind and Callaghan Horiuchi with Marlon Blackwell Architects, is a copper and glass hill right next to downtown. A large gateway sliced into its long mass connects two parts of the neighborhood. What is most remarkable is the bicycle path that winds its way up the five floors of one façade (it was originally supposed to go down the other) to provide views over Bentonville from the top.
In the second showcase for larger-scale work, Blackwell is right now cladding an 800-car parking garage Alice Walton has commissioned to house the now close to a million visitors that come to Crystal Bridges and the Whole Health Institute, also designed by Blackwell and located on the museum's campus. To hide the mass, he is using green and blue metallic fins whose color he derived, as he does in many of his buildings, from the paint jobs of some of his favorite 1960s and 1970s muscle cars. The skin wraps around an extrusion facing the museum he calls the “fish head.” There the six levels of the parking garage will open up, sprouting stairs that tumble down toward a raised plaza before continuing into the park around Crystal Bridges. Walton plans to stage performances on this platform that can be see both from the garage and the park. Here again Blackwell takes one function and turns it into an activator for cultural activities and a way to connect different parts of a landscape.
Blackwell is also designing a nearby office building for Walton that takes some of the themes of decomposition and stacking he developed in his smaller projects to a much larger scale, and is busy with both residential and commercial commissions all around northwest Arkansas. The amount and variety of structures he has designed, each one of them (at least the ones I have seen) excellent, is astonishing.
The big question is whether he will—or really wants to—make the leap from a region that has given him so much inspiration and work to a larger arena. For every architect rooted in a particular place who has been able to develop their work in many other settings—Antoine Predock comes to mind—there are many others who have found that exactly what made them so successful in their hometown was difficult to translate to other climates, landscapes, or social settings.
What Blackwell has achieved in Arkansas is remarkable in both its formal skill and inventiveness and the manner in which it has helped redefine the area’s communities in so many ways. He is working in other sites, including schools in Texas and park buildings in Tennessee, now, but, even if he just sticks to his well-funded base, it seems clear he will continue to make good architecture there. As a result, he has made Fayetteville and Bentonville into a pilgrimage place not just for those wishing to sell their gadgets to Walmart, but also to architecture buffs. I recommend making the visit.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.
This article has been updated.
Read more: The latest from columnist Aaron Betsky includes looks at a proposal for reimagining Penn Station in New York, the first Storyliving by Disney community, and the work of Las Vegas architect Eric Strain.