The Thaden School
Courtesy Marlon Blackwell Architects The Thaden School

Soon after I’d landed at Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (XNA), it became impossible to ignore the fact that I was in Walmart country. For starters, the airport owes its existence, in large part, to the efforts of Alice Walton, daughter of Sam and Helen Walton, who founded Walmart, the $500 billion mega-retailer, more than a half-century ago. On the 20-minute drive to the company’s home base of Bentonville, Ark., population 49,000 and booming, I traversed a landscape punctuated by a series of massive Walmart distribution centers in the chain’s familiar battleship gray. And then, in the picturesque downtown square, over a spread of granola and avocado toast at the Pressroom, a supremely hip café (which happens to be owned in part by Tom Walton, grandson of Sam and Helen), I spied the Walmart Museum, housed in one of the family’s original five-and-ten stores. It features a full-sized replica of “Mr. Sam’s” office and tells the Walmart story in as much artifact-laden detail as anyone could possibly desire.

In short, I felt like I was deep in a symbiotic landscape, eating artisanal fare in a perfectly calibrated, pleasantly walkable downtown that, in a stroke of irony, largely owes its existence to a major producer of hideous, car-centric sprawl. Everything around me was willed into being by either Walmart or its founding family, now the wealthiest in America.

I asked her the obvious: How does preserving a sense of place square with Walmart’s long history of generating mind-numbing placelessness?

Sitting across from me at the Pressroom during my recent visit, Karen Minkel, soft-spoken but implacable, wasn’t thrilled by this observation. A former Fayetteville, Ark., city planner, Minkel is now the director of the Home Region Program, a Walton Family Foundation initiative that aims to improve the quality of life in the surrounding area—namely, “the communities where Sam and Helen Walton first found opportunity.” I was here to learn more about the Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program, which Minkel started in 2015 with an ambitious mission: to “preserve a sense of place.” I asked her the obvious: How does preserving a sense of place square with Walmart’s long history of generating mind-numbing placelessness?

The Pressroom
Sean Goggins The Pressroom
The Walmart Museum in Bentonville
Martin Lewison The Walmart Museum in Bentonville

Minkel emphasized that the boundary between the Walton Family Foundation, with its $575.5 million in annual grants, and corporate Walmart is distinct and impenetrable. She then argued that, based on her experience in city government, “the policy structure for land use fully supports the strip-mall development that you’re talking about.” In other words, the sprawl created by big-box merchants has as much to do with the desire of local governments to generate tax revenues as it does with the strategies of the retailers themselves. Nevertheless, it remains a paradox that a foundation funded, directly or indirectly, by proceeds from Walmart is trying to compensate for the radical changes Sam and Helen helped embed in the American landscape. That the Walton family has embraced “a sense of place” as one of their core projects is not the most astonishing thing, however. It’s that they’re very, very good at it.

More than Just a Columbus Redux
Minkel, who works in a suite of offices directly upstairs from the café, explained that the idea of using “design excellence” to preserve a sense of place began as an amalgam of some of the foundation’s ongoing concerns. For example, the region, over the past decade, has constructed an impressive network of off-road bike trails, anchored by the 36-mile Razorback Regional Greenway, a $38 million project that was initiated and partially paid for by the foundation, with additional funds from federal TIGER grants and numerous local governments. The foundation had also been pursuing a variety of downtown revitalization and open-space preservation plans. That downtown Bentonville exudes vitality and boasts a dedicated shop for mountain bikers, a bakery for dogs, several good restaurants, and one fantastic art museum (the Moshe Safdie, FAIA–designed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art) is, in no small part, due to the contributions of the Waltons. For instance, Minkel’s office and the Pressroom are part of a two-building complex that was developed by Walton Enterprises, the financial services company that manages the family’s holdings.

Crystal Bridges
Road Travel America Crystal Bridges

According to Minkel, the Design Excellence Program was modeled on the architecture program that the Cummins Foundation started in 1960 in Columbus, Ind., which famously supported the construction of scores of landmark buildings by the likes of Eero Saarinen and Robert Venturi. Minkel, however, didn’t think that it was enough to simply commission architecturally significant buildings. One question the foundation asked itself at the outset was: “How do we do that in a way that complements our existing urban fabric so you don’t have a region of unicorns?” By unicorns Minkel meant “beautiful buildings that don’t necessarily connect to your community or help create that sense of place.” So the foundation not only created a list of design professionals for projects it funds—now over 50 firms long—but also included landscape designers, to make sure every project had a clear connection to its surroundings.

The results, so far, are impressive. The foundation has built a roster of firms—chosen in open calls in 2015 and 2016—that includes leading experts in “parks, green spaces, and plazas,” such as Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates and DLandstudio. When the application process opened for a third time in February (deadline March 15), it placed new emphasis on attracting “those with experience in landscape architecture and urban design in small communities.” A few of the firms on the list are based in Arkansas, but most are celebrated outfits from across the country, including Lake|Flato Architects and WXY Architecture + Urban Design. The foundation picks deserving projects to fund, and the project administrators—usually local officials or the leaders of nonprofit organizations—choose the architects from a shortlist provided by the foundation.

The Reels building at the Thaden School
Courtesy Marlon Blackwell Architects The Reels building at the Thaden School
The Meals building at the Thaden School
Courtesy Eskew+Dumez+Ripple The Meals building at the Thaden School

The Design Excellence projects I visited (11 are currently underway) were surprisingly ambitious, both architecturally and programmatically—but none more so than the Thaden School, a collaboration between the local firm Marlon Blackwell Architects and Eskew+Dumez+Ripple (EDR). An independent private school, Thaden will eventually serve grades 6 to 12 and feature a core curriculum called “Wheels, Meals, and Reels,” which will use bicycles, food, and moviemaking to help teach math, physics, history, sociology, urban planning, and other subjects. Backed by the foundation (with heavily subsidized tuition for those in need), Thaden promises to be an oasis in a world where most schools teach to the standardized tests.

Currently, classes are housed in a complex of tidy white trailers near the center of Bentonville. Under construction across the street is a Marlon Blackwell–designed classroom building for Reels—an exceptionally long, lean structure with a dramatic up-slope at one end that will double as an outdoor movie screen. The firm is also working on a radically updated barn that will provide a venue for dances, “knock around space,” as well as bike storage. EDR, meanwhile, designed the Meals building that will, naturally, house the dining hall, plus a library and lounges. One corner of the campus will be anchored by a simple gabled house dating from the 1890s—relocated to the site—that was the childhood home of Louise Thaden, a pioneering female aviator, for whom the institution is named. While most schools today are doing everything they can to isolate themselves from the dangerous world outside, the premise at Thaden is that the school should be as immersed in the surrounding community as possible. As Clayton Marsh, the founding head of Thaden, told me: “We don’t have fences around the campus.”

The Meals building
Courtesy Eskew+Dumez+Ripple The Meals building
Thaden School site plan
Andropogon Associates Thaden School site plan

The school’s newly constructed buildings represent a revamped Ozark vernacular. Unlike the long mass-production chicken sheds that dot the countryside or the big-box stores that line the highways, these buildings, mostly clad in wood, use industrial style consciously and expressively, zigging and zagging in unexpected places. Blackwell waxed poetic as he gave me a tour of the Reels building, noting how the roof pitches steeply upward, because it’s like a chapel: “The feeling is something that is uplifting.” We strolled through a curving corridor that runs from one end of the building to the other: “It will be done in a green gold metallic flake,” Blackwell told me. “It’s based on a 1967 Mustang.”

A Theater that Lures the Public Inside
The TheaterSquared building, located near the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville, roughly 26 miles south, is another glowing example of a foundation-sponsored project. Partially funded by the Waltons, along with the city of Fayetteville and other donors, the $34 million building, scheduled to open in June, will be home to a professional theater company, the only one in northern Arkansas. It was designed by Marvel Architecture, the New York–based firm that recently reworked an old tobacco storage building into a stunning new home for Brooklyn’s experimental theater, St. Ann’s Warehouse.

Kilograph TheatreSquared

Since 2005, the Fayetteville theater company has hosted productions in a space formerly occupied by a beer distributor, a 178-seat hall that is unusually wide and shallow and that engendered a close relationship between performers and audience. “We’ve gotten addicted to this expansive, immersive experience,” the company’s executive director, Martin Miller told me. Which is what he told Marvel: “This intimacy, this is why people come to find us.”

The new building, assertively boxy, clad in wood and board-formed concrete, maintains that intimacy with its two performance spaces (the larger one will seat up to 280 and the smaller one will hold 99) along with dedicated spaces for scenery construction, costume making, and housing for visiting performers. Most significantly, the building projects the inner life of the theater onto the street. A rehearsal space features a massive window that gives passersby a glimpse of works in progress; the public will also be lured inside by a glass enclosed, all-day café.

As with many foundation projects, TheaterSquared is just one element of something larger—in this case, a new Cultural Arts Corridor designed by Charlottesville, Va.–based Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, also part of the Design Excellence portfolio. The corridor scheme will transform the parking lot across the street into a park, establish a bikeway that will run past the theater, and create connections between a host of cultural institutions.

Fayetteville Cultural Arts Corridor
courtesy Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects Fayetteville Cultural Arts Corridor
Site plan for the Fayetteville Cultural Arts Corridor
courtesy Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects Site plan for the Fayetteville Cultural Arts Corridor

The most emblematic Design Excellence project—all public space, no unicorns—may well be one of the more modest ones. Bentonville’s neighbor, the city of Rogers (population 66,000), is less aggressively rehabilitated but boasts what Mayor Greg Hines proudly told me is one of the best bike parks in the nation—the Railyard, which, like much of the local bicycle infrastructure, is built specifically for mountain bikers. Now, the city’s director of community development, John McCurdy, is working closely with Ross Barney Architects to rehabilitate Frisco Park, a long, narrow space that runs alongside the railroad tracks that bisect the town. It’s currently home to a railroad-themed playground, plus a random set of railroad-related artifacts. Ross Barney led an open house where residents, as Ryan Gann, Assoc. AIA, framed it, “Used our little tool box.” Locals were asked to finish the sentence, “I want Frisco Park to be … ” Dots were placed on maps. Post-it notes were scribbled on.

The architects studied narrow parks across America, including the Railroad Park in Birmingham, Ala., and came up with ways to use Frisco’s odd dimensions as an advantage. One possible approach uses as its centerpiece a 300-foot-long, snaking picnic table that could seat 250 people. Another proposal features a series of water towers that would feed splash pads. “It’s striking how they’ve been able to capture the feel of a rail yard,” McCurdy observed. “It doesn’t become like a Disneyland Park.”

The Frisco Park project is part of a larger effort to make Rogers a more urbane place—better connected to transit, and better able to leverage the bicycle traffic that rolls into town via the greenway. Using its own funds, the town has even engaged walkability expert Jeff Speck to understand how its intact historic center can be more pedestrian oriented.

A proposal for the redesigned Frisco Park
Courtesy Ross Barney Architects A proposal for the redesigned Frisco Park

Intensifying a Region’s Latent Qualities
Part of the Design Excellence magic, of course, is in the chemistry between clients, architects, and projects. To that end, the foundation relies on a selection committee that consists of Peter MacKeith, Assoc. AIA, the dean of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville; John Hoal, Assoc. AIA, a professor of architecture and urban design at Washington University in St. Louis; Elizabeth Meyer, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Virginia; and Amale Andraos, Assoc. AIA, dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation.

By the time I visited MacKeith at his office in Fayetteville, I had started to think that the foundation may not be preserving a sense of place so much as inventing one. After all, not every neighborhood in every town in the region has a rich character that merits preservation.

By the time I visited MacKeith at his office in Fayetteville, I had started to think that the foundation may not be preserving a sense of place so much as inventing one. After all, not every neighborhood in every town in the region has a rich character that merits preservation. MacKeith put a different spin on it: “I think it’s about expanding the sense of place beyond either the generic or the stereotypical.” That expansion necessitates bringing in design professionals from the outside who aren’t necessarily imposing their own vision so much as they’re finding value in what locals might take for granted. As MacKeith framed it: “I would say importing the ability to see what has not been seen before.”

Elizabeth Meyer echoed this idea in an email: “I sought designers who knew how to intensify the latent qualities of a site or region through design.” In other words, designers with the vision to translate “the latent into new forms and experiences.”

Fayetteville’s mayor, Lioneld Jordan, told me that the “foundation doesn’t impose its ‘sense of place’ on a community. It provides assistance so that each community can realize what makes up its most unique attributes.” That said, it’s difficult to achieve community-wide consensus about the need for new forms and experiences. In a survey of public opinion about Fayetteville’s Cultural Arts Corridor, for instance, a plurality of respondents did indeed want lawns, gardens, and cafés on the block across the street from the new TheaterSquared, currently a parking lot. But a vocal minority agitated for more and better parking.

Still, the foundation has largely rallied local public officials to its causes and has had a conspicuous—and positive—impact on at least some aspects of the area’s landscapes. When I asked MacKeith to name the region’s best existing project, he didn’t give the obvious answer: Thorncrown Chapel by E. Fay Jones, the celebrated rustic shrine in Eureka Springs, Ark. Rather, he told me, “The best work of design is the 35-mile greenway that connects Fayetteville to Bentonville that you can walk and cycle. Because of what it is already, but also because of what it projects, which is a different way of living and working in this landscape.”

I understood his point immediately, because for most of my time in Bentonville I had stayed not in the lovely downtown but at a chain hotel on a heavily trafficked four-lane boulevard. The hotel was ringed by parking lots and neighbored by even more chain hotels. Sense of place was a lost concept here. It took me a day or two to realize that if I cut through one of the adjacent parking lots, I could access the greenway and run, undisturbed by traffic, for miles in either direction. Snaking through pastoral landscapes and past housing complexes and malls, the trail was a small, insistent miracle. And, like the placemaking efforts of the Walton Family Foundation, it doesn’t make the asphalt desert willed into existence by the likes of Walmart disappear, but it does offer an alternative path, a respite from an otherwise intractable set of problems.