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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.