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Marlon Blackwell Architects’ Vol Walker Hall and Steven L. Anderson Design Center. (Timothy Hursley)
Marlon Blackwell, principal of Marlon Blackwell Architects and distinguished professor and department head at the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas, practices in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where the temptation to design according to a derivative vernacular—and the risk of descending into quaintness—is great. Blackwell seeks instead to operate in the space between the vernacular and the universal, to create buildings that are simultaneously both and neither. “What emerges is something that I like to call the strangely familiar,” he said. “We’re working with forms in a cultural context that have a first reading of being familiar, but on a second, third, or fourth reading are clearly transgressive to either the local typology or the vernacular. What we try to do is kind of de-typify things—it’s really about trying to find or develop an idea about performative surfaces.”
St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church. (Timothy Hursley)
When Blackwell, who will deliver the afternoon keynote address at next month’s Facades+ Dallas conference, talks about “performative surfaces,” he does not necessarily mean high-tech building skins. “What I’m really talking about is something that’s both sensual and sensible,” he said. Blackwell prefers a more commonsensical approach to performance. “It’s like the chicken farmer,” he explained. “Chicken farmers have figured out that if they orient their large chicken sheds so that the narrow part faces east and west, the chickens don’t cook before their time.” In Arkansas, even high-profile projects like his Vol Walker Hall and Steven L. Anderson Design Center require careful attention to costs. “Given the modest budgets here, most of what we have to achieve is passive,” he said. “I’m trying to instill this into buildings that don’t necessarily come with honorific programs: they’re everyday sorts of buildings, so consequently they’re modest in their application or execution, but they’re very high in their aspiration.”
Blackwell’s early passion for drawing resonates through his work today. “I grew up as a cartoonist, so everything I’ve ever conceived of artistically or architecturally has been conceived of as a visage—as a profile or a silhouette,” he said. “I really think of the buildings that we make as figures in a place—as having a figural presence. They become the expressive character of a place, and that expressive character is achieved through things like the envelope, rather than trying to achieve expressive character merely through form. As a result, we’re able to build things.” Blackwell hopes his own career can serve as a positive lesson to Facades+ Dallas attendees. “I’d like them to walk away thinking: I can do that,” he concluded. “Not everybody can be Renzo Piano. There’s that everyday kind of work that we do—there’s no reason the aspiration has to be any different.”