About Marlon Blackwell, FAIA: Marlon practices architecture in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and serves as Distinguished Professor and Department Head in the School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas. Working outside the architectural mainstream, his architecture is based in design strategies that draw upon vernaculars and the contradictions of place; strategies that seek to transgress conventional boundaries for architecture.
Work produced in Marlon’s professional office, Marlon Blackwell Architect, has received national and international recognition with numerous design awards and significant publication in books, architectural journals, and magazines. The significance of his contributions to design is evidenced by the 2012 Architecture Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the publication of a monograph of his work entitled An Architecture of the Ozarks: The Works of Marlon Blackwell published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2005.
Marlon, 100 Acres is an impressive natural space in the heart of a major urban area. It draws visitors both for its untamed woodlands and wetlands, but also for its modern art installations. How did these seemingly contradictory factors inform your design decisions?
Indeed; the 100 Acres is a place for the intersection of nature and culture. We were constantly negotiating the idea that nature should act as an analog, to inform the structure and how the Visitors Center situated itself. Simultaneously, we looked to abstraction, art, and sculpture as a way to create a formal proposition in the woods. It wasn’t about reconnecting with the vernacular, but it was about creating material logic that was suitable for the woods that dealt with light in an analogous way (the way light moves through the tree canopy). It simultaneously manipulates the materials and has a degree of abstraction. The black volume clad in charred cedar hovers above the land, acting as a counterpoint to the natural aging of the wood lining the superstructure.
This building, set upon figured mounds, begins to blur distinctions between land, art, and architecture—as well as the relationship with nature. By doing this, I think we’ve been able to imbue this modest structure with the order of change. No matter how many times you visit, you will find a new experience each time. There is a constant state of flux in the relationship between the air, the light, the water, and this place. It is an interpretation and translation of place, but, simultaneously, it understands that it is also a construction—an artificial intervention into this place.
The site’s location on the floodplain of the White River posed a challenge. How did you mitigate the very real risk of flooding while maintaining cohesion with the rest of the park, which is very flat?
The site was a real driver for us and it took a lot of observation and reconnaissance for us to understand how it flowed and how the natural processes affected it and how over time it had been constructed as a site. It wasn’t natural as we like to understand something pristine, but it was something wild in its own way due to the way it had been developed by man over time. We mitigated flooding by thinking about how we would use the forest floor as a podium by which we could move the building out of the floodplain. We did this by using a series of figured berms, much like Indian mounds that rise naturally and seamlessly out of the forest floor, covered in natural vegetation over time, allowing a base for the building to float above.
The points of these figures take you visually out into the forest and beyond, keeping the building out of the flood plain while creating a seamless relationship with the forest structure.
Many of your projects have been recognized with design awards. What’s special about receiving an Institute Honor Award?
I think what is really special about receiving an Institute Honor Award is that, although we have been recognized in many formats with many different design awards—local, regional, national, and international, I know that the process by which an Institute Honor Award is given is very rigorous. I appreciate the fact that members of the jury actually go and visit the projects and experience them for themselves in an embodied way that you just can’t get from looking at a portfolio or images on a screen. So I know that a project that receives an Institute Honor Award is something that has been felt by the jury as much as it has been understood.
And so that, in my mind, elevates it to an award at the highest level, and something that we see in our firm as a real benchmark as well as for the institutions that we work for—that their investment has been returned by the profession as a work that is operating at the highest level and we hope to do it again.
What words of encouragement would you offer to those who may want to submit a project for awards consideration—but who think only large scale projects from large firms get recognized?
First of all, what I would say to encourage someone considering submitting a small project, is that we firmly believe that architecture can happen at any scale. I don’t think architecture is determined by its scale.
The key is that with every good building, there’s a story. Just because a project is small, it doesn’t mean the story can’t be big in the presentation of the work—you tell the story, you provide the context, you provide what the challenges and problems are and an insight into the design response, and the final result. You can elevate the smallest buildings to the status of architecture and worthy of consideration by a jury that sees value in good design and what it can do.
2012 Institute Honor Award for Architecture Recipient:
Architect: Marlon Blackwell
Owner: Indianapolis Museum
Call for Entries: 2013
The Institute Honor Awards
Marlon M. Blackwell, FAIA