2020 Gold Medal
The Gold Medal is the AIA’s highest annual honor, recognizing individuals whose work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture.
Though he was born in Germany, Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, is a product of the American South. As a traveling bible salesman, he experienced the South’s simple dignity and rich culture, which helped shape his worldview. Now, from a career spanning three decades, Blackwell has amassed an important body of transcendent work in the hills of Northwest Arkansas. In a time of ceaseless superficial messages, Blackwell’s work remains purely authentic.
Blackwell’s work emerges from a deep understanding of site, landscape, art, and craft. His “glocal” approach to architecture is reflected in his education, with studies at Auburn University and Syracuse University in Florence. Despite operating in a region where architecture can be overlooked, his firm, Marlon Blackwell Architects, is eager to tackle any project type that serves the common good, regardless of scale and budget, and has been widely recognized with more than 120 national and 14 international design awards.
“Marlon Blackwell is a student of his ‘Place’ in the world. This ethic provides a philosophical coherence to his work,” wrote Brian MacKay-Lyons in a letter supporting Blackwell’s nomination for the Gold Medal. “His is a uniquely American architecture; he builds confidently upon the American cultural landscape. His ‘cultural realist’ approach is democratic, looking to the ordinary and the everyday for inspiration. It is connected to society, rather than being aloof. This is not a nostalgic architecture, but an architecture of its time and place.”
In addition to his exemplary architecture, Blackwell’s influence and achievements as a teacher parallel the successes of his practice. Because of his outstanding leadership as a distinguished professor, the E. Fay Jones chair, and department head of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas, Blackwell was named one of DesignIntelligence magazine’s “30 Most Admired Educators.” Through his unique pedagogical approach, his students often carry with them his sense of inquiry and ideals that will ensure the successful future of the profession. Blackwell is often a visiting professor at schools across the country and served on the US Department of State’s Industry Advisory Group for the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations from 2012 to 2019.
“As a practicing architect and educator myself, I have become aware of the growing estrangement between the world of practitioner and that of the academy,” wrote Thom Mayne, FAIA, 2013 AIA Gold Medal recipient, in a letter supporting Blackwell’s nomination. “Marlon teaches, as do I, because of the great sense of responsibility to add a measure of reality to the education of architectural students while also supporting the theoretical or less pragmatic aspects of their education.”
Evidence of Blackwell’s international reputation can be found between the pages of the countless design journals and books that have featured his work. His first monograph, An Architecture of the Ozarks: The Works of Marlon Blackwell, was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2005. Later this year will mark the release of his latest, Radical Practice. His body of work has been recognized with the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in 2016, and he was selected as the William A. Bernoudy Architect in Residence at the American Academy in Rome last year. He was inducted into the National Academy of Design in 2018 and received the E. Fay Jones Gold Medal from AIA Arkansas in 2017.
Through his work, which Billie Tsien, FAIA, described as “truthful architecture—simple, powerful, and steadfast,” Blackwell has influenced an entire generation of architects. His inventive work has long demonstrated his willingness to challenge our culture to create a practice of boundless creativity.
“Every Marlon Blackwell design is a new lesson in the transformative ability of architecture to reveal the uniqueness of every site and give meaning to any program, to achieve an expressive clarity in strong and simple forms,” wrote Julie V. Snow, AIA, in a letter supporting Blackwell’s nomination. “In every way, across all measures, the work raises our expectations for our own architecture and teaches us that it is possible to exceed what appears to limit us.”