Architect Marlon Blackwell’s ‘Radical Practice’ Emphasizes Importance of Place in Design

by decwells
Architect Marlon Blackwell’s ‘Radical Practice’ Emphasizes Importance of Place in Design

Image courtesy of Marlon Blackwell Architects

A book signing for “Radical Practice: The Work of Marlon Blackwell Architects” will be held at 6:30 p.m. September 8 at Pearl’s Books in Fayetteville.

Radical Practice: The Work of Marlon Blackwell Architects was published this summer by Princeton Architectural Press.

Blackwell, a fellow of the American Institute of Architects, is principal architect and founder of Marlon Blackwell Architects, based in Fayetteville. He is also a Distinguished Professor and the E. Fay Jones Chair in Architecture in the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the U of A, where he has taught since 1992.

Peter MacKeith, Fay Jones School dean and professor of architecture, and Jonathan Boelkins, teaching assistant professor in the school, edited the 510-page book over a period of two years. They worked closely with Fayetteville-based DOXA/VANTAGE to design the book.

The new monograph follows the firm’s first publication, An Architecture of the Ozarks: The Works of Marlon Blackwellpublished in 2006. In the 16 years since then, much has changed.

Growth, evolution, maturity. At the base are the constant familiar, yet deeper, roots.

Now 30 years into the practice as well, with a string of important honors both personally and for the firm, and with a growing body of design work focused on the civic and institutional realm, it was simply time for another monograph, Blackwell said. said.

His academic and practitioner careers have run parallel for the past three decades, and they function in symbiosis. Over that time, the U of A has supported him to work at a high level in both areas.

“Teaching has been such a big part of the practice, in many ways, as much as the practice has been a big part of my teaching. I can’t imagine separating the two,” he said.

So it was natural that MacKeith and Boelkins are the editors of this book. MacKeith is an accomplished writer and editor. Boelkins is a school alumnus, architect, author and former studio director at Blackwell’s firm.

“Peter knows me, and he really gets the job. He understands it in a way that few do,” Blackwell said. “I needed someone who could be a tough critic, but still understand what it is we do. And I needed an engaged editor.”

“The making of Radical practice was a comprehensive and collaborative design effort,” said MacKeith, “one that improved over time with each iteration in layout, each essay contributed, and each image selected. Of course, the design excellence of the practice and of the 13 projects documented underlies the entire book. But that excellence demanded an equal response from the editorial and graphic design teams. The process was gratifying, and the final published book is deeply rewarding in intensity, tone, vividness and intimacy.”

MacKeith and Boelkins each wrote an introductory essay for the book. They worked with 20 leading designers, planners and artists who wrote short essays ranging from 500 to 1,000 words. Contributing authors include Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, architects of the Obama Presidential Center; Maurice Cox, Chicago’s city planning director; Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne; James Corner, landscape architect of the High Line; and environmental artist Mary Miss.

The renovation of Vol Walker Hall and the addition of the Steven L. Anderson Design Center—home of the Fay Jones School—is one of 13 projects. Other projects include Blessings Golf Clubhouse, Crystal Bridges Museum Store, Thaden School, Shelby Farms Park, Ruth Lilly Visitors Pavilion and Harvey Pediatric Clinic. The table of contents provides a silhouette icon of each project.

Ample space is given to the projects themselves, with pages of photography for each, alongside new, simple, black and white line drawings – an elemental yet elegant touch.

“It was really about getting the work out there and telling the story of the work,” Blackwell said.

In addition to presenting design projects, the book tells the story of the firm’s work through contributed essays, an interview with Blackwell, inspirational travel photos, photographer Tim Hursley’s images of Arkansas landscapes and towns, and standalone quotes scattered throughout the nearly 7-pound volume.

“We wanted something that had weight and gravitas, not just in the content and the words — but literally,” Blackwell said. “We wanted it to be a slow scroll.”

The initial 2,000 copies of its first printing have already been sold.

A book signing will be held at 6:30 p.m., Thursday, September 8, at Pearl’s Books in Fayetteville, just down the street from Blackwell’s firm.

Make a book

Blackwell founded his professional practice in 1992, and in 30 years it has grown from a firm of one to two to now 25. He and Ati Blackwell, his wife, MBA principal and business partner, have led the firm for the past 20 years .

“This book is not just me,” he said. “It’s the cumulative effort by some wonderful, talented people in the firm. It certainly includes Ati and all the things she does – from architecture to interior design to finance.”

The need for this new monograph was clear by 2019. Several national and international honors have come to Blackwell personally and to the firm in recent years, such as receiving the National Design Award from Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, being elected to both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the National Academy of Design, who was named an American Artists Ford Fellow and won several honorary awards from the American Institute of Architects and a World Architecture Festival for the world’s best civic and community building.

The firm’s operations have increased in terms of diversity, scale and complexity. And in 2019, the American Institute of Architects announced that Blackwell was the choice for the 2020 Gold Medal, its highest honor for an architect.

It was time. The density of grants prompted MacKeith’s suggestion to Blackwell that a book project was not only timely but necessary.

So they decided on the press they wanted to use and began to develop the list of projects to include and the list of potential contributors. Then came the pandemic.

It stopped them. And that gave them time. More time to reflect on this book project. More time to develop the story they wanted to tell and how they could tell it. More time to secure the writers they wanted and to get feedback from those writers.

This gave them more time to expand on Tim Hursley’s involvement in the book. In addition to his architectural photography of the featured projects, the book is filled with his photo essays on Arkansas cultural landscapes. Blackwell calls them elegiac, at once “melancholy but hopeful.”

The pandemic also delayed the construction of some critical architectural projects they wanted in the book. So the book was delayed another year to include it.

Some contributing writers were connected to certain projects and spoke to them, while others were not and made observations about Blackwell or design aspects.

Guy Nordenson was the structural engineer for the Ruth Lilly Visitors Pavilion, and James Corner worked with Blackwell on Shelby Farms Park. Julie Snow commented on the way Blackwell used the color red in three projects.

“We wanted people near and far from work — but who we knew, either professionally or academically,” Blackwell said. “They are people who I thought could provide diverse insight about the work and about the projects to help illuminate the different aspects of what we do at the practice, as well as the projects.”

The diverse components of the book show the range of inspiration that plays into the creative work of an architect. Travels, memories, writings – all of these fuel the creative spirit. Blackwell looks for relationships between nature and culture. And the way a structure meets both earth and sky is significant.

“This is what often provides the expressive character of what you do,” he said. “Not necessarily the particular shape, but the expressive character. That’s why the silhouette is very important to me. It has this abstract character without giving you all the details. It’s striking and elusive at the same time.”

Ethan Kaplan at the firm, in the role of assistant editor, spent a lot of time gathering all the material. Bryan Murren, a recent architecture graduate, also assisted with the book’s production as a student.

And the group worked closely with Tim Walker and Tony Steck at DOXA/VANTAGE to design the book itself. That team gave it a level of sophistication not typically found in monographs, Blackwell said.

What’s in a name?

MacKeith suggested the book’s title, Radical practiceas a fundamental organizing concept, emphasizing the lesser-known meaning of radical as derived from roots or even rooted.

The work of Blackwell’s firm is rooted in a place – in the people, culture and environment of that place. Yet the architecture itself may not be what is expected.

“It also made sense that so much of everything we do is a story of transformation. That in our own way we are gently transgressive and radicalizing because we provide alternative models for what architecture can be in our place. Especially in places where architecture of the highest aspirations you would least expect to find,” Blackwell said.

Their approach often involves using materials that are quite common and ordinary, and elevating them into something potentially extraordinary. The craft of making comes from how the materials are connected and joined together.

“How materials are joined really starts with understanding the joint as a spatial proposition. How to make transitions from one material to another is therefore a big part of the grammar of our work, the articulation,” he said. “That’s something we’re constantly working on is developing the language, the architectural syntax in the work. It’s not really a style; it’s more the way we speak. How we speak through the work.”

The succession of awards garnered by Blackwell and his firm, most recently the AIA Gold Medal, provides a platform from which to tell their story. “And that’s the story that architecture can happen anywhere, at any scale, at any budget and for anyone. That’s our story. That’s what we’re looking for,” he said.

Whether they’re designing a small-town library in Gentry or an embassy in Africa, “we do it with the same intensity and the same passion and the same love for craft and materials. Wherever we work, we want to make what we do available and accessible as something that people can feel is a connection to the place.”

The recognition and notoriety also offers the chance to share the story of high caliber architecture and design happening in the middle of the country, and in the South in particular – and to be advocates for other firms across the region.

“I think this is a huge win for the drug because there are so few people who have received this level of recognition,” Blackwell said. “What it’s allowed me to do is become more and more of an advocate for practices and other creatives in the middle, in terms of what they’re doing and the validity and meaning of the work. So it’s empowering.”

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