When a project by Arkansas architect Marlon Blackwell was first shown on the cover of this magazine in February 2001, it was part of an issue on the theme “Out There . . . Architecture Outside the Centers of Fashion.” In spite of the somewhat supercilious headline, it helped put Blackwell’s highly contextual approach to modern architecture on the map. A decade and a half later, Blackwell couldn’t be more front and center: last month Marlon Blackwell Architects won the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum’s National Design Awards for architecture. The firm will accept the award at a gala on October 20 at the Cooper Hewitt in New York. RECORD spoke to Blackwell and Meryati Johari Blackwell, coprincipal (the two are also married), over the phone from their Fayetteville office.
Architectural Record: How did you hear the news of your National Design Award?
Marlon: I was guest teaching a studio at the University of Texas, Austin, and I got the call right in the middle of my lecture. It was pretty shocking. A friend of mine happened to walk by my studio and I pulled him into the hallway and said, “Hey, man, guess what?”
I have here a 2001 issue of RECORD headed “Out There.” Do you remember it?
Marlon: I do. That really set us up. Now it’s come full circle. It is amazing what’s happened since that moment. We were working out of a spare bedroom at the time and we had a tangerine-orange iMac.
Meryati: We had finished the Keenan TowerHouse and the Moore HoneyHouse, both seminal projects. We wanted to take something like a carport into the realm of architecture.
What were some other key moments for your firm?
Marlon: The Blessings Golf Clubhouse in 2005, which gave us the opportunity to scale up. I think the next benchmark was St. Nicholas Church [RECORD, November 2011, page 68]. At $100 per square foot, we showed we could turn a former welding shed into a worship space that would capture people’s spirit. Scale and proportion doesn’t cost anything.
Over the years, why have you opted to stick around in Arkansas?
Marlon: Brian Mackay-Lyons, who lives and practices in Nova Scotia, is always like, “I’d rather be a first-rate hick architect than a third-rate New York architect.” We stayed for the opportunity and support from our institution [the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas].
Meryati: [laughing] We might move if someone gives us a 100-story high-rise.
Marlon: We very much want to be part of the social aspect of architecture but are continually trying to master the language of our own discipline. The architecture provides the social with value. Some people get it backwards: they get all the social stuff out front and get a mediocre building.
The Cooper Hewitt director said this year’s winners show “remarkable empathy for contemporary social concerns.” That calls to mind recent prizes to folks like Shigeru Ban and Alejandro Aravena. Do you think social architecture is a trend?
Marlon: Yeah—hopefully it’s not out of guilt. You look at Shigeru and Aravena and they are innovating with modest means. We call it “minimum means for a maximum of meaning.” We recently did a wellness center in Quapaw, Oklahoma, for $90 per square foot. Some of our architect friends joke, “You are making our profession out to be a bunch of MacGyvers.” But if we are going to have design in places you wouldn’t expect, that’s what we’re going to do.
Yes, you are known for your regional and contextual approach to architecture.
Meryati: Marlon doesn’t like the word regional. You wouldn’t classify someone practicing in Boston as “regional mid-Atlantic” or something—why immediately label something because it’s not in a city? Our current work is as modern as could be.
Marlon: People say, “You do the vernacular so well.” We don’t do the vernacular—we transgress it. You will be hard-pressed to look at our work and say “Arkansas.” While a lot of inspiration comes from a place-based approach, it also comes from a universal architectural language. If I look at a barn, I also think Corbusier.
Marlon: We want to do more campus and school work. We’re doing a Montessori school in Florida. We are also working on the first tri-faith center in the country—Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. We are also working on a combined church and art cinema—you watch Birdman on Saturday night, and then you repent the next day.