A Man Called Fay
In an architectural world freaked out on speed and hype, Fay Jones stood apart. His residences, chapels, and pavilions form a discernible body of work as singular and distinctive as their maker. In a sense, Jones ennobled and quickened Arkansas, an emerging region near America’s core, and the place shifted from near-frontier to the kingdom of Thorncrown, a wonderland of natural gifts and shifting light. We saw this focused world anew through his eyes.
The press has eulogized his personal qualities, including his forthright, democratic manner, his dignity, his energetic awareness, his role as an inspiring teacher, and his professional alliances with great minds, including Frank Lloyd Wright and Bruce Goff. (Who else worked with and learned from both?) Jones’s greatest lesson for subsequent generations, however, lies outside the so-called “Ozark style,” characterized by wood and stone; instead, his real legacy lies within his work and its relationship to language. Fay Jones thought and spoke most eloquently in three dimensions, a lesson at the core of architectural meaning. Few have mastered it more completely.
In fact, he bristled at the world “style.” “I never sought to ring the universal bell,” he said, eschewing trendy developments. He felt that the word style conveyed too much of superficial, temporal fashion, when his goal was the development of a body of thought, conveyed through drawings, models, and completed buildings. He never acknowledged this notion of architectural language as articulation, if he ever consciously held it. However, the work proclaims it as physical proof. He dreamed and made a world using a consistent architectural syntax, spending a lifetime pursuing its realization.
With some exceptions for the chameleonlike Wright, who lived to explore a variety of media, consistency of means has characterized other great careers. Consider how the late Mies van der Rohe (steel) or today’s Tadao Ando (concrete) deploy a limited range of architectural materials complementary to their individual visions. In the predigital age, that is.
In Jones’s case, he accepted the Wrightian, even Emersonian, notion of the relatedness of language at all scales. Thus, famously, “the whole is to the part as the part is to the whole.” The truth (for there was a sort of truth) of the architecture lay in its relationship to the natural world, to its immediate surroundings and topography, to the materials and systems that it comprises, and to the details that constitute its fundamental spirit. Details, in this cosmology, take on tremendous weight, for in them we can see, as Blake proposes, “a World in a grain of sand.” The senses drink it all in.
With typical economy of expression, Jones would have scoffed at the term “theory.” Yet he explored ideas. While consciously drawing meaning from history, Jones was working out a personal worldview that drew on wellsprings within his own psyche, in which rational and intuitive elements are conjoined. Characteristically, he called such motives “caves and tree houses.” Thus, wet stone walls, curving and womblike, form the bases of early works, which simultaneously rise high into the tree line, admitting light and air.
At its highest expression, at Thorncrown Chapel or Pinecote Pavilion, his work coalesces into an architecture that fully expresses complex thought, blinding our attention to the pieces and parts. At the critical moment in both instances, the literal linchpin has been replaced with a steel void, an oculus he called the “operative opposite.” Light pours through this structural ring, forming a perspective that snaps these highly engineered constructions into focus, at once blurring our understanding and dazzling our sight. Do we see building or art, a real place or another realm? Using the simplest things, whether humble materials, pattern, or light, Jones synthesized the components into a coherent, expressive architectural idiom. In his lifetime, Fay Jones did what other architects have tried to do, but they could only jabber: He spoke most effectively without uttering a single word.