On a recent afternoon at Shelby Farms Park in Memphis, the sun beat down with ferocity, the sultry air wrapping visitors in a smothering embrace. Nevertheless, intrepid joggers zipped by, kayakers paddled across Hyde Lake, and bicyclists pedaled along the trails that zigzag through the varied landscapes, while most of us mere mortals sought refuge in the shade thrown by the group of buildings abutting the water. Designed by Fayetteville, Arkansas–based Marlon Blackwell Architects (MBA), the structures, which range from an 8,000-square-foot visitors center to diminutive picnic pavilions, introduce a modern alternative to the more typical scout-camp-style “parkitecture” by alluding to an agricultural vernacular, in both the plainspoken forms and the spare material palette. This family of buildings serves as an entry point and support system for the sprawling 4,500-acre park—master-planned by James Corner Field Operations (JCFO)—beyond.

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Back in 1929, the site on the city’s eastern outskirts housed a penal farm where hundreds of inmates worked in the property’s fields and orchards. After decades of operation, county officials argued for a new use for the land. Various plans for its sale and development were floated, but tenacious citizens persevered in designating the area for a public park, and in 1975 brought in landscape architect Garrett Eckbo to draw up a report and make recommendations. As the site gradually transitioned into a recreational area, however, the vision for its future remained nebulous until the early 2000s, when a conservancy was formed to manage the facility—one of the biggest urban parks in the world—which, by this time, was well used.

In 2007, JCFO won an international competition to craft a cohesive master plan. “We were struck by how immersive the park was—the scale was hard to fathom,” says principal in charge Richard Kennedy, noting its diversity of natural habitats: forest, marshlands, streams and ponds, and big open fields, as well as the eclectic mix of recreational facilities, from BMX bike courses to an equestrian area, and extensive paths and trails. But “all these things made it difficult to understand the park as one place,” says Kennedy. “The edges were not defined, and roadways bisected the park.” Besides the fragmentation, ecological areas had deteriorated and were overrun with invasive species. JCFO put forward three main concepts: “One Park/One Million Trees/Twelve Landscapes.” To promote unity and connectivity, the team created new entrances, linked circulation, and built bridges to adjacent residential neighborhoods. They employed earthworks and plantings to form screens and frame views, and their ongoing replanting scheme focuses on ecological improvement, while maintaining the park’s wide-ranging landscapes. “It’s a great prototype for how parks can contribute more to communities beyond recreation,” says Kennedy.

The final, and crowning, effort of this phase was to create a hub—the Heart of the Park—by expanding the lake and surrounding it with variously programmed facilities. This active area would draw visitors and provide a plethora of amenities while generating revenues (through rentals of bikes, boats, event spaces, and picnic pavilions, as well as from retail and food sales) for the upkeep of the more natural precincts. Before, the park was used mostly by regulars. “It felt like a secret,” recalls Jen Andrews, CEO of Shelby Farms Park Conservancy. “I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, 4,500 acres, we can’t keep that a secret,’ ” she adds, noting Memphis’s soaring rates of childhood obesity, diabetes, and heart-health issues. The buildings at the Heart of the Park (the visitors center is LEED Silver and the restaurant/event center is LEED certified) had to be pragmatic and durable, but “rustic was not what we were going for,” says Andrews. “This is an urban park. We wanted the buildings here to be modern and sculptural, but also we didn’t want them to look like they dropped out of a spaceship onto the site.”

The conservancy worked extensively with consultants to devise a programmatic mix that would ensure the Heart of the Park could financially sustain the larger facility. In 2012, MBA won the contract and collaborated with JCFO to refine the building siting and develop the space between structures, which include a destination restaurant (the Kitchen, cofounded by Kimbal Musk, brother of Elon) and dividable event space, a stage pavilion, and a boathouse. The architects’ interest in building something “strangely familiar” jibed with the conservancy’s desired aesthetic. “We were intent on using the vernacular and transcending it,” says Blackwell. “The visitors center is the mothership, and the rest are progeny. If you trace their family tree, a barn in a pasture—or other Southern typologies, like the dogtrot, the shotgun, or the shed—would be where they originated from.” This approach, combined with the instinct to create shade and exploit the territory between the built and natural worlds, led the team to turn to the regional phenomenon of the porch as a uniting feature: each structure has one.

As with most of MBA’s projects, the buildings at Shelby Farms employ few and simple materials but elevate them through smart applications and sensitive detailing. The minimalist visitors center (which contains an information desk, gift shop, café, and offices) is largely clad in aluminum bar grating, which exposes the steel structure while mitigating solar gain on the glazed facades and providing ventilation (along with five 16-foot fans) for the 30-foot cantilever that forms a lakefront veranda. At the prow-like boathouse, the grating forms an elegant screened vitrine for kayaks. Metal panel, used on this building’s enclosed portion, makes appearances as cladding for the restaurant and is echoed at the picnic pavilions (named “crickets” for their crouched forms), which are little more than standing-seam canopies on steel frames. While the metal plays with the sunlight, bringing a dynamism to the structures, cypress—for cladding and ceilings—lends a warmth to the porches and other spaces, and helps to blend inside with out.

Last year, the new facilities generated $2 million in revenue, and projections for 2018 are looking up, as more Memphians discover this urban retreat and its alluring facilities—from its water playground to its zip-line, buffalo range, and open-air concert venue. With the Heart of the Park, says Andrews, “we’ve given people who hadn’t yet found a reason to come to the park, a reason. If, before, people weren’t sure what there was to do at Shelby Farms, they definitely know now.”


Landscape Architect:

James Corner Field Operations

475 10th Ave, 9th Floor

New York, NY 10018

212 433 1450



Personnel in landscape architect's firm who should receive special credit:

James Corner, RLA, FASLA

Richard Kennedy, RLA

Tsutomu Bessho, RLA

Sarah Astheimer, RLA

Christopher Marcinkoski

Maura Rockcastle

Lisa Tziona Switkin

Hong Zhou, RLA

Megan Born, RLA

Kim Cooper, RLA

Sanjukta Sen, RLA

Baewon Suh

Doug Meehan

Donghyouk Ahn, RLA



Marlon Blackwell Architects

42 East Center Street

Fayetteville, AR  72701

p. 479.973.9121



Interior designer:

Marlon Blackwell Architects

Semple Brown (Restaurant and Café Design)



Civil, Site MEP, Site Structural: Pickering Firm, Inc

Building Mechanical and Plumbing: Halton Engineering

Building Electrical: Canup Engineering

Structural for Buildings: Engineering Consultants, Inc.

Structural for Buildings: Guy Nordenson & Associates



Local Landscape Architecture: JPA, Inc

Environmental and Adaptive Management: University of Memphis Ecological Research Center

Soil Science: Pine & Swallow Associates, Inc.

Ecologists and Water Quality Engineers: FTN Associates Lake

Water Feature Engineers: Fluidity Design Consultants

Irrigation: Northern Designs

Cost Estimating: Faithful and Gould

Architectural Lighting: Renfro Design Group

Furnishings: Fleming Architects


General contractor:

Montgomery Martin Contractors



Timothy Hursley, James Corner Field Operations


Structural System

Manufacturer of any structural components unique to this project: Tri-State Iron Works


Exterior Cladding

Masonry: Schwartz Stone

Metal panels: Peterson Aluminum Corporation

Metal/glass curtain wall: Tubelite, Inc.

Wood: Sunrise Builders Supply, Horn Lake, MS

ACM: Alcoa Architectural Products – Reynobond Aluminum Composite Material

Moisture barrier: BASF Construction Chemicals

Other cladding unique to this project: P&R Metals Inc.



Elastomeric: Carlisle Syntec Systems – Sure-Weld TPO

Metal: Peterson Aluminum Corporation – Pac-Clad



Metal frame: Tri-State Iron Works



Glass: Vitro Architectural Glass Solarban

Skylights: Vitro Architectural Glass Solarban



Entrances: Tubelite, Inc

Metal doors: Steelcraft

Wood doors: Eggers



Locksets: Corbin Russwin

Closers: Storefront - International Door Closers, Wood and Metal Doors - Corbin Russwin

Exit devices: First Choice Building Products

Pulls: Tubelite, Inc.

Security devices: Stanley


Interior Finishes

Acoustical ceilings: Armstrong Lyra Square Lay-In, Tegular Smooth

Suspension grid: Armstrong Suprafine

Cabinetwork and custom woodwork:  Millwork Specialty Contractors, LLC – Buildings, ImageCraft Commercial – VC Gift Shop

Paints and stains: PPG

Paneling: Cypress – Sunrise Builders Supply

Plastic laminate: Formica

Solid surfacing: Quartz Caesarstone

Floor and wall tile: American Olean

Carpet: Interface

Special interior finishes unique to this project: Polished Concrete – Allen Concrete Stains



Office furniture:

Task Chairs – Knoll Generation

Guest Chairs – Knoll Marc Krusin Side Chair and Knoll Eero Sarrinen Executive Arm Chair

Conference Chair – Davis Sola Walnut Chair

Executive Desk – Halcon Stria Desk and Credenza

All other Desks – Knoll Reff Profiles

Reception furniture:

Benches – Knoll Harry Bertoia Bench

Guest Chairs – Knoll Marc Krusin Side Chair

Side Tables Knoll Eero Saarinen Small Round Side Table

Fixed seating: None


Event Space Chair – Source Tier Chair

Multipurpose Indoor/ Outdoor Chairs – Knoll Spark Chair

Outdoor Rocking Chairs and Tables – Loll Designs Adirondack Rocker and Outdoor Side Table


Conference Room Tables – Knoll

Mulitpurpose Tables and Event Space Tables - Mitylite


Guest Chairs –HBF Bow Tie and Bernhardt Textiles Drift

Event Space Stack Chairs – Eykon Source One Buckingham

Other furniture:

Lecterns – Izzy Dewey Lectern

Moveable White Boards – Clarus Go Mobile Glassboard

Trash Cans/ Recycling Center – Landscape Forms

Desk Lamp - Design Within Reach Lim C Table Lamp and Baton Table Lamp



Interior ambient lighting: Solas Ray Lighting

Downlights: Luxen

Tasklighting: Tivoli

Exterior: Traxon Technologies

Dimming system or other lighting controls: Lutron



Flush Valves: American Standard

Faucets: Zurn

Shower Surround: American Bath

Sink Bowl: Elkay

Water Heater: Bradford

Instant Electric Water Heater: Eemax



Other unique products that contribute to sustainability: Geothermal Mechanical System