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A two-day symposium “The Place of Practice/The Practice of Place” gathered prominent architects last week from across the South. The 18 architects were a sampling of the 40 firms that participated in an exhibit of contemporary architecture entitled “A South Forty,”  featured at the Venice Biennale in 2021.

“The symposium is meant to demonstrate the diversity and vitality of practices across the American South,” said Peter MacKeith, Dean of the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas, who had first explored the idea of the Venice exhibit as a special architectural edition of the southern literary and arts magazine The Oxford American. “There are a number of tropes in the public mind of the American South, where the default settings lean toward the plantation house or the sharecroppers shack. The South, like any region, is much more than those default settings."

Marlon Blackwell, the 2020 AIA Gold Medal recipient (and the opening keynote at RECORD’s  Innovation conference in New York on October 19th), suggests the concept of “Placeness” which, he says, “allows the forces of nature and public life to shape [design] into local forms: architecture in the place, of the place and for the place. Placeness is a discussion of how architecture—by constructing new identities for places—can create new contexts that offer social and spatial articulations experienced directly through architecture.”

In the Thaden School campus in Bentonville, Arkansas, designed by Marlon Blackwell Architects and Eskew Dumez Ripple, the idea of creating new contexts comes into fruition. Blackwell’s Bike Barn (2020) is a playful reinterpretation of the traditional wooden barn with its scrim of red plank siding and voluminous shape; its exuberant form is at home in the field of the open campus.

Frank Harmon, the noted Raleigh, North Carolina architect (and obvious sage-in-residence at the symposium), reminded other panelists that great storytelling is one of the defining characteristics of the South. He introduced his projects by telling the stories of the people who were to occupy them: for a petite woman blacksmith who insisted on wearing pearls while forging iron, Harmon designed a workshop of gritty elegance; for a dedicated environmental scientist, he produced a graceful, open-air classroom that barely impacted the hillside where it perched.

Brandon Pace, of Knoxville,Tennessee-based Sanders Pace Architecture, recounted the story of the Loghaven Artist Residency campus, designed by his firm on the site of a group of log cabins built in the 1930’s. For the McDonough House (2020), the public gallery and offices of the campus, the architects took a simple gabled form and divided it with a “dog trot” entry that  pierces through the building. There, instead of logs, the firm clad the structure with bleached accoya planks, interwoven at the corners, with a concrete base, not the rough stone of the cabins.

McDonough House

Interior of McDonough House. Photo by Bruce Cole Photography

 The McDonough House is an exemplar of “critical regionalism,” as MacKeith has explained it. Rather than lapse into sentimental mimicry of historic buildings, critical regionalism calls for a sensitivity to context, climate and the spirit of the future user—but an  avoidance of style for style’s sake.

In his talk “Reflections of a Black Southerner,” University of Arkansas history Professor Calvin White showed how the features of antebellum mansions were incorporated into several new, local campus buildings. “These grandiose buildings mean one thing (heritage and refined culture) to one demographic and something totally different (injustice and dominance) to another.” It’s the architect’s role, he expressed, to respond to a building’s impact on all demographics in the community.

To help address the social and economic disparities in the South, the Jackson, Mississippi-based firm Duvall Decker has included affordable housing in their portfolio of public buildings. “In depressed economies, the typical stand-alone three-bedroom house no longer serves that community: it doesn’t promote interaction between neighbors, it doesn’t support non-traditional families,” says partner Anne Marie Duvall. For the housing project Reserves at Gray Park (2021) in Greenville, Mississippi, the architects created more density and a greater variety of houses, with shared porches and entries.

McDonough House

Duvall Decker’s Midtown Housing’s two-story walk-ups incorporate expressive porches that face the public space. Photo by Timothy Hursley

For the Midtown Housing (2015) project in Jackson, the firm created more density and public space in a series of two-story walk-ups, where subtle details made a big differences in the perceptions of the occupants, according to partner Roy Decker. The town was once divided by brick houses on one side of the “tracks” and slighter, wood frame houses on the other. “We began to bridge that disparity by incorporating brick facades into our project,” says Decker.

Despite the fraught history of the South, it’s a region that has engendered great works of literature, music—and architecture. “The arts are the secret weapon of the South,” Blackwell maintains. “The arts have the unifying power to be a catalyst for cultural transformation.”