Image in modal.

Even without knowing the exact address, the Shaw residence, designed by Marlon Blackwell Architects, would be easy to spot. Located at the crest of a hill in an upscale Fayetteville, Arkansas, neighborhood—a 20-year-old development lined with manicured lawns and sprawling European-manor-style McMansions—its low, rectangular form stands out among its traditional neighbors, appearing to float above the ground plane behind a golden swath of prairie grasses.

Firm principal Marlon Blackwell, recipient of the 2020 AIA Gold Medal, has a penchant for the unexpected, as exemplified by such diverse projects as the Thaden School, a dynamic ground-up middle and high school campus in Bentonville, Arkansas, and the spare St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church, housed in a refined metal building in nearby Springdale. For this project, the architect reimagines a courtyard-style house on a suburban hillside in the Ozarks.

Shaw Residence.
Shaw Residence.
Shaw Residence.

Located within a suburban-style development (1), the house’s interior (2) is concealed by an articulated brick facade on the north (3). Photos © Timothy Hursley, click to enlarge.

The concept originated with the clients, Dennis and Evelyn Shaw, who are downsizing as they move toward retirement. The couple envisioned a home with a sense of shelter and refuge but open to nature, with a daylight-filled core.

“We looked at the Roman courtyard house, of course,” Blackwell says, “and Le Corbu­sier’s La Tourette monastery was an inspiration for the project.” As with the French priory, the architect’s response to the sloped site was to raise the brick-clad steel structure on rectangular piloti. This allows the landscape to flow unobstructed beneath it, and into a terraced courtyard as it steps down the hill. The house itself is U-shaped and surrounds the central open-air space on three sides with a glazed curtain wall. On the south, however, the interior transitions to a covered breezeway, maintaining the orthogonal flow of the structure’s metal roof above it. This al fresco room bridges over the descending courtyard and frames views of the adjacent woods and distant forested hills.

Shaw Residence.

The terraced courtyard (4) draws the landscape up into the kitchen and dining room (5). Photos © Timothy Hursley

Shaw Residence.

“The scheme moves from solid to void, from figural exterior facades to the Miesian glass curtain wall that surrounds the courtyard,” says Blackwell. This focus on the central outdoor space makes the landscape design especially important. In view of that, Blackwell and his team collaborated with Phoebe Lickwar, principal at the landscape architecture firm Forge. “The terracing of the courtyard emphasizes the horizontal datum of architecture and draws the landscape up and into the central living space,” she says. Com­plementing the bold lines of the building, her scheme supplants the typical lawn in both the front and rear of the house with long horizontal bars of prairie grasses that change with the seasons.

A strong formality is embodied at the front of the house, on its north elevation, which is enlivened by an articulated brickwork pattern and punctuated by a cantilevered entrance canopy and a tall, angled light monitor cum chimney stack that rises from the roof like the tail of an airplane. “We wanted to have one facade rather than 15,” Blackwell says, alluding to the tendency in contemporary “traditional” houses to shift pieces of the facade in and out to create multiple planes. The iridescent glaze of its long Roman-style brick—which reappears on the house’s two fireplaces—reflects light in various ways. This luminous effect is augmented on the north, where a custom-shaped brick creates a kinetic texture as alternating courses angle in opposite directions. The reflective masonry continues around the east and west facades with a more standard bond and smooth face. All around, a spare vertical fenestration controls views into the house, with one exception: a large corner window projects from a home office on the northwest corner, providing a panorama of the streetscape.

Inside, the living room stretches along the entrance wall, culminating in a broad fireplace that anchors the northeast corner. The house’s functional spaces are situated on the east: a corridor to the garage, the clients’ painting studio, and the kitchen and dining areas. The three bedrooms are on the west, where a light-filled hallway separates these private rooms from the expanse of glass along the courtyard.

Simple material variations respond to each space as one moves through the house. For the most part, the largely white oak plank ceilings slope down toward the courtyard on all four sides, giving warmth to the rooms and contrasting with polished-concrete floors and steel-and-glass window walls. In the living room, the ceilings become a series of white planes that follow the changing contours of the roof.

Shaw Residence.

A roof monitor and skylight filter daylight into the living area. Photos © Timothy Hursley

As with many of Blackwell’s projects, daylight is a critical component. The design team angled skylights above the fireplace and positioned the light monitor, which is adjacent, to capture a “snapshot” of sky. Sunlight tracks throughout the house as the day progresses, directing its morning light into the west bedroom corridor from the east, penetrating the kitchen and dining room with a western glow in the late afternoon, and filling the living area with a balanced luminance throughout the day.

In the table of contents of Radical Practice: The Work of Marlon Blackwell Architects, a recent book of essays on Blackwell’s work, the strength and clarity of his form-making is demonstrated in a column of small black-and-white icons that spill down the page, each representing one of his projects in elevation. As with the Shaw residence, innovative form is grounded in relationships to the people it serves, the place it inhabits, and to time, past and present.

Click drawings to enlarge

Shaw Residence.


Marlon Blackwell Architects — Marlon Blackwell, Meryati Johari Blackwell, principals; Kertis Weatherby, Spencer Curtis, project architects; David Jaehning, Stephen Kesel, project designers

Engineering Consultants Inc. (structural); HP Engineering (m/e/p)

Forge (landscape)

General Contractor:
INSiTE Construction

Dennis and Evelyn Shaw

4,500 square feet

Completion Date:
May 2020



Sioux City Brick; Hopkins Sheet Metal; Kawneer; Razorback Ironworks

Viracon; Crystalite

Upswing Doors:
Overhead Door

Paints & Stains:

Lumenpulse; Lucifer; Lightolier; Acolyte; Legrand