Built in 1962 to house the Fayetteville, Arkansas, Public Library, the Fulbright Building sits in a leafy residential neighborhood on the edge of the city’s historic district and to this day is surrounded by Victorian houses and Craftsman-style cottages. “It has always been my favorite building,” says Marlon Blackwell, whose Fayetteville-based practice recently completed the conversion of the library into offices. “It is sleek and classically Modern,” he adds, pointing to the way it ever-so-slightly floats above the gently rolling terrain in the front and reveals its two-story height in the back. Designed by Fayetteville native Warren Segraves, a contemporary of E. Fay Jones with a more Meisian sensibility (on whom Blackwell is currently writing a book), the building—which was expanded in 1970 and again in 1992—epitomizes the architect’s idiom of expressed structures, universal grids, and flat roofs.
In 2004, having finally outgrown its space, the library moved to a new facility downtown. Recognizing the Fulbright Building’s value, the community looked for ways to reuse, rather than raze it. Eventually, a group of local developers with a commitment to preservation (one a former student of Blackwell’s) approached the architect. Staging a major intervention was a weighty charge. “My first thought was: All I can do is screw it up,” Blackwell says. The building’s greatest strengths, he noted at the time, were the way it sat on the site and how it expressed its structural bones on the interior as well as exterior. Blackwell explains how, partly based on these observations, he developed a “ship in a bottle” design concept, clearly defining interior spaces in relation to the envelope and the existing steel structural grid.
Completely retaining the original structure, the architects gutted the building’s interior, with the exception of the main stair, which they refurbished. Borrowing Segraves’s language to add an upper-floor extension on the east side, they created covered parking below and the opportunity for an exterior entry stair—a requirement of one of the tenants—which acts as a spatial joint between the old and new parts of the building. A second addition (which brought the project to a total of about 29,000 square feet), affectionately called the “fishbowl,” encloses a formerly exterior drop-off area. Butt-glazed walls wrap the space, resulting in a light-filled, open office environment that looks out onto a common courtyard. The building’s north and south facades, which originally consisted of brick infill between the exposed structure, with glass transoms and narrow vertical panes, are now wrapped in a custom storefront system. Translucent and transparent glass, installed in a seemingly random arrangement, allows light in and views out while providing controlled privacy, and frames accent colors on the interior, patterning the building’s facade with blocks of varied hues.
To make the basementlike ground level more marketable, the architects surgically cut openings between the structural steel elements, creating skylights with staircases inserted below, rendering small interior courtyards, or light wells. Zigzagging corridors wend their way between stacked suites with their glass-fronted offices, introducing dynamism within the context of the grid. With this move, Blackwell hoped to establish an informal setting that would result in a more relaxed way of moving through the building, while providing stable points of orientation with the courtyards.
Blackwell’s “ship in a bottle” approach is most literally distilled and dramatically exemplified in the double-height conference and community room, which was carved out of the 1992 addition for handicapped access and is dominated by an amorphously shaped, wood-framed acoustic canopy clad in black zinc. Hoping to create a street presence and preserve a connection to the public, Blackwell envisioned a figure that would be visible through the vitrine of the space’s glazed front. In his quest, he played with forms that were a combination of machine and nature. The resulting “shroud,” built on-site by local artists Bill Ward and Eugene Sargent, has, describes Blackwell, “the tectonics of a boat hull, while from the outside it bears more of a resemblance to a fish carcass.”
Ironically, while Blackwell was converting the library into offices, he was also busy in nearby Gentry creating a library out of a former hardware store [record, October 2008, page 138]. He finds the practice of adaptive reuse to be complementary with his general approach to architecture. “I am stubbornly not an idealist. I am more of a situationalist—I have always been interested in hybrids and mixing,” he says, alluding to the transformative power of architecture to allow the old to be read as new again. “I call adaptive reuse the architecture of unholy unions: The new programs don’t necessarily align themselves with the existing structure. There is an oscillation between what was and what can be—and I get to play with that.”
Through much of his work, Blackwell is, in a way, carrying on the legacy of Segraves, a small-town architect working in a universal, Modern idiom, and bringing it to everyday programs.
Marlon Blackwell, FAIA (principal)
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