The Ambassador: Marlon Blackwell’s Approach to Architecture and Life

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 712 views 

Editor’s note: This article, written by Ben Pollock, is the cover story from our latest magazine edition of Talk Business & Politics, which you can read here.

Marlon Blackwell has built a number of contrasts into his life. It’s deliberate.

The most recent world-renown architect to call Fayetteville his personal and professional hometown – after E. Fay Jones and Edward Durell Stone – teaches on campus as well as hangs a shingle just east of downtown.

There’s a salesman in him – a good one, judging by his success – as well as something of a literary philosopher. The last was striking in a long conversation.

Of course references to Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies Van der Rohe would be expected from an intellectual builder, but Southern novelist Walker Percy?

“I think it’s key that you’re pursuing something, you’re pursuing a way by which you can enrich the experience of being in a world for those who engage our work,” he said in his office in Vol Walker Hall, which he renovated and to which he with the firm Polk Stanley Wilcox added a wing, the Steven L. Anderson Design Center, dedicated in 2013.

“Walker Percy talked about the search, ‘Not to be onto something is to be in despair.’ For me, that’s an important and dignified pursuit, to enrich people’s daily lives. The other thing is, that makes it vital, you’ve got to be attentive to the world around you. So the challenge is: how do you embrace the world and not be consumed by it?”

Why would a middle-aged architect who’s had a good deal of success think like this? He would say it’s because of his emphasis on heart.

The topic came up because of a naive design lover’s question: How is an architect different from say, a civil engineer or even a general contractor who’d have little need for a credentialed designer when it comes to, oh, converting a garage to a man cave?

This produced a lengthy exposition. It fit right into his indirectly but well-lit, sleek office in the old part of the school. It was a rainy summer afternoon, and Blackwell sat focused yet relaxed in a black hoodie, black jeans and red New Balance shoes, looking through black-framed eyeglasses.

“An architect would argue that if a civil engineer should be able to convince you that he’s an architect, then I should be able to convince you that I’m a civil engineer. I think it’s really hard to be convincing. I think we’re willfully complicit with that,” he said.

“We just do different things. I think we’re interested in things like scale, proportion, composition and kind of a more thoughtful distribution of materials, and sequence, how spaces relate to one another and stuff. Most of what I know about civil and those kinds of … function. They can make it function. I would use Le Corbusier’s thesis, which is the idea of being an architect at heart. Yes, these folks can provide you shelter in the same way that a plumber can fix your pipes. But what have they done for you right here [points to chest] in the heart? Nothing.

“I would argue, yes, they can make shelter, they can make a structure, but in terms of the things that elevate you spiritually, emotionally, I really challenge them to succeed in that,” he said. “They’re making buildings but not architecture. That’s the difference.

“That’s the utility, that’s the instrumentality. But the criticality, the ability to make commentary on the world, they don’t do. Architecture for me is the necessary unit of what it is to be critical, and what it is to be instrumental. So if I can make commentary on the world and I can demonstrate its usefulness in and on the world, that’s to me, architecture. That’s being an architect. And mostly others are primarily instrumental, which is important.”

Even across a small table, Blackwell talks like a lecturer. He teaches University of Arkansas students in halls or classrooms, he said, and he delivers about 28 speeches a year nationally, either at schools or talks hosted by the American Institute of Architects.

UA Professor Tahar Messadi, holder of the 21st Century Chair in Sustainability, has taught alongside Blackwell for 11 years. In particular, he noted Blackwell’s “recent project, the extension and renovation of Vol Walker Hall, is being hailed as a chef d’oeuvre [masterpiece] of architecture because he has managed to combine architectural elegance with the skillful integration of all constructional elements.”

Messadi called him the “ambassador” of the Fay Jones School, explaining, “He is the sole faculty that is constantly in demand by many institutions to give lectures, workshops, to be a visiting critic or to participate in design charrettes. His broad reaching network of acquaintances is impressive. I have never met anyone who did not know and speak highly of Marlon Blackwell – professionals, faculty and students alike.”

Blackwell’s motivation as department head is his “desire to educate future architects who can effectively design and make buildings, and to make the institution a stronghold for community outreach,” Messadi said.

Messadi cited an innovation of Blackwell’s, a “superjury” review of student work at the end of each semester. The panel includes three professionals, not just academics, to handle the critiques.

Even as Blackwell doesn’t seem to hold back, how does he win clients? He cites selling Bibles door-to-door for five summers to pay for his undergraduate education at Auburn University.

“I learned a lot about people, how to communicate, know when to close, when to back off. It wasn’t a religious endeavor, but an endeavor of self-discipline. It’s helped a lot, in that ability,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you’re selling.”

Blackwell is 57 and was born to a military family, so he moved around a lot as a child. “My father was in the Air Force,” he said. “I was born in Germany; we lived in the Philippines, lived in Alabama, Colorado, Montana. Did my last year of high school in Florida.”

His family hails from the Birmingham area.

Blackwell earned a bachelor’s in architecture from Auburn in 1980 and a master of architecture degree in 1991 from the Syracuse University Florence Center in Italy.

During those intervening years, Blackwell worked in design. He spent about four years in Lafayette, La., then another five in Boston.

He uses his life as a lesson to his students.

“I try to get them to be patient, to work through it, it’s a lifelong thing,” he said. “It just takes time. You can will yourself talent. I tell students, it’s not all about being talented. I never made a single A in the design studio as an undergrad. I was a relatively poor student. I was a good design student, but not stellar, not an A student [but] a B student. I kept working.

“The thing I learned is that everyone’s dealt a different deck of cards. Some people get it, in those first few years of college [snaps fingers]. And others don’t. They don’t have that a-ha moment. They don’t discover what their true capacity can be until they’re two or three or four, five or 10 years out. They keep pursuing it, and it happens.

“And the key is to stay onto something, stay in the search. I call it the search for truth and true things. You can do that. It’s a great ride.”

Going to Europe was the “best decision I ever made,” he said, traveling throughout the continent to see its architecture. Indeed, family trips now are similar busman’s holidays, with his wife of 20 years, Meryati Johari Blackwell, and their 15-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter.

Blackwell joined the School of Architecture in 1992. His title is distinguished professor as well as chair (since 2009) of the Department of Architecture within the Fay Jones School of Architecture of the University of Arkansas. Its other departments are landscape and interior design.

On the commercial side of the profession, Marlon Blackwell Architects – located in the Fulbright Building on East Dickson Street, which formerly housed the Fayetteville Public Library – was named 2011 Firm of the Year by Residential Architect magazine. His design of St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church in Springdale earned a 2013 National Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects.

Blackwell’s intention for his commercial work evolved over time, out of necessity. It, too, has a thoughtful evolution.

“My goal after [Syracuse] was – you come to the realization that you’re talented but you’re not the most talented,” he said. “What do you do? My thinking was that I’m not independently wealthy, I’m not well-connected. I don’t have pedigree, blood or education. What am I to do? I came to the conclusion that life is short, that I really like to practice and teach. Self-select a few projects each year. Maybe by the time I kick the bucket I’ve got 30 good projects or something like that. And that was the basis.”

For a while, the dream worked.

“I had in mind being a sole proprietor, the noble savage sitting in his spare bedroom. Then the digital age came in, and then there was this desire to look at the public realm, the civic environment. … I decided to raise my own aspirations and decided to make my own model, decided to have a staff. My wife, who is a wonderful architect, and I decided we could work together. So I’ve been working for a while … and I realized I couldn’t be Fay Jones.”

The economic downturn that began in late 2007 further changed his thinking.

“I modeled my firm on [Jones’]; there is no marketing. Your work is your calling card. That worked well until about the recession. The phone quits ringing, and you think, we’ve got to get another model. We’re going to go after bigger projects, we’re going to team up with people, too. That’s where the [renovation and expansion of Fayetteville] High School came about, working with others. We’re just going to be, to become, more entrepreneurial about how we approach things.”

Among recent projects, Blackwell cites the Gentry Public Library, as it has come to function as a civic center for the Benton County town, and the new building for Fayetteville Montessori School, which is nestled in the Colt Square commercial development.

A more aggressive business plan is working, he said. “Our clients come to us because of what we do. We’re not out there marketing, trying to lasso some … we’re invited in. But at the same time, we have a deep and profound respect for the ideas and the wishes and how to translate [them] into something distinctive.”

Blackwell is proudly a modern architect. Potential clients don’t necessarily want all those angles and hard surfaces, yet they want his name attached.

Not going to happen.

“What I do is refer them to other architects, my friends, my colleagues. We may do a different kind of architecture, or different sensibility about how we deal with people. I have some architect friends who’d love to deal with developers and stuff. I’ve had [potential clients] come to me, and you can tell they really want that interpretation of the Greek, antebellum. ‘I’m not the right architect for you. Let me find someone. Have you seen our website, have you seen the work that we do?'”

Once they agree on general ideas, money comes into play. Blackwell says he doesn’t charge top dollar because of his reputation – if he wants projects, he can’t.

“We work with the clients. We work within a budget. We don’t get crazy money. It’s Northwest Arkansas, it doesn’t matter who you’re working for.”

“We have to compete. … There is always somebody there cheaper,” he said. “We ask for what we think we’re worth, but we’re willing to negotiate. I’m not going to be low-balled. Look, if it’s just about the fee, again, you’re not the right client for us. Go to somebody cheaper, because you can always find somebody to do it cheaper.”

When a client signs, though, they get the works.

“We are not bean counters. We are full-service. We don’t just give you a set of drawings. We’re there.” Blackwell noted that indeed his firm’s drawings go down to the last electric outlet. If something runs over-budget, the firm will revise as needed.

“We’re there,” he said. “Again, our goal is to maintain quality. The design integrity must remain intact. Are there ways to do that, less expensive than the original intentions? Yes. Everybody works together on that, not just us but the clients. ‘Maybe I don’t need this,’ and you work it back and forth. And we find a way to make it work, yeah. And that’s what makes us very competitive.”

Yet Blackwell always returns to the classroom, training the next generation.

“It’s a lifelong pursuit, and design is a part of all aspects of life. It’s a way of life,” he said. “I find a high level of job satisfaction with architects. You know, not every architect designs. There’s different things to do. They manage, or they are more involved with construction or specifications. But they’re all part of a process that’s much larger than they are, a pursuit of this really great project.”

“I always tell my students to be sure to sleep well at night. Usually that comes from working really hard, playing hard, knowing that you’re onto something much larger than you.”

Marlon Blackwell applies his principles to everything. That perhaps is because for a time as a youth he was under the spell of libertarian writer Ayn Rand, whose first major book was, after all, about an architect, “The Fountainhead.”

“I believed every word of it, and as I’ve grown up and matured, I’ve found that the core has significance, but a lot of it is bullshit. ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is the same thing, the same story. She retells it,” he said.

“It’s like the difference between a Rolling Stones song and a U2 song.” Yes, Blackwell makes that leap. “‘U2 makes you feel good about others. The Rolling Stones make you feel good about yourself.’ Ayn Rand makes you feel good about yourself.”

He says he found the quote in the 2008 rock documentary, “It Might Get Loud,” which features guitarists Jack White, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and U2’s The Edge. He repeats the quote “to architects, because it’s creative genius, and the varieties of ways it can be channeled through an instrument is just phenomenal.”

One source of the quote is U2’s Bono, who’s not in the movie. The singer in praising Mick Jagger quoted music critic Robert Hilburn as having said, “The Rolling Stones make you feel very good about who you are and U2 make you feel very good about the person you are standing next to.”

“I tell students that, in architecture it is very important to have principles that you work by and that you live by,” Blackwell said. “When I talked to Fay Jones, he said, ‘I have principles I live by and principles I work by, and they’re not that different.’

“What you do with principles is that you overcome circumstance. If you don’t understand what the principles you are operating by are, and put them into use, then circumstance directs you, rather than the other way around. And that’s what often happens.

“I’m talking about the principles of design, but how they might can translate to how you live. Simple principles like working hard, playing hard, in that order. Principles about what you’ll do and what you won’t do. Here’s to knowing what you want to be and knowing what you’re not.”