What do a traveling Bible salesman and an award-winning architect have in common?
More than you might think, said Marlon Blackwell, Fellow of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA), a practicing architect in Fayetteville, Ark., and department head of the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas.
Blackwell has received national and international acclaim for his innovative designs, but before he found his footing in the world of architecture, he paid his way through college as a traveling Bible salesman. Blackwell said the experience shaped him in powerful ways, showing him the power of positivity and self-reliance and teaching him the principles of selling. Most importantly, the experience gave him an opportunity to understand the place that inspires his work today.
“What I really loved about this opportunity was being able to be enmeshed in the rural South, to really experience a world that few people get to experience,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell still works from this place, now with a team at Marlon Blackwell Architect, gathering inspiration from the natural and manmade features of the land, sometimes as simple as a leaf eroded by insect bites or the ridged underbelly of a mushroom, to create stunning buildings that feel both a part of and apart from current architectural trends.
Blackwell discussed the influence of place and the insight of everyday experience during an Aug. 14 presentation at Cameron Art Museum. He attributed his success to the connection he has been able to sustain by practicing in one area for so long.
“One of the things we’ve been able to do is stay and work in one place for a long time, and when you do that as an architect, you learn to turn over the rock and discover the underbelly of your place, the visceral presence and the expressive character that informs the work and sustains your efforts there,” Blackwell said.
But it took time and practice for Blackwell to learn how to channel his impressions into designs that are creative but reasonable, sophisticated but accessible. Tracing the trajectory of his career, Blackwell explained how he struggled to express his ideas in early efforts, hindered by simple categories and neat representations.
“I had ideas but I had no language with which to express myself,” Blackwell said. But he continued to work, and he learned how to draw out his hunches into a body of work.
Now his firm accepts challenging projects, delivering awe-inspiring solutions — like when the firm was commissioned to design the Ruth Lilly Visitors Pavilion on the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2010. Given a volatile flood-prone site, Blackwell found a way to incorporate the elements into the building’s design. Inspired by the texture of butterfly wings and leaves porous with insect bites found on-site, Blackwell wanted to design a building that yielded to the environment instead of fighting it.
Blackwell said, “I thought, could we make a building that’s porous, that allows light and water to come through it?”
An ipe screen allows the building to filter water and sunlight, stretching across a mound of earth providing additional protection from floodwater. A durable envelope of steel wraps the structure, providing stability and structure.
The finished building, which earned Indianapolis its first national AIA honor award in 2012, feels like an extension of the land.
“It’s a very quiet building. You sort of discover it,” Blackwell said.
The firm tackled another challenge in 2011 with a commission to design the gift store in the Crystal Bridges Museum of Modern Art in Bentonville, Ark. Blackwell was given a curved concrete space facing west, bathed in heat and glare from the sun and littered with support columns every 10 feet.
To block the sun, Blackwell worked with a local fabricator to cost effectively install 285 custom-made cherry ribs near the ceiling of the space. The lamella system, named for its similarity to the underside of a lamella mushroom, filters the sun’s exposure and provides texture complementary to the work of renowned Arkansas basket maker Leon Niehues, the first to find a home in the museum’s store.
“It creates a wonderful play of light. The sun moves through it, and it knocks out 40 percent of the western light,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell’s solution complements the museum’s spirit while cooperating with the structural constraints of the space. Even better, the total project came with a price tag of only $600,000 and paid for itself within four months.
Blackwell spoke in Wilmington at the invitation of AIA Wilmington. Danny Adams, 2014 AIA Wilmington president, said the organization brings in an architect of national renown for presentations every fall to infuse the community with new ideas and fresh perspective.
“A lot of times we get so focused on historic Wilmington, or coastal North Carolina, but there are other ways you can look at buildings and interpret that. It’s a good way that we can broaden our outlook,” Adams said.