Launch Slideshow

The Blackwells' home, known as the L-Stack House, spans a seasonal creek.

Top Firm: Marlon Blackwell Architect

Top Firm: Marlon Blackwell Architect

  • The Blackwells' home, known as the L-Stack House, spans a seasonal creek.

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    The Blackwells' home, known as the L-Stack House, spans a seasonal creek.

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    Timothy Hursley

    The Blackwells' home, known as the L-Stack House, spans a seasonal creek.

  • A rainscreen of Brazilian hardwood clads the L-Stack House.

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    A rainscreen of Brazilian hardwood clads the L-Stack House.

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    Timothy Hursley

    A rainscreen of Brazilian hardwood clads the L-Stack House.

  • The L-Stack House's stacked volumes help it negotiate the neighborhood's one-story scale.

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    The L-Stack House's stacked volumes help it negotiate the neighborhood's one-story scale.

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    Timothy Hursley

    The L-Stack House's stacked volumes help it negotiate the neighborhood's one-story scale.

  • The elegant Ruth Lilly Visitors Pavilion at the Indianapolis Museum of Art demonstrates the firms unique blend of exuberance and restraint.

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    The elegant Ruth Lilly Visitors Pavilion at the Indianapolis Museum of Art demonstrates the firms unique blend of exuberance and restraint.

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    Timothy Hursley

    The elegant Ruth Lilly Visitors Pavilion at the Indianapolis Museum of Art demonstrates the firm’s unique blend of exuberance and restraint.

  • The exterior of a respectful reinterpretation of an existing, fire-damaged residence in Johnson, Ark.

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    The exterior of a respectful reinterpretation of an existing, fire-damaged residence in Johnson, Ark.

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    Timothy Hursley

    A respectful reinterpretation of an existing, fire-damaged residence in Johnson, Ark.

  • The interior of the Johnson, Ark., house includes an extended living room clad in weathering steel and lined on the inside with a rich mix of walnut and cherry.

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    The interior of the Johnson, Ark., house includes an extended living room clad in weathering steel and lined on the inside with a rich mix of walnut and cherry.

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    Timothy Hursley

    The interior of the Johnson, Ark., house includes an extended living room clad in weathering steel and lined with a rich mix of walnut and cherry.

  • One of Blackwell's early projects was the Moore HoneyHouse in Cashiers, N.C.

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    One of Blackwell's early projects was the Moore HoneyHouse in Cashiers, N.C.

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    Richard Leo Johnson/Atlantic Archives

    One of Blackwell's early projects was the Moore HoneyHouse in Cashiers, N.C.

  • The HoneyHouse expresses the complex engagement with nature that continues to pervade his work.

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    The HoneyHouse expresses the complex engagement with nature that continues to pervade his work.

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    Richard Leo Johnson/Atlantic Archives

    The HoneyHouse expresses the complex engagement with nature that continues to pervade his work.

  • The HoneyHouse ingeniously uses a steel-and-glass wall of shelves to bring in light, provide structural support, and store and display honey.

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    The HoneyHouse ingeniously uses a steel-and-glass wall of shelves to bring in light, provide structural support, and store and display honey.

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    Richard Leo Johnson/Atlantic Archives

    The HoneyHouse ingeniously uses a steel-and-glass wall of shelves to bring in light, provide structural support, and store and display honey.

  • On a shoestring budget, the firm turned a banal metal structure into the award-winning St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church in Springdale, Ark.

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    On a shoestring budget, the firm turned a banal metal structure into the award-winning St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church in Springdale, Ark.

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    Timothy Hursley

    On a shoestring budget, the firm turned a banal metal structure into the award-winning St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church in Springdale, Ark.

  • An interior view of St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church.

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    An interior view of St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church.

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    Timothy Hursley

    An interior view of St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church.

  • Charred and oiled cypress clads an under-construction bunkhouse and cabin in Caddo Gap, Ark.

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    Charred and oiled cypress clads an under-construction bunkhouse and cabin in Caddo Gap, Ark.

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    Courtesy Marlon Blackwell Architect

    Charred and oiled cypress clads an under-construction bunkhouse and cabin in Caddo Gap, Ark.

  • Oak plywood lines the project's interiors.

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    Oak plywood lines the project's interiors.

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    Courtesy Marlon Blackwell Architect

    Oak plywood lines the project's interiors.

  • Another view of the bunkhouse and cabin in Caddo Gap, Ark.

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    Another view of the bunkhouse and cabin in Caddo Gap, Ark.

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    Courtesy Marlon Blackwell Architect

    Another view of the bunkhouse and cabin in Caddo Gap, Ark.

  • The elevated Porchdog House, which Blackwell designed as part of Architecture for Humanitys Biloxi Model Home program, bridges its distance from the ground with a street-level porch, storage space, and a covered parking area.

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    The elevated Porchdog House, which Blackwell designed as part of Architecture for Humanitys Biloxi Model Home program, bridges its distance from the ground with a street-level porch, storage space, and a covered parking area.

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    Timothy Hursley

    The elevated Porchdog House, which Blackwell designed as part of Architecture for Humanity’s Biloxi Model Home program, bridges its distance from the ground with a street-level porch, storage space, and a covered parking area.

  • At the Keenan TowerHouse in Fayetteville, a permeable oak screen contrasts with  industrial-style standing seam metal.

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    At the Keenan TowerHouse in Fayetteville, a permeable oak screen contrasts with industrial-style standing seam metal.

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    Timothy Hursley

    At the Keenan TowerHouse in Fayetteville, a permeable oak screen contrasts with industrial-style standing seam metal.

  • The interior room of the TowerHouse provides a treehouselike vantage point.

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    The interior room of the TowerHouse provides a treehouselike vantage point.

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    Timothy Hursley

    The interior room of the TowerHouse provides a treehouselike vantage point.

Marlon Blackwell’s first architecture assignment went badly. “In ninth-grade shop class, you had to design a house and make a model,” he remembers. “Mine was genuinely awful.” A few years later, he started architecture school at Auburn University and says he “just struggled through the educational process.” Given this unpromising start, one might have concluded that Blackwell, FAIA, wasn’t cut out to be an architect.

How wrong that would have been. The 54-year-old, Fayetteville, Ark.–based architect is now an intellectual powerhouse, a star on the lecture circuit. He heads up the architecture department for the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas. And he and his wife, Meryati (known as Ati) Johari Blackwell, LEED AP BD+C, lead an eight-person firm whose diverse portfolio and long list of awards is the envy of many peers. “There is no ‘bread-and-butter’ here,” says designer and project manager Jonathan Boelkins, who has worked at the firm for five years. “Every project is given a lot of consideration.”

Houses garnered Blackwell his first dose of national attention in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He still designs them, along with institutional and commercial jobs. The firm recently has started to win commissions of a larger scale, including a nearly 500,000-square-foot high school in Fayetteville that it’s designing with two other firms.

human touch

Like Blackwell’s thoughtful, site-sensitive architecture, his path from struggling student to successful architect was an unconventional one. He grew up in an Air Force family of modest means, living on military bases in Germany, the Philippines, Montana, and Alabama, among other places. At Auburn, Blackwell paid his way through by working as a Bible salesman, deploying his gregarious personality to become one of the company’s top salespeople. (Raleigh, N.C., architect Frank Harmon, FAIA, who taught at Auburn at the time, recalls feeling puzzled by the prevalence of Bibles in the school’s studio spaces. “I later found out that Marlon had been there,” he says.)

  • Marlon and Meryati Johari Blackwell at the home they designed for themselves and their two children in Fayetteville, Ark.

    Credit: Danny Turner

    Marlon and Meryati Johari Blackwell at the home they designed for themselves and their two children in Fayetteville, Ark.

After graduating, Blackwell spent 10 years working at firms in Lafayette, La., and in Boston. “In firms, I felt paralyzed,” he says. “I desperately didn’t want to be there.” In 1990, at age 34, he entered Syracuse University’s M.Arch.II program. This time, he discovered the passion for schooling that had eluded him in his undergraduate years. The discipline he’d learned in working with firms, and all the architectural ideas he had but felt he couldn’t articulate, came together for him at Syracuse. “I couldn’t believe how much I could produce,” he says. Before graduate school, “I had the ideas but not the language. I was crude and raw, but with a lot of hard work and curiosity, you begin to will yourself talent.”

In 1992, Blackwell began teaching at the University of Arkansas, deep in the Ozark Mountains. He soon married Ati, a Malaysian-born, University of Miami and Architectural Association–educated designer whom he’d met after giving a lecture in Miami. And he embraced with gusto his task of inviting guest lecturers to the university. Peter Eisenman, FAIA, Jacques Herzog, Hon. FAIA, Pierre de Meuron, Hon. FAIA, and Peter Zumthor came at his request, as did non-architect speakers such as music critic Greil Marcus and artist Robert Irwin. “You want to situate yourself with people who are making these huge differences,” Blackwell says. “Spending time with them gives you a sense of what it takes.”

Fay Jones, who lived and worked in Fayetteville until his death in 2004, acted as one of Blackwell’s many mentors. “Fay was a humanist, man,” he says. “He was the most approachable person in the world.” People say the same sort of thing about Blackwell, who has the ability to talk easily with just about anyone. “Marlon combines highbrow and lowbrow in the sense that he’s a very good storyteller and a very intellectual guy,” says his friend Brian MacKay-Lyons, Hon. FAIA, FRAIC. “He brings a very consistent human decency to all his relationships.”