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.
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.)
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.”