When Marlon Blackwell, AIA, set up practice in Arkansas, he was determined to prove, like Fay Jones, that serious architecture can happen anywhere. Two decades later, a body of internationally recognized work aptly illustrates his point. During that time Blackwell also learned the importance of staying in one place, however ordinary, “to make observations that allow you to be more transformative rather than flying in and dropping something down,” he says.
A recent example is the storm-proof Porchdog House in East Biloxi, Miss., which manages to preserve the area’s porch culture even though it sits 11 feet above the ground. The house, which aggressively adapts the traditional shotgun plan to today’s cultural and environmental conditions, is typical of the market-rate architecture—averaging $150 per square foot—in which Blackwell delights.
“We pride ourselves in being champions of the dumb box,” he says. “If you want to build cheap, build long and straight.” The follow-through is meticulous. Blackwell is interested in the fine grain of a building—the details people brush up against, and its material logic—the relationship between form and materials and “how they’re distributed in relationship to the body and the eye.” If Blackwell sounds like an academic, he is. In addition to running his award-winning practice, he is a professor and chairman of the architecture department at the University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture.
What is the most gratifying aspect of residential practice?
Immersing yourself in someone’s life and translating their aspirations into something coherent and responsive that they can live in for a long time.
What is the most frustrating aspect?
Having to immerse yourself in someone’s life. They’re not you, and toward the end of a project there can be a great deal of elation and frustration as you’re trying to get it finished.
What is the most indispensable tool in your office?
A big fat 9b pencil and yellow trace.
What software does your firm use?
Who is your ideal client?
Someone who recognizes the value of what we do and participates, but gives you the latitude to fully address all their concerns.
What is your favorite building?
La Tourette monastery, by Le Corbusier.
If you didn’t have time to design your own house, who would you hire?
Chilean architect Smiljan Radic.