Arts New: Architect Marlon Blackwell to Speak at Annual Mary Atkins Lecture

The Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Ruth Lilly Visitors Pavilion, which Blackwell completed in 2010, provides a place of reflection within the museum’s 100-acre Art & Nature Park.
(Marlon Blackwell Architects; photo by Timothy Hursley)

In 1995 the Mary Atkins Lecture Series was established to honor and foster the legacy of Mary McAfee Atkins, whose bequest, combined with that of William Rockhill Nelson, provided funding for the building of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

The series brought to Kansas City some of the most prominent figures in the arts. In 2011 Mary Atkins Trustees Mary Lou Brous and Grant Burcham decided to refocus the lectures on the work of major architects.

Since 2011, the series has featured such well-known architects as Moshe Safdie and Steven Holl. On Oct. 25 it will host Marlon Blackwell of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Though less known to local non-architects, Blackwell is highly regarded in the field and promises to provide a unique look at the built environment.

As Doug Stockman of Kansas City’s Helix Architecture + Design says of Blackwell: “Marlon’s work consistently exemplifies a deep understanding of site, culture and building typology. It leverages those conditions and transforms them into architecture that pushes the envelope of conventional thought.” Two examples exemplify well his style.

In 2016 Shelby Farms Park, in Memphis, Tennessee, the largest urban park in the country, created a master plan to revitalize the park into a unique, 21st-century site. Blackwell developed a unified architectural vision for an ensemble of buildings and structures situated around the 80-acre Patriot Lake, imaged as the “heart of the park.”

Blackwell’s vision for the buildings knit the projects together across the broad park landscape with shared materials. Each building connects directly to the surrounding landscape and supports the rich experiences in the park.

Centrally located, the Visitor Center is seemingly more porch than building and functions as a central meeting ground for the community. An elusive skin of aluminum bar grates gently filters sunlight while hinting at the architecture of industrial agriculture and allowing the air to drift in and be refreshed by large fans overhead.

The Indianapolis Museum of Art’s Ruth Lilly Visitors Pavilion, designed by Blackwell in 2010, provides a place of reflection on what the visitor has experienced — natural and cultural — in the park, as well as the museum. The glass-enclosed pavilion also serves as a threshold for those entering the park from the Indianapolis greenway system. Detached with column supports, the roof, with its horizontal frame structure, appears to hover above the pavilion and forest floor. A continuous perforated surface of wood slats forms a semi-transparent envelope of deck, wall and roof, supported by a steel exoskeleton, allowing light and moisture to filter through it.

In addition to his practice in Fayetteville, Blackwell is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects. He holds the E. Fay Jones Chair in Architecture and is a Distinguished Professor in the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas.

Blackwell has won numerous awards and honors over the past several years. In 2012 he received the Architecture Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2014 he was named a United States Artists Ford Fellow (in Architecture and Design), and in 2017 he received the E. Fay Jones Gold Medal from AIA Arkansas in recognition of his significant contributions in design. The Jones Gold Medal reads in part, that the award “recognizes an individual architect who has demonstrated touchstones of excellence through artistic vison and design, leadership and service to the State of Arkansas.”

In 2016 Marlon Blackwell Associates received the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in Architecture and was ranked number one in the design category of “Architect” magazine. One juror for the award noted: “Of all submissions, this collection of work conveys the most succinct, clear and rigorous design ethos. This is design with conviction.”

Blackwell is no stranger to Kansas City. When asked what he likes about the city, he commented: “I am a big admirer of the Nelson-Atkins Museum. I’ve always admired the Bloch Building addition by architect Stephen Holl and consider it to be one of the best in the country.”

As to the theme of his talk: “The architectural and design process exemplify the necessity of being attentive and responsive to specificities of place and material culture. I will expand upon how ideas and actions are generated from careful observations of intersections of nature-made and culture-made conditions particular to an architectural situation.”

For more information on this year’s Atkins Lecture, visit www.nelson-atkins.org/event.

Bryan F. Le Beau

Bryan F. Le Beau is retired from the University of Saint Mary, where he served as Professor of History, Provost, and Vice President for Academic Affairs. He is the author of several books on American cultural and religious history.

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