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Reading the obituary last week for Don Edmondson of Forrest City got me to thinking about architecture in Arkansas. Edmondson, who died April 28 at 84, made his fortune in the fast-food business but had a deep love for quality architecture. He and his wife Ellen lived in a home on Crowley's Ridge designed by the great Fay Jones. The couple gave $10 million to the University of Arkansas in 2008, and that gift led to the university's architecture school being named for Jones.

Peter MacKeith, dean of the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, said Don Edmondson had, as a UA undergraduate, attended a lecture by Jones on the value of architecture in a good life. Edmondson took those words to heart. MacKeith, who moved to Fayetteville in 2014, was previously a professor of architecture at Washington University in St. Louis, and taught at the University of Virginia and Yale University. From 1995-99, he was the director of the Master of Architecture International Program at Helsinki University of Technology in Finland. MacKeith received a Fulbright Fellowship to Finland in 1990 and was recognized in 2017 and 2019 by Design Intelligence as its Design Educator of the Year.

MacKeith's presence here has helped lead to a golden architectural era in the state, something that's now receiving national attention. Another factor has been the continued work of Marlon Blackwell, who last month was named the 2020 Southeastern Conference Professor of the Year. Blackwell is the first UA faculty member to receive the SEC's highest faculty honor. Blackwell holds the title of E. Fay Jones Chair in Architecture. He has taught at the UA since 1992, and also received the 2020 American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, the organization's highest honor.

Another driver of this Arkansas architectural renaissance has been the Walton Family Foundation's Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program. MacKeith is on the advisory committee. In a recent article, "Innovation in Arkansas shouldn't be overlooked," The Architect's Newspaper noted that the Walton family has encouraged leading international firms to reshape the state.

"Last summer, LTL Architects completed an early childhood education center in Bentonville, and Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects was chosen to create a 50-acre cultural arts corridor in Fayetteville," Sydney Franklin wrote. "The latter project will thread through downtown near the city's recently opened performing arts center, TheatreSquared, designed by Marvel Architects. When asked about her first impression of Arkansas and the Design Excellence Program's work to fabricate these places with consistent new construction, Lissa So, founding partner of Marvel, said the initiative, which 'seeks to preserve a sense of place by encouraging quality design of public spaces,' according to its website, doesn't feel contrived."

TheatreSquared, which covers 50,000 square feet, opened in August. It's designed to get more people interested in live theatrical performances while also attracting larger crowds downtown. So told the newspaper: "Arkansas feels like home to me. I grew up in upstate New York, and I love the close-knit community and emphasis on connecting with nature."

Franklin wrote: "The local design community is also rife with regional pride and uses the state's abundant resources like timber and stone to build structures that speak to local designers' mission-driven ambition. ... Whether it's the university or the Walton family providing opportunity in northwest Arkansas or arts organizations, the public school system or business development districts looking to invest in the state's southern half, projects are aplenty.

"Take the Anthony Timberlands Center for Design and Materials Innovation, the focus of a design competition facilitated by the University of Arkansas. Timber is a dominant focus of study at the university's Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, where students get to work with a cast of high-profile professors like Blackwell, who shares his passion for sustainable materials, and Stephen Luoni, who directs the award-winning University of Arkansas Community Design Center."

Chris Baribeau, one of the founders of Modus Studio, said Arkansas presents professionals with "a real opportunity to do something that's meaningful. We can prove that our approach to design and construction is actually for the betterment of people, not just about making beautiful objects or celebrating ourselves. There's certainly a strong contingent of architects in Arkansas that believes in that ethos and works hard to make a difference here."

Grafton Architects, led by 2020 Pritzker Prize winners Shelley McNamara and Yvonne Farrell, won the international competition to build the Anthony Center. MacKeith said: "So much of what we're doing across the school is emphasizing the relationship of thinking to making, and the ambitions of our students have become larger in scale, tools and techniques. We've outgrown the capacities of what we can do in our existing building.

"We saw an opportunity where design education could be a benefit to the state's greatest natural resource, and my approach has been to make sure that the governor, the state Legislature, as well as investors, and people at companies in Arkansas understand that we can be part of the forest ecosystem. Generally speaking, our students are quite concerned about the world they are going to be practicing in and living in, and they want to be able to act responsibly. As a public land grant university, that's why we work so much with people outside the corners of our campus."


Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at

Editorial on 05/06/2020


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