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“‘You made this kind of strange.’ That’s exactly the reaction we’re after.”

Saturday, July 5th, 2014

By Patrick Sisson

Photos by Timothy Hursley,

It was the kind of commission that makes “your mind go wild,” says architect Marlon Blackwell. The addition of the Steven L. Anderson Design Center to the University of Arkansas School of Architecture was a dream, the chance to create an architectural highlight reel that would play before an audience of your peers. In Blackwell’s head, crews already were laying the foundation for a masterpiece of dynamic, internalized space. Then, of course, there was the catch: the addition had to complement, and the match the dimensions of, Vol Walker Hall, an existing neo-classical structure.

Proving that working within a box can inspire creativity, Blackwell and his team created an object lesson in fusing the old and new. Building upon fundamental lessons of form and scale, they developed an addition that resonated with the existing pediment, pilasters, and proportions. The limestone-and-glass exterior exuded gravitas and “spoke the same vertical language” as the existing structure. Other elements—steel on the new exterior, as opposed to within the curtain walls of the original, and the tableau of red oak in the entryway built from trees removed from the site—explored the narrative of architectural evolution in space.

“We had to accept some of the DNA of the old and make it part of the DNA of the new,” Blackwell says.

A professor himself, Blackwell also added flourishes that reflect a more open educational environment. A felt-lined “cave” under the auditorium offers a place for students to study and relax, and the sky terrace and classroom provide an inspiring setting with views of the surrounding Boston Mountains. Though requirements shaped the final forms, it didn’t alter Blackwell’s commitment to creating a memorable, personal design.

“We encourage students to develop a breadth of knowledge about the discipline,” he says. “If you work locally and stumble into the quaint, you’re done. We want to be building work that resonates with folks at the national or global level. ‘You made this kind of strange.’ That’s exactly the reaction we’re after.”

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