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A Hopeful Rant: A Presentation by Alumnus Marlon Blackwell

image of window from Saint Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church in Springdale, Arkansas

APLA alumnus Marlon Blackwell, Distinguished Professor and Head of the Department of Architecture at the University of Arkansas and principal of Marlon Blackwell Architect, developed the following piece for a panel presentation at the ACSA Administrator’s Conference in the fall of 2012. With his permission, we’d like to share it with our readers:

The education of an architect must emphasize the integration of disciplinary knowledge and professional skills through the formulation of architectural propositions grounded in the critical, the speculative, and the creative.  Framed within a variety of operative and ideological constructs, our focus must be towards the ‘architecture of Architecture’ with a synthetic, comprehensive approach to design. Through architecture, the art of establishing the material order of a cultural order, our charge is to address the functional, technological, environmental, and aesthetic constituents of space within critical positions in mediating these seemingly conflicting challenges.  We must operate with agility to inclusively work in and on the natural and built environment; our medium is ‘space and form’ implemented with resolution at multiple scales of the civic, the formal, and the elemental.

Michael Sorkin eloquently points to the profoundly liberating situation of the city, with the promises held by the digital and information age, continuous scientific breakthroughs, the prowess of technological evolution, and the anticipation of infinite growth and prosperity.  Paradoxically, such developments bring with them a share of unintended consequences such as the frenetic and extensive land use, scarcity of water, global warming, environmental pollution, ecological degradation, poverty, opulent greed, violence, AIDS, and war at a planetary scale.  Architecture stands at the nexus between these paradoxical conditions.

As we address evolving cultural, technological, and socio-economic conditions and trends, we must as students, teachers, and practitioners confront the question: ”How do we embrace the world without being consumed by it?”  Conversely if we are to assert, as a discipline and a profession, our necessary value and importance in the world, we cannot continue merely to contribute to the assertion of notions of utility, and a numbing instrumentality that is pervasive in much of what we call the built environment.  We will continue to marginalize our public role if we fail to have purpose beyond profitability in the things we make.

As a school, our role is to help facilitate opportunities that empower students and faculty colleagues alike to make relevant architecture’s capacity to enrich the day-to-day experience of being in the world. Individual or collective initiatives for research and practice must be supported within a context of common goals and shared ambitions for the intellectual vitality and moral authority of the school and university, and ultimately the discipline of Architecture. The integration of technical (practical) design skills and historical (theoretical) considerations are emphasized, in view of ideas and propositions, to achieve a meaningful architecture. Opportunities to study abroad in diverse cultures together with opportunities to have direct involvement within local and regional conditions lead to an understanding of the issues and questions being posed in our present world.  Likewise, necessary, and essential for our development, is engaged outreach to our constituents. We must actively initiate opportunities for constructive creative educational relationships between the public, the profession and the school that are sustained beyond the limits of platitudes. 

Contributions toward the fundamental civic dignity in our communities are easily lost in a miasma, and the lives of citizens, far less ennobled by our efforts in the realm of the everyday than they should demand, are lived instead in the comforts of privatized worlds on the internet or in automobiles. We must challenge the conditions of complacency in society and our discipline. Students and faculty alike must ask and act on the question:” How do we enrich and dignify the experience of being in the world for those who engage our work?”

What we do best is this: we instill qualities in places that were not present before. Or equally, we intensify those qualities there, we reveal them. We do nothing else; there’s nothing else at which we are truly experts. Our realm is the realm of quality. If we cannot instill qualitative intensity in a project of any scale – in other words, if our projects are exclusively dependent upon quantitative factors the chances are, architecture, in the fullest sense, will not happen. We are a discipline that must work from principles, principles to live by and build by. Principles allow us to challenge and take on the circumstances of our time rather than being directed by them.  I believe we can invigorate the culture of the everyday—the honorific, the prosaic, and the infrastructural —as well as the discipline of architecture, by simply building well.  I believe the profession of architecture and architectural education can retain its resolve in shaping our empathy with the world, the world of the everyday and the world as we find it through the emphatic presence of its works.