The Present Vernacular

By David Buege & Marlon Blackwell

Though reasonable approximations of the idyllic setting are still found in Arkansas, including the largest contiguous wilderness area in the lower forty-eight states, there is much to regret in the rapidly diminishing space between towns and in landscapes increasingly squeezed by more and more highways, streets, and roads. The state of nature in the Natural State has been compromised by the self-interest and indifference of big boxes, fast food restaurants, strip malls of every possible variety, hotels, motels, expansive automobile dealerships, payday lenders, and the predictable things representing almost all possible forms of commercial inevitability that have accumulated through the post-war years. This is what provides the setting for contemporary culture outside the centres of those few large cities with vision, aspirations, or considerably greater wealth. This is what constitutes the contemporary vernacular, the obvious and nearly automatic model of construction. Most small towns and many of the larger ones in Arkansas suffer from this culture of obsolescence, intentional or inadvertent, whose legacy has not been kind to us: casual and conventional buildings that offer support for signs or the appliqué of meaning as shed decor, and that weather and age poorly. A state of distraction might provide moments of welcome relief from the damaged landscapes and townscapes through which one must pass to get to the good parts, the best of which are the few wild places that remain, including that which (perhaps optimistically) may still provide cover for the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker.

Image 1: Thorncrown Chapel, Fay Jones, 1980, Photograph by Timothy Hursley

As Fay Jones demonstrated so profoundly with Thorncrown Chapel (See image 1) (and one or two of the others he authored, including the Cooper Chapel in the nearby retirement community of Bella Vista), it is the architecture of sacred space that touches the popular imagination most profoundly. This may confirm what one might assume from the many billboards in the Ozarks that lure tourists to the Precious Moments Chapel (See image 2), north of Thorncrown in southwest Missouri. The architecture of Precious Moments has qualities on the outside that were likely intended to suggest an incongruous, dusty mission more suited to the American southwest. It shares a common profile with Thorncrown if you don’t look too closely. By virtue of the fundamental agenda for each, Thorncrown and Precious Moments surely share an audience, as patrons may easily visit both places of pilgrimage in a day. The brilliance of the architecture of non-denominational Thorncrown Chapel is that its spiritual aspirations were realized despite the modest commercial instinct that it, too, has as motivation. (Both are available for weddings.) Precious Moments serves common tastes. Though its architecture is direct and accessible, for full appreciation Thorncrown requires a willing subject. Precious Moments entertains.

Image 2: Precious Moments Chapel, 1989,

Image 3: Suburban context; view from interstate, Photograph by Timothy Hursley

The small church presented here is St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church (See image 3) in Springdale, Arkansas. Springdale is one of several American towns that claim to be the Poultry Capital of the World in the absence of something more compelling; it is an unselfconscious and utilitarian sort of place. Rich in the ubiquitous and ordinary things that characterize local culture in the innumerable American places that it closely resembles, it is mostly untouched by ostentatious displays of public wealth. Blue-collar in spirit and fact, popular culture outweighs high by a significant margin in Springdale. Monuments are few and icons are of the readily accessible, mostly civic sort for people who insist that a church should look like a church, a school like a school. Satellite dishes, the large ones once strategically deployed to indicate one’s prosperity but that now serve as reminders of how quickly things change, remain, cultural icons with little residual value apparently requiring too much effort to haul them to landfill. One such dish, obtained in exchange for a couple cases of beer, became the interior dome of the sanctuary of St. Nicholas, and one of the church’s better stories (See images 8A and 8B). Stories in architecture may be better than meaning, and more durable. 

Image 8A: Satellite dish, acquired for beer, Photograph by Marlon Blackwell Architects

Image 8B: Sanctuary with dome crafted from a repurposed satellite dish, Photograph by Timothy Hursley

Springdale is a place of small industry, trucking companies, high school sports and minor league (Northwest Arkansas Naturals) baseball. There are a few wildly successful entrepreneurs requiring many employees, so citizens have been attracted by a healthy economy and relatively stable employment, much of it in poultry and related agri-business industries. Exceedingly pragmatic by conviction and circumstance, when Springdale builds the prevailing model for the aggregation of buildings and the resultant qualities of space is comfortably familiar, intuitive, ad hoc, and generally immune to abstraction and the excess of certain complications (such as order and density) that Americans tend to think of as undesirable attributes of cities—things most prefer not to see transferred to their town.

Image 4: Original metal shop building (before), Photograph by Timothy Hursley

Image 4B: Original metal shop interior (before), Photograph by Marlon Blackwell Architects

The site and commission for St. Nicholas came with a metal-system building of the ubiquitous sort, with three truck bays and overhead doors, a modest entry door, one sixty-watt yard light, inadvertently reasonable proportions, and bones that proved sufficient: a modest head start toward the architecture seen here (See image 4). The site is on the east side of South 48th Street, oriented north-south and parallel with an interstate highway to the west. Separating the church from the highway is a substantial strip of land that is occupied by a significantly larger and more conventional church, a random assortment of utilitarian structures, and a few slightly incongruous grazing cows. The landscape is ordinary and sparse, neither inspiring nor deplorable, and characteristic of the only-as-urban-as-necessary pattern and scale in which most small-town planners, and Springdale’s, apparently, trust. It is the non-threatening ordinariness that is preserved by planning, planning that takes a defensive position to ensure the banality that is necessary to perpetrate and perpetuate the sort of placelessness that is a sign for some of a fundamentally democratic condition.

Image 9: Southwest Corner in the afternoon (after), Photograph by Timothy Hursley

Though diminutive and closer than it may appear from the interstate when seen at speed, St. Nicholas projects a powerful presence to those sufficiently alert to notice a carefully delineated profile and taut white surface, especially compelling when seen in low, warm afternoon light (See image 9). Decidedly architectural in Nikolaus Pevsner’s sense of the word, a little architecture goes a long way in a setting like this. Architecture that screams, exaggerates or multiplies arbitrarily in just about any sort of way, anything duck-ish, will appear dissonant and out of place in Springdale, even along its interstate highway. Architecture that is self-referential and overly ambitious in a plenitude of quantities (including much of what is driven by algorithms, parametrics, and delusions of grandeur) would likely see its quality diminished when averaged and juxtaposed with the familiar but lesser objects which attend. In a setting that offers too much space, too many signs, and too much signification, it is best to omit an extraneous material or two, at least. Aggregations or articulations of multiple volumes and unnecessary meaning(s) are counterproductive as well. For architecture like that of St. Nicholas, a modest investment in profile or silhouette and a nod to simple frontality are sufficient, with just enough attention to the oblique view as is required for a bit of form. Presence is best established with decorum, delivered slowly with finesse.

Image 6: Northwest corner at dusk (after), Photograph by Timothy Hursley

Like Thorncrown, St. Nicholas has found an appreciative audience and received favourable press coverage beyond Arkansas. Both may be underdogs by virtue of geography. Both are magazine-cover photogenic and deliver compelling first impressions. The opacity of St. Nicholas (See image 6) is the antithesis of Thorncrown’s transparency and therefore isn’t nearly so overtly receptive or open. Sacred space requires privacy and protection in a setting in which the profane prevails.

Driving the length of I-49 through the Northwest Arkansas metroplex toward the Missouri state line, one sees the same pattern of development that prevails in most of America. Closely resembling what one sees while driving through the environs of Dallas or Houston or other places of affluence and conspicuous consumption, it is readily apparent that the same model has been dropped on affluent Bentonville and is radiating outward in search of ubiquity and equilibrium. The pattern, the form, the architecture are antithetical to anything that might be understood as regional, or local. How does an architect with ideals, hope, and high aspirations embrace this world without being consumed by it? What is possible, what is necessary, what is reasonable, and what is desirable? St. Nicholas projects one model in response to these questions, to the sparseness of a setting with too much space and too little presence, and to the authority invested (read “contextualism”) in what already exists.

Image 5: West Elevation (after), Photograph by Timothy Hursley

Without demanding undue attention or escalating dissonance and by dodging both banality and extravagance, the architecture asserts presence by the subtlety of studied adjacencies (See image 5). Continuity rather than repetition and carefully calibrated difference in lieu of more familiar, conventional, casual indifference provides an architecture with a modest, measured degree of figuration that neither dominates the setting nor disappears.

Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, is a practicing architect in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and the E. Fay Jones Distinguished Professor at the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas. The work of his professional office has received broad national and international recognition, including the 2016 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in Architecture and the 2016 Architect 50 Top Design Firm. Blackwell was a United States Artists Ford Fellow in 2014 and received the 2012 Architecture Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

David Buege is Professor of Architecture at the Fay Jones School of Architecture. Educated at Princeton University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he has also taught at Auburn University and the New Jersey Institute of Technology.