Professor Marlon Blackwell’s Thaden School collaborative project wins MacConnell Prize
Thaden School, a Bentonville project planned and designed by EskewDumezRipple, Marlon Blackwell Architects and Andropogon Associates, recently received the 2022 James D. MacConnell Award, the K-12 industry’s highest honor.
Thaden School, an Arkansas project planned and designed by EskewDumezRipple, Marlon Blackwell Architects, and Andropogon Associates, recently received the 2022 James D. MacConnell Award. This international award from the Association for Learning Environments is the highest honor in K-12 industry, and it rewards outstanding comprehensive planning processes that result in innovative designs to facilitate student success.
Thaden School is an independent middle school and high school in Bentonville with a unique curriculum that combines academic excellence with “learning by doing”. Campus buildings employ a strategy familiar to Arkansas, with long, narrow buildings oriented to control exposure to intense southern sun and to allow natural ventilation at the eaves. These long forms are strategically curved to avoid long internal hallways and to frame outdoor gathering spaces. The campus itself is an educational tool as a productive landscape for agriculture and a restorative landscape that addresses flooding and restores native ecosystems.
The project is a phased implementation of a comprehensive master plan created in collaboration with EskewDumezRipple, Marlon Blackwell Architects, landscape architects Andropogon Associates and engineering firm CMTA. Four of the five buildings on the Thaden School campus were designed by the Fayetteville-based firm of Blackwell, of which he is director.
Blackwell, FAIA and Distinguished Professor, also holds the E. Fay Jones Chair in Architecture at the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, where he has taught since 1992. He is a recipient of the 2020 Gold Medal of the American Institute of Architects.
“The visionary planning process and uplifting design of the Thaden School has made the most of a unique opportunity to create a purposeful learning environment,” said Philip Riedel, Director of NAC Architecture and Chair of the Awards Jury. “The thoughtful development of a personalized pedagogical approach linking teaching and learning at this specific location in Bentonville set the stage for the design team to directly express the potential of education in architecture and site design. EskewDumezRipple, Marlon Blackwell Architects and Andropogon Associates created an environment to propel place-based learning and foster a supportive community around students.”
The MacConnell Award, the most prestigious award given by the Association for Learning Environments, is given to a project that genuinely engages stakeholders in all phases of the project while improving understanding of the interconnections of the environment, learning and teaching, according to the association’s website. The results of the exceptional planning process are manifested in the creation of built environments, the way teachers and learners interact due to the spaces designed, and the general attitudes and achievements of learners.
Thaden School’s Home building was designed by EskewDumezRipple to be a central link on the high school campus. The building strives to establish the school’s innovative vision for the future, while reflecting the bucolic environment. The project used common materials and methods to create unusual results. The Home building houses an expansive dining hall, teaching kitchen, student bookstore, library, and several lounges and study spaces. Students continue to learn by doing thanks to a ubiquitous “water lab” where most of the rainwater is stored on-site.
“Even before we were brought in to design the project, the founders of the Thaden School had a clear and compelling vision in place – not only for the school’s pedagogy, but also for how a future campus could support this pedagogy,” said Steve Dumez, FAIA, Director and Design Director for EskewDumezRipple. “Their vision – and the focus of our collaborative team which included Marlon Blackwell Architects and Andropogon – emphasized a connection to place and how students could connect their environment to their education and the world around them. When the client has already imbued the project with such clarity of direction, our job as architects is simply to maintain that vision.I think the end result speaks for itself, and the success that The school Thaden has found both in his local community, as well as on the national stage, is due in large part to this clarity of vision.”
Blackwell agreed that the founders’ particular vision for the Thaden School was key to the collaborative team’s design process.
“The project-based educational vision – learning by doing – has provided our team with the opportunity to deliver a well-designed, innovative model for a school campus and facility that is more than an instrumental collection of classrooms, but is rather places of learning and discovery inspired through the simple and dignified use of indigenous landscapes, everyday materials, abundant daylight and human spaces,” said Blackwell.
Blackwell’s firm’s four designs on the Thaden School campus are the Bike Barn, the Performance Building, and the buildings that house the Wheels and Reels programs.
The Arts and Administration Building houses the Thaden School’s flagship program, Reels, and includes classrooms, wet labs, and administrative spaces. Designed to meet the environmental challenges of water catchment and natural lighting, the corrugated roof also frames the entrances and connects different landscapes. Visible from almost anywhere on campus, the roof tilts and rolls to provide daylight and ventilation. The classroom spaces are divided by bars of service spaces which include storage, toilets and the mechanical area.
Home to the flagship Wheels program, the Science and Fabrication Building creates a public presence for the school by connecting the campus to Bentonville Square. A canopy along Main Street acts as a “billboard” for the campus and creates an outdoor workspace for the Wheels Lab. Covered areas extend student workspaces outside of the building, connecting with the outdoors and displaying campus and community activity. A large central hallway widens to accommodate student collaboration and top-lit study spaces with a constant level of natural light throughout the year.
The Bike Barn, located on a berm along the eastern edge of campus, is integrated into a network of pedestrian paths that connect to the larger regional trail network. By reconfiguring the profile of an Ozark gambrel barn to maximize height under 12 locally fabricated timber trusses, the structure accommodates a multipurpose court, bicycle storage and support facilities. Much of the space is naturally ventilated through a mix of open joints in the cypress panel cladding, vented skylights, and a series of rolling doors that open to the surrounding landscape.
The Performance building is on the northwest corner of campus. A generous loggia and expressive canopy create a strong and welcoming street edge – extending well beyond the main body of the building and leading to a sky-lit entrance. The building supports a wide variety of educational programs in the performing arts, including music, theater and film, all with easy access to a world-class performance venue. The versatile and efficient allocation of space advances the school’s mission and identity as a stage for improvisation, experimentation and imagination.
“With over 75 projects submitted to the awards program, the MacConnell projects are outstanding examples of holistic planning resulting in schools that support teaching and learning and meet the multiple needs of students, staff and the community,” said Riedel, president of the awards jury. .
A juror described the planning and design of the Thaden School as “pure poetry”. The jury also noted, “This school celebrates the ability to respond to differences. Ownership and stewardship are strong here. It’s symbolic of the idea of an ‘anti-school’ where students are given a message distinct about the agency and the respect given to their individual learning. It promotes freedom of creativity through its fiery design.”
In addition to this MacConnell Award, Marlon Blackwell Architects was recently included in Architect Log Interiors Top 50 Architects and Designers, which recognizes the best North American architecture and design firms working in interiors today.
The architect’s journal also named the winning practice in the Architect (Small Practice) – South West category for its 2022 Best Practice Awards. Award juror Trey Trahan said, “Marlon and his company continue to leave a lasting impact on the environment built from Northwest Arkansas. His work continues to be fresh, thoughtful and provocative despite working within constraints that would normally diminish a project – they always find a way to deliver unexpected and clever projects.”