A collection of design work representing contemporary design culture and design thinking in Arkansas is part of the Venice Biennale, the 15th International Architecture Exhibition, which opens to the public Saturday.

The six-month event, which happens every two years, takes place from May 28 to Nov. 27 in the Giardini, the Arsenale and various other venues in Venice, Italy. Participants are invited to be part of this international event, and this year’s theme is “Reporting from the Front.” The exhibition includes 88 participants from 37 different countries, as well as 62 national participations and a selected choice of collateral events. This year’s exhibition is directed by Alejandro Aravena and organized by La Biennale di Venezia, chaired by Paolo Baratta. 

The University of Arkansas was selected to be represented in the collateral events through the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design and the school’s alignment with the University of Arkansas Community Design Center and Marlon Blackwell Architects, a design practice led by Blackwell and based in Fayetteville.

Blackwell, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, is also a Distinguished Professor and holds the E. Fay Jones Chair in Architecture for the Fay Jones School. Steve Luoni, director of the Community Design Center, is a Distinguished Professor and holds the Steven L. Anderson Chair in Architecture and Urban Studies.

Threaded throughout the projects the team included, there are demonstrations of the place-based education of the Fay Jones School and the University of Arkansas, in support of the authentic and contemporary culture of Arkansas. The title of the University of Arkansas submission, “Building:Community,” describes the reciprocity of practice and service in the complementary (and sometimes collaborative) work of Marlon Blackwell Architects and the Community Design Center.

“The opportunity to promote the state and the university at this world architectural venue, through the design work being done by our distinguished faculty in the Fay Jones School, is an opportunity to advance the U of A identity to a significant international audience. I was happy to lend my support to such an ambitious project,” said Chancellor Joseph Steinmetz. “This is an impressive effort, and after such intense and challenging preparations, I'm pleased that the installation is now a reality we can proudly promote and bring to the attention of our community and all those who will visit the Biennale.”

The University of Arkansas exhibition is set up in the Palazzo Bembo, one of the spaces for the collateral events. Visitors will be able to experience the exhibition – which showcases the state’s natural resources, significant culture, and prominent industries, along with the Fay Jones School’s contributions to the state through design work and design education. Visitors also can take away three different postcards about the state and the school.

Josh Matthews, a Fay Jones School alumnus, designed the exhibition room for the University of Arkansas team.

“The Fay Jones School was pleased to be invited to participate in this collateral exhibition of the 15th Venice Biennale, and is very grateful to the chancellor and provost for their immediate and continuing support that has made our ‘Building:Community’ exhibition possible,” said Peter MacKeith, dean of the Fay Jones School. “We have worked to design and install an exhibition that is reflective of the school, but also of the university and the state of Arkansas. Our commitment to the community of the state, as well as to excellence in professional architecture and design education, is the primary driver of our work.”

Projects in the exhibition display include Vol Walker Hall and the Steven L. Anderson Design Center, St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church and Gentry Public Library, all designed by Blackwell’s firm. Projects from the Community Design Center include Slow Street: A New Town Center for Mayflower, Fayetteville 2030: Food City Scenario, and Conway Watershed Framework Plan.

One project — The Creative Corridor: A Main Street Revitalization for Little Rock — was a collaborative design between the Community Design Center and Marlon Blackwell Architects.

“We’re thrilled to present the school and university on this world architecture stage – alongside such American luminaries as Denise Scott Brown and Peter Eisenman, and among a diverse range of international practices – as one of a very few university-based demonstrations of contemporary architecture and design,” MacKeith said. “Our exhibit promotes the excellence of the school’s faculty – and that of the university generally. The displayed work promotes our commitment to civic engagement and community outreach, both central elements of our mission. The exhibition also highlights to an immense international audience the character of the state of Arkansas – its landscape, history and material culture.”

All of these projects featured in the Fay Jones School exhibition have won awards, including, most recently, the 2016 AIA/CAE Educational Facility Design Award of Excellence for the Vol Walker Hall renovation and Steven L. Anderson Design Center addition.

The Slow Street project won the 2015 World Architecture News’ Future Project Urban Design Award. The Conway Watershed Framework Plan won a 2016 Award of Merit in the Planning and Analysis category from the Central States chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Food City Scenario won a 2016 Honor Award, also in the Planning and Analysis category from the Central States chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects. In addition, that project won a 2016 Institute Honor Award for Regional and Urban Design from the American Institute of Architects and a 2016 Collaborative Practice Award from the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.

Creative Corridor received a 2014 Honor Award from the American Society of Landscape Architects, a 2014 Honor Award for Regional and Urban Design from the American Institute of Architects and a 2013 American Architecture Award from The Chicago Athenaeum: Museum of Architecture and Design and The European Centre for Architecture Art Design and Urban Studies.

St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church won a 2013 AIA National Honor Award and Faith and Form Honor Award. The Gentry Public Library won a 2009 National AIA/ALA Library Design Award.

“Our Biennale exhibition this year is the first in a series of planned events in national and international exhibition arenas for the school, building on the state, regional, national and international recognition given to our students, faculty and alumni over many decades,” MacKeith said. “We look ahead next to the Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2017, and, on the basis of our current Venice display, we have already been invited to return to the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale. I look forward to working with faculty and students on these important events promoting the school, university and state to a larger audience.”

For more than a century, the Venice Biennale has been one of the most prestigious cultural events in the world. Today, it has an attendance of more than 370,000 visitors at the Art Exhibition. 

The history of the Venice Biennale dates back to 1895, when the first International Art Exhibition was organized. In the 1930s new festivals were born, focused on music, cinema and theater. (The Venice Film Festival in 1932 was the first film festival ever organized.) In 1980, the first International Architecture Exhibition took place, and an exhibition focused on dance made its debut at the Venice Biennale in 1999.

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AuthorLinda Komlos