Two projects by the University of Arkansas Community Design Center and its collaborators have received 2016 American Architecture Awards from The Chicago Athenaeum: Museum of Architecture and Design and The European Centre for Architecture Art Design and Urban Studies.

The winning projects, the Texarkana Art Park and the Conway Urban Watershed Framework Plan: A Reconciliation Landscape, are the ninth and 10th Community Design Center projects to receive American Architecture Awards. The center is an outreach program of Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design.

“This recognition enhances the support necessary for our client communities to develop their urban cores in ways that may seem strange and unexpected to some. Yet, the visions are entirely pragmatic,” said Steve Luoni, director of the Community Design Center. He is also the Steven L. Anderson Chair in Architecture and Urban Studies in the Fay Jones School.

The Community Design Center collaborated with Marlon Blackwell Architects, a Fayetteville-based firm, for the Texarkana Art Park in Texarkana, Texas. The block-level revitalization links the stately Perot Theatre, City Hall and Regional Arts Center through townscaping elements that create a new urban living room for a downtown on the cusp of regeneration.

The Texarkana Art Park will focus on four main areas: a farmers market, band shell, amphitheater and art walk. These four designs are expected to greatly enhance the social life of downtown Texarkana. Project planning was partly funded by a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

“In the Texarkana Art Park, we recombine familiar structures to make light parks, hanging gardens (made from repurposed irrigation pivot arms for crop production), an outdoor art walk, and a farmers market that moonlights as a bandstand,” Luoni said. “Their slight strangeness gives structure to an enterprising culinary and artistic community reclaiming the vitality once experienced in this historic downtown.”

The second winning project, the Conway Urban Watershed Framework Plan, mitigates severe water management problems in the sub-watershed incorporating Conway, Arkansas. The plan employs green infrastructure to deliver ecosystem services. The approach provides a novel set of transferable planning tools for urban watersheds that combine a Sponge City Gradient, a Water Treatment Technologies Spectrum, the 17 Ecosystem Services, and Six Adaptive Infrastructure Types.

This project is a collaboration between the Community Design Center and Marty Matlock, executive director of the U of A Office for Sustainability and professor of ecological engineering in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.

The three-year project was funded by a $498,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency – administered by the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission – and matching funds from the city of Conway, Faulkner County, the University of Central Arkansas and the Lake Conway Property Owners Association.

“The Conway Urban Watershed Plan proposes infrastructural systems that integrate ecological technologies – ‘soft engineering’ – with conventional hard infrastructure,” Luoni said. “In polluted urban water channels, we insert large-scale container gardens akin to ‘living machines’ or aquariums that filter and metabolize pollutants. For a neglected downtown neighborhood prone to constant flooding, the town square functions as a ‘rain terrain’ that absorbs and transpires water like a sponge, rather than pipe it elsewhere, which is too costly.

The American Architecture Awards are the nation’s highest public awards given by a non-commercial, non-trade affiliated, public arts, culture and educational institution. Chosen from a shortlist of 380 buildings and urban planning projects from across the United States, the 74 award-winners were new buildings, commercial and institutional developments, and urban planning projects.

The American Architecture Awards program is a centerpiece of The Chicago Athenaeum and the European Centre’s efforts to identify and promote best practices in all types of architectural development and to bring global recognition to the best new designs in the United States. It is it the only national and global problem program of its kind. This year’s jury consisted of architecture professionals in Denver, Colorado.

“This comprehensive and even-handed overview of new American architecture for 2016 allows you (as a viewer) to witness the enormous diversity in the American practice of architecture today,” said Christian Narkiewicz-Laine, museum president of The Chicago Athenaeum. “This year’s selection by the Denver jury was more interested in discussions concerning the problems of the environment, social context, technical and constructive solutions, the responsible use of energies, restoration and adaptive-reuse, and the sensitive use of materials and ecology. … Every one of the 74 winning buildings and urban designs illustrates why American architecture continues to be revolutionary and globally influential.”

This December, a special exhibition of all awarded projects called “New American Architecture” will open at Contemporary Space in Athens, Greece. The exhibition will then travel to Istanbul, Turkey, in January.

AuthorLinda Komlos