Thaden School Master Plan Receives 2023 AIA Honor Award in Regional and Urban Design

Thaden School, a Bentonville project planned and designed by EskewDumezRipple, Marlon Blackwell Architects and Andropogon Associates, has won a 2023 Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects.
Timothy Hursley

Thaden School, a Bentonville project planned and designed by EskewDumezRipple, Marlon Blackwell Architects and Andropogon Associates, has won a 2023 Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects.

The master plan for Thaden School, an Arkansas project planned and designed by EskewDumezRipple, Marlon Blackwell Architects and Andropogon Associates, has won a 2023 Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects.

This was one of five projects honored in the Regional and Urban Design category, which recognizes the best in urban design, regional and city planning, and community development.

The AIA Honor Awards program is the top design awards program nationally for architecture, urban design and interior architecture. This year's award-winning projects and other honorees will be celebrated in June at the 2023 AIA Conference on Architecture and Expo in San Francisco. 

Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, Distinguished Professor of architecture and the E. Fay Jones Chair in Architecture in the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the U of A, received the 2020 AIA Gold Medal. He is founder and co-principal of his Fayetteville-based design practice, which designed four of the five buildings on the Thaden School campus.

Another Arkansas project, Railyard Park in Rogers, also received an AIA Regional and Urban Design Award. Ross Barney Architects and AFHJ Architects designed the park. Carol Ross Barney, FAIA, the founder of Ross Barney Architects, is the recipient of the 2023 AIA Gold Medal.

Both of these AIA award-winning Arkansas projects got their start through the Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program, an initiative of the Walton Family Foundation that promotes a high level of design in the development of public buildings and spaces in Benton and Washington counties. Through this program, the foundation partners with local municipalities and nonprofit organizations to offer financial support for all aspects of design.

As the sitting dean of the Fay Jones School at the U of A, Peter MacKeith is a member of the program's selection committee.

"Recognition of the Thaden School campus, and as well the Rogers Railyard Park project, with AIA Regional and Urban Design Awards is continuing confirmation of the vibrancy of contemporary architecture in Northwest Arkansas, across all scales, but now very much at this important larger scale," MacKeith said. "The school takes a strong measure of pride in Professor Blackwell's contribution to this vibrancy, but also more generally a measure of reinforcement to our own efforts in developing courses and curricula that emphasize regional and urban planning for the greater good of the region and state."

Thaden School is an independent middle school and high school in Bentonville with a unique curriculum that combines academic excellence with "learning by doing." The master plan for the school reflects the growth of the independent school in a rapidly expanding area. Campus buildings are oriented to control the exposure to the intense southern sun and to allow natural ventilation at the eave. The long forms are bent to prevent long internal corridors and to frame gathering spaces outside. The campus itself is a teaching tool as a productive landscape for agriculture and a restorative landscape that addresses flooding and restores native ecosystems.

The plan explores how the school can serve the urban environment while connecting with the area's agricultural identity. The 26-acre site with just 125,000 square feet of building creates an open and accessible campus echoing the farmstead surrounding the site.

"We are very pleased with this new recognition for Thaden," Blackwell said. "The campus master plan was envisioned as an urban pastoral learning landscape — one big classroom — set in the middle of the city of Bentonville and is the result of a truly successful collaboration between EskewDumezRipple, Andropogon and MBA. Thaden School as an open campus provides a wonderful model for how a school can truly engage with the surrounding community and urban fabric."

The Home building at Thaden School was designed by EskewDumezRipple to be a central link at the high school campus. The building houses an expansive dining hall, teaching kitchen, student bookstore, library and several lounge and study spaces. Students learn by doing through an ever-present "water lab" where rainwater is stored on site. The building strives to establish the school's innovative vision for the future, while reflecting the pastoral surroundings.

The four designs by Blackwell's firm on the Thaden School campus are the Bike Barn, the Performance building and the buildings that house the Wheels and Reels programs.

The Art and Administration Building houses the signature Thaden School program, Reels, and includes classrooms, wet labs and administrative spaces. Designed to respond to the environmental challenges of water collection and daylighting, the undulating roof also frames entries and connects various landscapes. Visible from almost everywhere on campus, the roof pitches and rolls to provide daylight and ventilation. Classroom spaces are divided by bars of service spaces that include storage, restrooms and mechanical area.

Home to the signature Wheels program, the Science and Fabrication Building creates a public presence for the school by linking the campus to the 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 out of the building, connecting with the outdoors and display activity to the campus and the community. A large central corridor widens to accommodate student collaboration and study spaces lit from above with a consistent level of daylighting throughout the year.

The Bike Barn, sited on a berm along the eastern edge of the campus, is integrated into a network of pedestrian pathways that connect to the larger regional trails system. By reconfiguring the profile of an Ozark gambrel barn to maximize the height below 12 locally fabricated wood trusses, the structure accommodates a multi-use court, bike storage and support facilities. Much of the space is naturally ventilated through a mix of open joints in the cypress board siding, vented skylights and a series of roller doors that open to the surrounding landscape.

The Performance building sits on the northwest corner of the 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 skylit entryway. The building supports a wide variety of educational programs in the performing arts, including music, drama and film, all with ready 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.

Blackwell's firm has received a total of 16 national AIA awards. This latest award is the eighth AIA Honor Award for the firm — across the categories of Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Regional and Urban Design. 

The jury for the 2023 Regional and Urban Design Awards comprised chair Victor Buchholz, AIA, of LPK, based in Memphis, Tennessee; Kotaro Nakamura, AIA, from San Diego's RNT Architects; Marilys Nepomechie, FAIA, of Florida International University in Miami; New York-based Vanessa Quirk; and Yuting Zhang, AIA, of Gensler in Boston.


Michelle Parks, director of communications
Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design


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