‘A House of the Ozarks’; Exploring Arkansas’ Most Important Architect
Matt McGowan: Welcome to Short Talks From the Hill, a podcast of the University of Arkansas. My name is Matt McGowan.
It’s been 15 years since Fay Jones died, and with each passing year, fewer people know about him or his work. Unless you’re a student in the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design or just someone especially interested in architecture, the name might not strike a chord. But Jones made an indelible mark on the landscape of Northwest Arkansas for almost 50 years, and one need not look far to find an example of his inimitable style.
Born on January 31, 1921, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, E. Fay Jones grew up in Little Rock and El Dorado and attended the University of Arkansas. For nearly half a century, his name was virtually synonymous with architecture at the university. He was a member of the university’s first graduating class of architecture students and later became the School of Architecture’s first dean. Fay Jones taught at the university for 35 years. I found this on the architecture school’s history page: “Jones’ passion for architecture inspired generations of students; his international reputation also drew outstanding practitioners to lecture and teach on campus, helping to establish the school’s national reputation for excellence.”
While teaching at the university, Jones also operated an architecture firm and designed many residential and commercial structures built in Northwest Arkansas and beyond. Throughout his prolific career, he received numerous design awards, and in 1990, Jones received the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, the highest honor an American architect can receive.
Greg Herman: Fay Jones, who lived from 1921 to 2004, was probably the… is certainly the most important architect ever produced by the state of Arkansas, and the most accomplished architect. His work is certainly very well known in architecture circles and perhaps not as well known outside of architecture circles, but those who may not be familiar with him by name are quite often familiar with his work, such as Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, which has received international notice over the years since it was completed in 1980.
MM: That was Greg Herman, professor of architecture in the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design. He mentioned Thorncrown Chapel, which the American Institute of Architects ranked as the fourth-best building by an American architect in the 20th century. Before Jones died, the AIA also honored Jones as one of the nation’s 10 most influential living architects.
Herman is director of the Fay and Gus Jones House Stewardship, which has been responsible for restoring and curating the Fay and Gus Jones home, which is owned by the university. Jones designed the house in the early to mid-50s, and construction was finished in 1956. In Herman’s writings about Fay Jones, he describes the architect’s designs as being fundamentally connected to earth and sky.
GH: Well, Fay was very much a disciple of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, and as such, he believed in an architecture that was grounded, that recognized the site, that was earthbound, and, as the name of our project suggests, it’s of the earth, not on the earth. At the same time, the buildings have a recognizable profile, they recognize their… relationship to the sky is accomplished by a treatment of the roof, the way the building moves upward from the land, and between those, you have an earth and sky connection.
MM: Herman alluded to a project. With a $86,000 grant from the Chancellor’s Innovation and Collaboration Fund, he and Dave Fredrick, professor of classics in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, embarked on “A House of the Ozarks,” an interactive project focused on Jones’s work and starting with Jones’s home.
MM: Here’s Greg Herman.
GH: Our ultimate goal is to bring the works of Fay Jones to a broader audience, for certain, but we would also like to look at a number of other architects who were educated at the same time as Fay or were his colleagues here at the University, who contributed significantly to the… what we’ve come to call the mid-century modern design environment here in Northwest Arkansas. This… by virtue of our geography, this is often considered a place where innovation historically has not happened, but in fact, because of Fay Jones and a number of his very talented contemporaries there was quite a bit of innovation in architecture, particularly domestic architecture, architecture of houses, from the end of World War really up into the present time, but especially in the period in the late 50s or through the 60s and into the 70s.
Greg Herman, left, and Dave Fredrick at the Jones’s residence in Fayetteville.
MM: In addition to being a professor of classics, Dave Fredrick is the founding director of the Tesseract Center for Immersive Environments and Game Design. Started in 2010, the Tesseract Center produces immersive, game-based content, 3D visualizations and other applications for university classes and research.
Dave Fredrick: The simplest way to put it is we’re a video game studio. That’s what we… that’s the technology that we rely on. Our actual first use of a game engine was probably back in 2006 or 7, and that was literally me and one other guy in a little shoebox in Old Main. We’ve grown since then and now we’re in JBHT, and we have just a range of projects, which all depend on real-time 3D interactivity, which if you’ve ever played a game on your phone or on a console or whatever, it’s basically the player gets to make choices in space and time, and that can obviously touch a lot of things, and architecture is one of them. And so we have a game-based approach to Roman civilization. We’ve got an interactive application, gallery application for Crystal Bridges. And so the opportunity to work on this and bring together the ability to have real-time visualization with the architecture Fay Jones was just like really fantastic.
MM: With help from staff and students at the Tesseract Center, Herman and Fredrick have created a 3D interactive visualization… or game, if you prefer… that allows users… or players… to tour the home and grounds of the Jones home. Fredrick explains what makes this project interactive.
DF: If you think about going into a building… Every building you enter asks you to make choices. Where will you go? Sometimes those choices are confusing, like this is the front door of this building? How do I find my room? And so architecture always calls for interactivity on the part of… in a sense, you as a user, or player, of the building, and so for this project a lot of it is what’s it like to walk through one of these houses and especially in a way that allows you to call forth some of the design principles that are expressed in the house. And so our goal was to have a lot of archival information and design information built into that experience. And you can also, sort of, see the house in its landscape and spin it around, take the roof off and see how the first floor and second floor relate, which speaks directly to the earth sky sort of thing that’s going on. But also be able to call forth a lot of information in a way that’s quick and responsive. And, as was mentioned, a lot of these structures that were interested in are domestic, which means there’s not very much other opportunity or no other opportunity for someone to have an experience like that of the architecture. You can’t go there as a tourist and expect to tour the house, and so this virtual experience is the best you’re going to get. And so we take that very seriously, as far as documenting, not just what’s it like to walk through it, but what was Fay thinking, to the extent that we can capture that.
MM: To provide this virtual experience for the user, the researchers designed and built a large, touch-based interface. It’s very large. Imagine an iPad, 5 feet wide and housed in wooden case. The researchers call it an interactive kiosk. You can see it in the hallway outside the Tesseract Center in the J.B. Hunt building.
DF: The idea there was to really get your… like get it out to the edge of your peripheral vision, so you feel more and more like you’re in that space. And so that intention to capture of the Ozarks is something we really wanted to bring across in the kiosk. And your first experience is probably going to be being able to put your finger down and rotate the building around and see how it looks from different angles, but that is sort of a god-like or almost designer’s view of the project, and we felt it was extremely important to put you on your feet as well and to have you in a sense walk through it, and as you walk through it, be able to sit behind the desk where Fay often designed and call forth like the plans of the house, what it looked like you know at different phases of its… when it was lived in. And so to us it’s a very much game-like to a certain extent but also a serious game and, that is, the goal is to educate.
MM: The researchers created a highly realistic interactive experience by using a process called photogrammetry. Photogrammetry uses photographs, taken from various angles, and stitched together by algorithms into a mesh. As Fredrick says, this technology produces incredible tactile quality. Since the kiosk debuted at the Fayetteville Farmer’s market last October, the researchers have been updating the technology.
Herman and Fredrick refer the October event as a soft launch. It was an opportunity to educate the public, but also test the technology.
Here’s Dave Fredrick.
DF: I mean we learned a lot about people’s interactions with it, and that’s one of the things you have to do in game design, is player test. And we saw areas of confusion but also areas of delight, and so the thing is to maximize the delight and minimize the confusion. But we were really happy because people tend to spend at least five minutes in front of it, and that’s actually really good for a touch-based outdoor display.
MM: In addition to photography, Herman and Fredrick relied on a treasure of materials at Special Collections inside Mullins Library. Under the direction of Architectural Records Archivist Cat Wallack, Special Collections holds and curates the prodigious Jones’s papers. These include sketches, drawings, blueprints and Jones’s notes on philosophical ideas about his craft and the profession. These materials are available for the public to view.
Those who missed the October event at the Fayetteville Farmer’s Market will get another chance to see the kiosk. After improving the software, based in part on user comments during the soft launch, Herman and Fredrick will re-introduce “A House of the Ozarks” to the public, again at the Fayetteville Farmer’s market on April 20th.
Here’s Greg Herman:
GH: April 20th is a big day. We intend to have a grand release, I believe we’re referring to it, on April 20th at the Fayetteville Farmers market. We hope to secure a spot on the plaza in front of the town center, and folks will be able to come by and have a first-hand try at exploring Fay’s work, specifically the Jones house, but we have information on some of Fay’s other work in the kiosk, and we hope folks will come out for that.
MM: And for those who can’t make it to the Fayetteville Farmer’s market on April 20, the interactive experience of Fay Jones’s work will eventually be available on the web, featuring the same technology. Also, Herman says they plan to take the kiosk on tour, possibly to Crystal Bridges, public libraries and the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport.
GH: One of our initial objectives was that the kiosk be portable and that we would be able to locate it at various places around Northwest Arkansas where folks would congregate, especially lay audiences in our effort to expand the audience for Fay’s work.
MM: Music for Short Talks From the Hill was written and performed by Ben Harris, guitar instructor at the University of Arkansas. For more information and additional podcasts, go to kuaf.com or researchfrontiers.uark.edu, the home of research news at the University of Arkansas.