Walmart heirs hope the Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program will ramp up architectural standards in the state

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Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville (Courtesy The Walton Family Foundation/Drew Harris)

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville (Courtesy Drew Harris)

In a bid to bolster an economic and population boom in Northwest Arkansas, plans are afoot to shore up and streamline the region’s architecture and landscape design. The Walton Family Foundation recently announced the launch of the Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program, in which previously vetted architects and public-space projects will receive financial support from the foundation at every stage of the design phase.

Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel, Bella Vista (Courtesy Timothy Hursley)

Mildred B. Cooper Memorial Chapel, Bella Vista (Courtesy Timothy Hursley)

The selection committee of distinguished architecture professionals and educators will earmark projects that are sustainable, contribute to the region’s walkability and, most of all, inspire a “sense of place.” While Northwest Arkansas comprises four cities—Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers, and Bentonville—the program will be concentrated in the Benton and Washington counties, whose income per capita, while $2,000 shy of the national average, oustrips the other cities in the region by nearly 20 percent.

Gentry Public Library, Gentry (Courtesy Timothy Hursley)

Gentry Public Library, Gentry (Courtesy Timothy Hursley)

“I think the interest within the building and design community has never been higher,” said Karen Minkel, Home Region program director at the Walton Family Foundation. “It seems like every week there’s an article about a downtown masterplan. I think there’s a general interest across the region. This program provides resources to grantees in that they can think carefully about how their project can contribute to the overall sense of place.”

The program’s winning formula consists of complementing the public welfare objectives of school districts, county, state, and local municipalities and nonprofits with the cutting-edge design smarts of world-class architects, who will be handpicked for their ability to identify with the region’s character.

Vol Walker Hall at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville (Courtesy Timothy Hursley)

Vol Walker Hall at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville (Courtesy Timothy Hursley)

Columbus, Indiana, stands as an exemplar of the power of nonprofits to raise the image of a city through design standards. An architecture aficionado and the former Chairman and CEO of Cummins, J. Irwin Miller started the Cummins Foundation’s architecture program in 1960, beginning with grants disbursed to schools in the town’s outskirts. It later spurred unprecedented designs like the glass-fronted, half-moon Columbus City Hall by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Eliel Saarinen’s strikingly modern First Christian Church, now city emblems.

Old Main, Fayetteville (Courtesy the University of Arkansas)

Old Main, Fayetteville (Courtesy the University of Arkansas)

Meanwhile, Northwest Arkansas’ bragging rights include the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, designed by Moshe Safdie, the 21c Museum Hotel Bentonville by Deborah Berke, the award-winning Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs by Faye Jones, and the Garland Center in Fayetteville by Knowles Blunck Architecture. Minkel relishes the idea of “complementing and reinvigorating the history of architectural design in the region, and the idea that it will become part of the vernacular and we can reinterpret it in different ways.”

Like the Cummins program, the Walton Family Foundation foresees attracting and retaining top human resources as a byproduct of next-level design, an economic driver and a bid to raise the city’s architectural profile. “The program in Columbus, Indiana, has become a tourist mecca. We think this program can potentially benefit tourism in the region,” said Minkel. “If we talk about how it can contribute to sense of place and the overall urban fabric, that’s what’s attracting people to our overall downtown area and that’s what adding to our identity.”

Interested architects have until September 16 to submit material for review. Applications should include a letter of interest, examples of five past projects, and the firm’s approach to creating a sense of place. For more information, visit the foundation’s website.

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