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Arkansas's resident genius: Architect Fay Jones 

Arkansan's work reconciles man and nature.

click to enlarge Thorncrown Chapel image
  • Thorncrown Chapel

FAYETTEVILLE — E. Fay Jones just turned 80. He walks slowly, goes out rarely. "If I'd known I was going to get old, I would have done it better," he says as he moves to the car that will take him and his wife, Gus, to one of their favorite Fayetteville restaurants for lunch.

"It" is left unidentified. Jones can't mean his work, because he's considered among the top architects of the 20th century. Last year, members of the American Institute of Architects were asked to vote for their favorite buildings of the century. Jones's Thorncrown Chapel near Eureka Springs came in at No. 4.

Although the AIA noted that the survey was unscientific, Jones's achievement is monumental, though — in the kind of paradox Jones appreciates — his work itself has been on an intimate scale. The 20th century saw the building of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, the Chrysler Building by William Van Alen, the Seagram Building by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, the Guggenheim Museum (also by Wright) and Maya Lin's great marble slash in the earth that is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Jones is known for his chapels and houses.

The "it" that he'd have done better can't mean his life. He and his wife have been a loving team for 58 years, one of his two daughters once admitted to him she'd been sorely disappointed to find that not all men were like her father, and his friends are a loyal and protective legion. Not only is Jones one of the greatest architects of the 20th century, he may stand as one of the best loved and most respected. Love is not something that architects, a notoriously egotistic bunch, always inspire.

"It" must mean simply growing old, the natural scheme devised by the natural world that has infused Jones's work. And "it" waits for all of us fated to stay a while.

Physical frailty caused by heart problems hasn't extinguished his enthusiasm for architecture, which he calls the "mother of the arts." It hasn't extinguished his sense of humor or brilliance or integrity. When he speaks his blue eyes lock onto those of an interviewer and rarely look away.

Time and its consequences haven't extinguished his gentility. As friend Roy Reed mentions and a reporter notices, when Jones disagrees with a statement, he doesn't bother to utter disapproval; he simply grows silent. In conversation as in construction, Jones is a master of restraint.

John Womack, a former student and colleague of Jones, says Jones's gentility is sometimes misconstrued as humility.

"He's a very kind and generous person, but he was also a fighter and could be a damn tough cookie whenever it was necessary," says Womack, now an associate professor at Oklahoma State University. "You don't get beautiful things built by being careless or indifferent."

As an architect, Jones, who retired three years ago, has paid nature tribute, using stone and wood, orienting his buildings to conform to their sites, opening them up to the outdoors. He and his wife still live in the first house he ever designed, its interior entry dominated by a moss-covered boulder jutting from the earth.

He mostly has stayed where he was put — in Arkansas. Here he has worked not just as an architect, but as professor at and later dean of the University of Arkansas's School of Architecture.

He may be the state's greatest artist. He is of Arkansas in a few way Arkansas artists have been, yet his work has reached beyond the state to become world-renowned.

And the way Jones did that may be his biggest achievement, one of character as much as art. His work will endure because it embodies a paradox. He has made architecture for the confident, for those open to the natural world and unafraid of its terrors — the greatest of which is death. At the same time his work embodies a spirituality that appeals to the troubled and frightened. Its beauty evokes a serenity that holds out the hope of transcendence.

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