The very thing I got in trouble for at school, I turned into a career,” laughs Reese Rowland, FAIA, principal with Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects. He is also one of six 2017 Arkansas Governor’s Art Award recipients.
How does Rowland feel to be one of the awardees? “Surprised, shocked, humbled!” stated Rowland. You turn 50; your head is constantly down project to project, working hard to make the most out of it for your client and community.” Rowland explains, “I like to say you work for two years on a building and then you get 15 minutes of excitement on opening day, but you’re already working on two or three other buildings, so it’s right back to work. But I think we might have done a little good.”
Rowland likes to think of his buildings as pieces of art. There’s a good chance you’ve interacted with one of his nationally award-winning structures—Heifer International Headquarters, Acxiom River Market Tower, Little Rock Chamber of Commerce, Arkansas Studies Institute, Bank of the Ozarks Corporate Headquarters and Robinson Auditorium renovation and addition in Little Rock; the El Dorado Conference Center, the University of Arkansas Student Union and the soon-to-open United States National Marshall’s Museum in Fort Smith.
Rowland believes recognition of his architectural achievements isn’t just for him, but is an acknowledgement of everyone at Polk Stanley Wilcox, and all of the hard work done daily. Growing up in Paris, Arkansas, a small town of 3,800 residents, Rowland’s creative spirit was free to expand as he and his friends’ imaginations grew with a playground of unlimited acreage ‘in the country’. “My grandparents lived on a farm with a barn and pond outside of town where they raised cattle and vegetables,” explained Rowland. “With the right imagination our surroundings became anything we wanted . . . the baseball field was our starship. I learned to appreciate the land and where we were and its importance.”
“I realized I loved drawing and was good at it early on. My love of art started in grade school. I doodled around my papers all of the time. I knew if I could figure out a way to make a living at it, I would enjoy it,” stated Rowland. “My mom (Monty Pratt) was an office manager for a small construction company, a really smart woman. My dad (Louie Pratt) was a salesman for a local brick company in Clarksville.” Spending after school hours at his parents’ workplaces, he was captivated by the ins and outs of construction.
“I didn’t take art classes, because it was drawing that attracted me, not painting and the other stuff.” Rowland would hang around his older brother Michael who did take art classes, working on any drawing assignments for himself, as his brother completed his art homework.
Being an architect was a desire for Rowland as early as middle school. “It was the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do. If I had washed out of architecture school I’d have no clue what my path would have been,” he says laughing.
Even with that passion, it’s not an easy path to become an architect, and working in the field comes with its own set of burdens. “The responsibilities of an architect are real—the health, safety and welfare of humans,” stated Rowland. “A lot of times people think builders build the buildings and architects make them look good. But it’s more involved, requiring discussions with four or five consulting engineers, the contractors, ensuring what we are designing is correct.”
According to Rowland, architecture is one of few really artistic endeavors that’s functional. “What I mean by that is, we do provide shelter for people, and if we do it right, it raises the spirit, gives a sense of worth and reflects the person that lives or works inside and what they do and what’s important to them.”
Which brings us back to Rowland being awarded the Governor’s Art Award. The question posed to him was, “Do you see yourself as an artist? His reply—“I always see myself as an architect first but buildings don’t rise to the level of architecture without an artistic approach. When you think about major cities, it’s the architecture that defines them—Chicago, New York, Kansas City, Little Rock. It’s my hometown of Paris, that sits at the foot of Mt. Magazine, one of the most beautiful areas in the country; but, it’s defined by the beautiful courthouse on the Paris town square that’s still active and the five beautiful 100-year-old churches. It’s the architecture that defines a community,” he emphasizes.
For Rowland, good architecture is often difficult to find today. “When you drive through a city, any city or across country, there’s very little really good architecture. There are lots of buildings as you drive the interstate, but it’s strip centers, box stores and access roads and things to sell products.” Good architecture according to Rowland causes you to take notice. “There are times when it’s desirable for people to go ‘Wow, look at that! I wonder what that is?’ And, for them to want to stop and learn more about the structure.'”
Rowland becomes reflective. “I think of myself as much as a storyteller, as I do an architect, just because our job, if we do it well, is to extract the story of the person that we’re designing the building for, making each building unique.”
“…we do provide shelter for people, and if we do it right, it raises the spirit, gives a sense of worth and reflects the person that lives or works inside…”
He says he doesn’t have a noticeable signature building style because it’s really about telling the client’s story. “Each building reflects what they do, who they are and their personality. That’s why Acxiom Tower looks like it’s moving along with the interstate—crisp, clean, modern building, because that’s what they do—moving information technology; where the Arkansas Studies Institute is about unfolding the idea of reading and preserving our history. When you see it, it reminds you of flipping through the pages of a book. Now, not many people are going to stand there and say ‘it looks like flipping through a book’, but it would be unique enough to make them want to explore the building. And once inside they discover all that’s inside the art—information—so they’re learning without learning, which is a key to education. The Children’s Library is the same way.”
The library Rowland refers to is the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library & Learning Center, located near the Little Rock Zoo. Even though he claims not to have a favorite building, (it’s like having a favorite child), his face lights up and his speech quickens when talking about it.
“When you look at a project like the Children’s Library, we didn’t go into it thinking we would get a lot of national attention or it’s going to be a unique structure about us. I really looked at that project through the eyes of my kids. My son Preston is now 16, Pierce is 11; they were 8 and 4 then, same age as the kids who would be utilizing the library. At the time we got that project in ’09, we spent time with kids just exploring and listening to them about what their hopes and dreams and aspirations were, and what they were missing to achieve those goals.”
Because Rowland’s library clients were 5 to 8 year olds, he took a different approach with them versus his conversations with adult clients. Confident in his research, and having his own kids of the same ages, Rowland, was certain he knew what the kids would say. How wrong he was.
More than books, their interests leaned toward life skills. “That’s how we ended up with the greenhouse,” Rowland said. “There were no initial plans for the teaching gardens. We came back with a teaching kitchen double the size of an average home kitchen. That came from the session with the kids, as did the garden,” he said. Children at the library now grow, cook and sell fruit and vegetables from the library garden as a result of these activities.
Second on their list was feeling safe and secure. Third, a place full of life, joy and excitement. “Safe and secure and open with light is a contradiction, but we accomplished it.” He said. The firm’s design concept was a success and is being implemented in other library branches around the city and country.
Rowland’s sons Preston and Pierce are always top of mind as he conceptualizes projects. “My kids won’t let me do it now, but when they were younger, I would take pictures of us at construction sites with our hard hats on. I look back at those pictures with more fondness than I do looking at the buildings that were constructed, because it means something to me that what we’re doing will be here and is left with the next generation, and that’s why our work is really sustainable. For me it’s more about what impact we have and what we leave behind; what roads will they walk that we’ve created for them. That’s a major concern of mine. That’s why I have pictures of my sons everywhere and not pictures of buildings.”
Children provide a variety of meaningful analogies for Rowland. “Buildings are just like our children. Instead of raising them, we design them. But at some point our job is complete and we release them. Hopefully, we’ve done our job well, and just like our children, they’ll be successful. And, just like my children”, he says laughing, “I’ll be checking in on them for years to come to make sure their success continues.”
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