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Thorncrown Chapel and other works of E. Fay Jones to go virtual

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Thorncrown Chapel and other works of E. Fay Jones to go virtual

The famed Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, is getting the virtual tour treatment as part of a larger NEH-funded initiative showcasing the works of E. Fay Jones. (Brad Holt/(Flickr)

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has awarded the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design and the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas with $250,000 to help bring the work of its namesake—the architect and native Arkansan E. Fay Jones—to virtual life through interactive gaming technology.

The funds, awarded through an NEH Digital Projects for the Public grant, will be used by professors Greg Herman and David Fredrick to fully develop Housing the Human and the Sacred, a digital experience that will allow users to explore six of Jones’s architectural creations via touch-based kiosks, virtual headsets, and an interactive internet platform. Housing the Human and the Sacred is a further realization of A House of the Ozarks, a three-years-in-the-making prototype virtual experience that enables users to virtually tour the self-designed Fayetteville home Jones shared with his wife, Gus. Like most of Jones’s work, his family home was designed in accordance with the principals of organic architecture espoused by his mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright.

In addition to the Jones family home, completed in 1956, Housing the Human and the Sacred will feature virtual tours of four obscure and largely inaccessible residential projects designed by Jones—Sequoyah Project, Hartman Hotz House, and Brothers House, all in Fayetteville, and Stoneflower near Heber Springs. The show also includes his most well-known—and certainly most visited—work, the Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs.

“An Arkansan himself, Fay Jones is one of the most important and most influential American architects,” said Herman, an associate professor in the Department of Architecture and director of the Fay and Gus Jones House Stewardship, in a news release. “As Jones himself put it, more eloquently than I could, architects have ‘the power and responsibility to shape new physical and spatial forms in the landscape, forms that will sustain and nourish and express…the human condition at its spiritual best.’ Fay certainly achieved this, and a big part of what we’re trying to do is ensure more people get to experience what he’s talking about.”

Fredrick, Herman’s co-lead on the project, is a professor of classical studies and director of the Tesseract Center for Immersive Environments and Game Design at the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. He will guide Tesseract Center staff and student interns in developing the virtual experience, which will take the form of a “multilinear, 3D narrative in six chapters, informed by Herman’s interpretive guidance.”

A press statement elaborated that the narrative will “feature three key themes through which Jones’ work explores the human condition: the sense of one’s body in relation to space and design, the effect of architecture on social relations within and beyond the family, and the occupant’s relation to the elements and rhythms of nature.”

“The project will leverage key principles from game design that we feel are consonant with Jones’ design approach—multilinear narrative, discovery, surprise and reflection,” Fredrick elaborated. “Through the combination of these principles, the user will interact with the natural elements of water, fire, glass, stone and light, triggering 360-degree video clips that will highlight the primal importance of shelter and immerse the user in the landscape of the Ozarks.”

a historic wooden house in arkansas
Jones was a prolific home designer. However, his own Arkansas residence, gifted to the University of Arkansas in 2015, is the only one that’s relatively well-known. (Valiss55/Wikimedia Commons)

Jones, who passed away at his Fayetteville home in 2004 at the age of 83, was also a University of Arkansas alumni. (The Architecture and Design School was named after him in 2010.) Jones is the only Wright protégée to receive the AIA Gold Medal. That same honor was bestowed this year to Marlon Blackwell, founding principal of the eponymous Fayetteville architecture firm and distinguished professor in the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design.

While a modest handful of buildings—Jones was somewhat of a specialist in otherworldly venues for vow-exchanging—designed by Jones have been recognized by the wider architecture community, Thorncrown Chapel, completed in 1980 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2000 alongside the Jones family home, remains his, well, crowning achievement. It’s undoubtedly one of the most internationally recognized works of architecture in the Natural State, which, as AN has written about in detail, is a current hotbed of architectural innovation.