Alice Walton's Holistic Dream Set to Rise in Bentonville

A rendering of the Whole Health Institute building set to break ground in Bentonville.
A rendering of the Whole Health Institute building set to break ground in Bentonville. (Marlon Blackwell Architects)
A rendering depicts a west view of the Whole Health Institute building in Bentonville, which is set for an April groundbreaking.
A rendering depicts a west view of the Whole Health Institute building in Bentonville, which is set for an April groundbreaking. (Marlon Blackwell Architects)
The “dogtrot” section of the design by Marlon Blackwell Architects of Fayetteville.
The “dogtrot” section of the design by Marlon Blackwell Architects of Fayetteville. (Marlon Blackwell Architects)
An east view of the structure, which will total 75,000 SF.
An east view of the structure, which will total 75,000 SF. (Marlon Blackwell Architects)

Timelines for Whole Health Institute, Alice Walton’s dream of a multimillion-dollar center for holistic wellness Bentonville, have so far proved COVID-resistant.

The billionaire Walmart heir and her architect, Fayetteville’s celebrated Marlon Blackwell, are on schedule to break ground in April on the institute’s 75,000-SF multiuse office and community space on the campus of Walton’s earlier pet project, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

“We have been working as a team nonstop, both remotely and in our office, to keep the schedule intact,” Blackwell told Arkansas Business in a telephone interview. “We are on schedule to break ground this spring, in April, and then it’ll be about two years until it’s all complete.”

Baldwin & Shell Construction of Little Rock will lead construction, museum officials revealed for the first time. Michael Boucher Landscape Architecture of Freeport, Maine, will coordinate with Blackwell, according to Scott Eccleston, Crystal Bridges’ director of operations. Eccleston confirmed those and other details in an email last week.

“We built in cushions for weather and unexpected events and are currently still on track to complete the project in 2023,” Eccleston wrote.

The building will be home to the Deepak Chopra Library, honoring the bestselling author whose integrated approach to self-care has inspired Walton for years.

The Whole Health Institute project’s price tag isn’t public, Eccleston said, but he said the nonprofit institute is paying for construction, with Walton’s help. “We don’t have a figure to share at this time,” he said.

Walton, the daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, has a fortune of close to $70 billion, according to recent estimates, which would make her the second-wealthiest woman on earth. She announced her plans for the Whole Health Institute a little more than a year ago at the Northwest Arkansas Council’s winter meeting at Crystal Bridges.

“We have a system that is piecemeal at best and still not affordable for many, despite its annual costs, which are 17% of the nation’s GDP,” Walton said at the time. “We need a holistic approach that incorporates mind, body and spirit. Whole health tools do exist around the country, and we want to be part of the solution to change health care.”

‘Ambitious Project’

Blackwell, who also declined to discuss the budget, said the project’s aspirations speak to its value. “This is an ambitious project, as they tend to be at Crystal Bridges,” he said. “It has extremely high aspirations, and a requirement for a level of design excellence to marry with those ambitions and aspirations for the Whole Health Institute. We certainly are doing our best to achieve that.”

The building’s design will flow from the Ozarks’ karst topography, Blackwell said, and will take its cue from a nearby ravine and its forest. Artists’ renderings depict a warm, gently curving structure making use of native fieldstone and pre-weathered brass.

Blackwell, a recipient of the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal in 2020, the organization’s highest award, took time last week to share his observations on the project and ruminate on the role of architecture in an age of crisis.

He said he’s carrying lessons from the pandemic and the global climate crisis into his design for the institute, whose goal is nothing less than transforming health care from a chaotic and inefficient system treating scattered symptoms into an integrated program of physical, mental and spiritual wellness for all.

COVID-19 is forcing designers to re-evaluate the nature of workspaces, and to incorporate outdoor space for gatherings, Blackwell said.

“The landscapes around this project are going to be really integrated into this, so that events can be held outdoors, if desired. The Art Park, which is the parking garage, will also have its own proscenium for events and presentations.”

Design must look “beyond aesthetics and also address environmental issues like how ventilation is dealt with, how water is dealt with, how natural light is dealt with, and how a design works for the well-being of people,” Blackwell said.

The goal is a more integrated approach to design, he said, just as the Whole Health Institute will integrate mind, body and spirituality into a holistic approach to health.

“Technology, environment and social expectations have to be factored” into post-COVID projects, Blackwell said. “So architecture is not just about what it looks like; it’s also about what it does.”

The three-story institute building will include an exhibition area to “thoughtfully introduce folks to the concept of whole health,” Blackwell said. “It will inform the public that health and wellness can be about more than just treatment, but about how one manages life. It really can become about prevention through physical and spiritual well-being. There will also be event spaces, spaces dealing with food, and of course the Chopra Library, which will be a resource center for health.”

Accessible to All

Along with expedition areas and space for interactive programs “welcoming participation from the community,” the building will have a convention space big enough for 800 people, planners said. It will also house offices for the health institute and for Art Bridges, Walton’s foundation supporting national exhibitions of American art.

Blackwell said he wants the structure to be “an invitation to actively explore healing in relation to art, nature and architecture at a time when health is such an important local and global issue.” The construction site is the museum’s extra parking lot off Museum Way, near the entrance to the campus.

Tracy Gaudet, the institute’s executive director, summed up the nonprofit organization’s mission via email: “Whole Health Institute and Chopra Library was founded by Alice Walton to radically redesign the systems that impact health and well-being with the ultimate goal of making whole person, person-centered care affordable and accessible to anyone.

“Whole Health empowers and equips people to take charge of their physical, mental and spiritual health and live a full and meaningful life,” Gaudet said.

The nonprofit listed five initial priorities, including focusing on health care delivery and partnerships with health systems around the state and region to test a new whole-health delivery system. It will also partner with self-insured employers in an effort to improve workers’ health while cutting costs.

The institute also plans to analyze finance and policy forces in health care while making a business case for transforming the system.

One goal is transforming payment to a value-based model rather than one that maximizes revenue-generating tests and procedures. The institute will also offer educational programs for physicians, clinicians, medical school personnel and other health professionals.

To fulfill its mission, the institute must be physically inviting, Blackwell said.

“Sometimes architecture can have a way of making people feel like they can’t enter, or that it’s a precinct that just isn’t available to them,” the architect said. “Instead of being walled off, the whole idea of this project’s space and form is really about flowing through it, around it, and in it. It just feels natural, right? Just like a walk in the woods.”