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Charley Penix on Architecture Shaping the Future of Arkansas

3 min read

Charley Penix became CEO of Cromwell Architects Engineers Inc., the state’s largest architecture firm and second-largest engineering firm, in 2009.

Penix, who turns 60 on Monday, once thought he wanted to be a lawyer, like his late parents. He attended Georgetown University and interned for U.S. Sen. William Fulbright. As a student at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, he said, he applied for an architecture class that just happened to open for him. Otherwise, Penix joked, “I might have become a bank robber.” He has received numerous architectural awards.

What do you wish you knew in your 20s that you know now?

Compromise is not selling out.

Your parents were lawyers; was it hard to break the news to them that you wanted to design buildings?

I spent my childhood rearranging the furniture in our house, drawing floor plans on the chalkboard, building tree houses and sneaking onto every construction site in town. My parents were a little sad that I would not be part of the law firm that my grandfather started, but they were not surprised.

Your parents were active in the civil rights movement. Can architecture be an engine for societal change?

Can you imagine a more inspiring image than that of Martin Luther King Jr. at the feet of Abraham Lincoln on L’Enfant’s mall in front of 250,000 people demanding equality? Can you imagine anything more shameful than the separate toilets, waiting rooms and inferior schools for African-Americans in the apartheid America of my youth? Both are powerful architectural images.

What attracted you to architecture? Did you know this was something you just had an innate ability to do?

I was good at geometry. I like to organize chaos. I know a little bit about a lot of things and a whole lot about nothing. That pretty much describes an architect.

How do you combine your love of design, etc., with also being CEO and having to be responsible for an entire company?

I have the best job in the world. My colleagues are wonderfully talented people who are gifted in ways that I am not. I am a big-picture guy, directing and hopefully maintaining focus. Multitasking really turns me on. Doing one thing at a time is completely uninspiring.

What is your proudest creation, architecturally speaking?

Most of my projects are in the realm of health care or higher education. People are healed and educated in these facilities. Some are very large projects (e.g., the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute), while others are smaller but equally wonderful (the ASU Child Development & Research Center). I am humbled and extremely proud to be a part of all of them.

What is the future of architecture in Arkansas, short term and long term?

Arkansas has a great future architecturally. There’s not another state in the country, especially with our small population, that has the tremendously talented architects that we have here in Arkansas. For the short term, I am hopeful that we will continue to repurpose existing buildings, bring vitality and housing back to our urban cores and continue the march toward completely sustainable design.

For the long term, we need to focus on building walkable communities that rely on public transit and do everything in our power to erase the horrendous blight caused by 50 years of urban development that catered almost exclusively to the automobile.

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