We stood together, leaning back, staring up at the sky, waiting in a hilltop cemetery by a small country church in Nebraska, cows and prairie in all directions. I was nervous we would miss the eclipse after traveling so far under constantly changing cloud cover, but Kevin, as always, was calm and patient, confident, grinning ear to ear.
Kevin had organized the trip in 2017, a gathering of friends and family to see a rare total eclipse of the sun, all for those few, brief moments of totality, of total darkness there in the early afternoon, a trip that it never would have occurred to me to make. Watching day become night was my last great and fondest memory of Kevin, my friend and colleague of 30 years, a day that was quintessential Kevin: life being lived on a cosmic scale, surveying the land, the “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.” He was in his element, leading us across the landscape, truly onto something.
The last time I visited Kevin, a few weeks before he passed, I sat at his bedside holding his hand, reminiscing about old times. With his other hand, he clutched against his chest a book I brought him from my recent trip to Italy, a catalog from the Venice Biennale, where both his work and mine were on display. We had come full circle, back to when we met in an Italian class as graduate students studying architecture at Syracuse University in Florence. I could always get him to laugh, especially with my uniquely bad Italian. Those were great times of learning and discovery, and, throughout it all, there was Diane, with whom he was so completely in love. Always together, intertwined in life and work.
I looked up to Kevin immediately and have ever since, envious of his virtuosity across so many fields: architecture, geology, history, music, and even sports as an Olympic athlete in the long jump. He drew beautifully from observation and from his imagination; he wrote for the paper in Dallas about landscape and architecture; he was a true renaissance man that could do it all. He was also an accomplished jazz pianist, a passion that became the subject of his thesis project at Syracuse: a jazz school on top of the iconic Birdland Jazz Club in New York City. There, he envisioned an entire world, the first truly comprehensive project I’d ever seen. His knowledge and talent were on full display, his incredible imagination brought into being through his extraordinary drawings, invoking Alvar Aalto and Le Corbusier alongside Charlie Parker, referring to history and testing full-scale fabrication (a trumpet transformed into a door handle), all with equal rigor. Still, to this day, it is one of the very best thesis projects I’ve ever seen.
We kept in touch after school, a great rolling conversation about our emerging practices, families, and life, a dialogue about the passion we shared for architecture, the love for the masters and the canon. He moved to Dallas, taught at UT Arlington — a born professor (pipe in hand) — and started his design firm with Diane, the Kevin Sloan Studio, doing beautiful projects in Texas that were about wild landscapes taken back to their origins — re-wilding, he called it, moving beyond the suburban artificial. Kevin was always trying to find authenticity in whatever he was doing. He understood beauty and principles, but he also understood stewardship of the long cycles that make a landscape a living organism. He had that long view of time that great landscape architects seem to have, able to see into the past to the origins, able to see into the future to the possible. That was often his goal: to enrich urban life, to reconnect the future and the past, to allow nature to achieve balance once more, to see the water flow as it once had, eternal. I admired his landscapes in pictures and drawings, but the images couldn’t do them justice; you had to see them in person, and fortunately I was able to do that with Kevin as my guide. Especially memorable were Urban Reserve, Vitruvian Park, and the Sprint World Headquarters. We sought ways to collaborate, and we did, but I wish there had been more opportunities, and certainly one of my greatest regrets is that we did not fully realize a project together.
The Biennale catalog he held provided text and photos of an exquisite UT Arlington exhibit at the Palazzo Bembo about watershed urbanism featuring design studio work by faculty and students. The exhibit description had a fitting end, with the very last words and credits on the page being, simply, “Kevin Sloan.” For all time, I hope that when we witness greatness — in friendship, in design, in life and love, in music and art — that we all can simply share a glance and say to each other, “Kevin Sloan,” each of us knowing exactly what it means.
Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, is founder and principal of Marlon Blackwell Architects and the E. Fay Jones Distinguished Professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He was the recipient of the 2020 AIA Gold Medal and was a keynote speaker at the 2021 TxA Annual Conference.