In “Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency” by Andrea Oppenheimer Dean and Timothy Hursley, the authors join words and images into a captivating narrative that creates a window into rural Hale County, Alabama. You can almost hear the rain beating down on the recycled tin roof and feel the cool breeze blowing through the dogtrot. Did you know it rains 60 inches a year there? That's an important design consideration.
The authors have captured the story of Rural Studio through interviews with students, teachers, and clients, along with a selection of photographs of studio projects from 1994-2001. Some of the photographs, particularly the final construction photos, are more architectural in nature, while the “lived in photos” - taken one or more years later - read as documentary photography.
This book touches on a number of complex social issues such as race, poverty, education, privilege, class, consumerism, and sustainability, but that's not what the book is about. Instead, the authors use their respective mediums to "hold space" for the reader to look, listen, and reflect. The book gently persuades us to slow down and consider for a moment the relationship between architecture and decency.
In order to fully understand Rural Studio, one must first get to know Hale County and Samuel "Sambo" Mockbee.
Hale County is located 80-miles southwest of Birmingham in an area known as Alabama's "Black Belt" region. Originally a geologic term referring to the rich, black topsoil, the term "Black Belt" was later used as a demographic characterization of the area, indicating the high African-American population of central Alabama. According to Mockbee, “Hale is a left-behind place.” The economy has declined significantly over the decades; residents rely primarily on cattle, soybeans and catfish farming, and the poverty rate is forty-percent. Despite this, Mockbee is also quick to point out the "almost mystical" beauty of the landscape.
In the first paragraph, the authors reference James Agee’s text “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” with photographs by Walker Evans, first published in 1941. This work documented the lives of impoverished sharecroppers in Hale County during the Great Depression. This reference is significant because it provides context and demonstrates self-awareness. For the authors of "Rural Studio," along with the students and instructors of Rural Studio, Hale County and its residents are not the subjects; they are collaborators and teachers.
It's here in rural Hale County, Alabama that "you will find Mockbee... bucking his profession’s prevailing emphasis on fashion, frantic speed, and superstardom to devote himself to the patient work of getting inexpensive but striking structure shaped and built by students while teaching them the fundamentals, not only of design and construction, but also of decency and fairness.”
While Rural Studio would not exist without his vision, hard work, and sense of duty, it's clear that Mockbee hopes that this unique hands-on, community-driven architectural studio will continue to live on long after he is gone from this earth. This work is his legacy.
According to a former student, Mockbee “is the mind and soul of the Rural Studio.” The book briefly recounts a handful of life experiences that helped Mockbee form an awareness of his own white privilege but the pivotal moment in his architectural practice seems to occur in 1982 when a Catholic nun by the name of Sister Grace Mary enlisted his help renovating homes for poor African American residents near his hometown. One of the clients - Foots Johnson and his family - left a lasting impression on Mockbee. It was then that he "learned that small projects like that were doable by ordinary people." From there, Mockbee leaned into his ethical and social responsibility as an artist and architect. He knew it was time to “challenge the status quo into making responsible environmental and social changes.”
And so Mockbee asked himself: “Do I have the courage to make my gift count for something?"
“Architects have long criticized their profession’s defining educational experience, the studio, where students, working under an established architect, are given a design problem, come up with a solution, flesh it out with floor plans and elevations, and defend it in a public session called a crit.” Mockbee refers to this as "paper architecture."
So what makes Rural Studio different? In short, Rural Studio offers a unique studio experience for a dozen second-year architecture students and a handful of fifth-year thesis students to live off-campus and work collaboratively to design and build residential structures and community buildings for poor residents in the quiet backwoods and sleepy crossroads of Hale County, Alabama. To get an education in life and hard work.
Rural Studio provides an opportunity for students to work with their hands, listen with an open mind, and design with intention; knowing that ultimately they will be the ones having to stack the bricks, raise the beams, and plaster the walls. Students learn to work as a group and to compromise. They also learn respect. In a typical studio, the students have very little interaction with the client, if any. In Rural Studio, the students select the client and work with them directly to understand their needs. It's a shared journey. “The Rural Studio’s current emphasis and direction are toward larger, more programmatically and technically sophisticated buildings. At the same time, it is expanding to include an outreach program for non-architecture students from other schools.” This book was published in 2002 and the program has only grown since that time. According to the Rural Studio website, the program has educated more than 800 students and completed 170 projects to date.
It's clear that Rural Studio has always relied heavily on partnerships. Rural Studio began in 1992 with a $215,000 matching grant from the Alabama Power Foundation, leveraged with the help of D.K. Ruth, then chairman of architecture at Auburn and a friend of Mockbee. "Ruth later became the Rural Studio's protector and advocate at the university." Another significant partner for Rural Studio was Teresea Costanzo at the Hale County Department of Human Resources. Working with Costanzo's department gave the studio legitimacy as well as access to resources and clients. Costanzo also provided students with another kind of education, by helping them understand the kind of environment they would be walking into - one where welfare, food insecurity, and abuse were common occurrences.
The book is organized into four parts: the introduction, project studies, interviews, and essays.
As Mockbee puts it, Mason’s Bend is “tucked into a curve of the Black Warrior River.” “It is a community of four extended families - the Bryants, the Harrises, the Fields, and the Greens - totaling roughly 100 people.” Mockbee refers to Mason’s Bend as a “poverty pocket." Projects here include the Bryant Hay Bale House (1995), the Harris Butterfly House (1996), and Mason’s Bend Community Center (2000). These projects show the design evolution of the studio, as one student group learns from the preceding cohort. A common theme in several Rural Studio projects is the coexistence of opposing forces, where the structure feels simultaneously grounded with thick walls or piers and yet weightless with exaggerated roof forms; almost like a paper crane perching lightly on the structure.
All the client stories in the book are intriguing but I appreciated the honesty of Harris' story the best. You see, “the typical Rural Studio client is overjoyed at the prospect of receiving a new, cost-free house, but Anderson Harris, an elderly farmer, at first declined the offer. ‘No, I don’t think I’ll take one of those today.’” I had to chuckle. It's such a relatable feeling when someone offers you something out of the blue. In the end, the Harris Butterfly House is small in footprint but beautifully designed with material and function in mind. And yet “Anderson Harris still complains that his new house is smaller than the ramshackle one he used to live in. ‘Doesn’t have room for my things,’ he says.” Again, completely relatable. Some of us are minimalists, while others are collectors. These are the anecdotes that give the book its authenticity.
The Newbern projects include the Supershed and Pods (1997-2001) and the Newbern Baseball Field (2001). These two projects offer a study into the material, specifically wax dipped cardboard bales and chain link fence. The Supershed and Pods provide nine residential units for eighteen Rural Studio students. Mockbee draws a comparison between the Supershed and Pods at the Newbern complex and the spatial arrangement of Jefferson's "Academical Village" at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. But devoid of the classical forms and traditional building materials found at UVA, here “the result is a quirky vernacular aesthetic.” The Newbern complex offers the students the opportunity to play and experiment with new building materials; it’s a design laboratory and the students are the test subjects. The Newbern Baseball Field project offers a meaningful community venture, although the structure itself is more of an installation piece. A perfect opportunity for exploration with materials and forms.
"Life in Sawyerville is slow, casual," according to one local resident. Sawyerville is home to the Morrison Farm, a dairy farm until the 1970s. The “Morrison Farm is mostly rolling meadowlands sprinkled with stands of cedar, sweet gums, and oak - red, white, and live - and there is a catfish pond and a thirty-acre lake for fishing.” It's here that you will find the Yancey Chapel (1995) and the Goat House (1998). “Typical of studio projects, the chapel reveals itself slowly: ‘You want to keep the mystery going. You don’t want to give your secrets up too soon,’ Mockbee says.” The walls of the chapel are constructed from old tires and the gap in the roof fills the space with filtered light. Unlike so many studio projects that over-emphasize the facade or the “concept,” Rural Studio projects are carefully designed to be moved through and lived in.
When it came to the Goat House project, the students learned “firsthand what Mockbee meant when he said that ‘as a social art, architecture must be made where it is and out of what exists there.’” Two thesis students started with a concrete block structure legitimately built for goats and after living in the space their designs transformed the structure into a light, airy space that was wholly original and yet unmistakable southern, with its stunning two-story dogtrot and large front porch. “We don’t try to be southern, we just end up that way because we try to be authentic,” said Mockbee about Rural Studio.
In Greensboro and Thomaston we find the HERO playground (1997), HERO Children’s Center (1998), and Thomaston Farmers’ Market (2000). In the HERO playground project “what ultimately drove the design was their desire to make something special out of an everyday component.” Play is so important to childhood development. In the HERO Children’s Center, the design program required separate spaces for interviewing and training functions. The dogtrot form appeared once again, along with some playful elements, interesting textures, and bold colors. In the Thomaston Farmers’ Market, the students begin to explore architecture as a tool for economic development. Ultimately the goal was to start a dialogue within the community about establishing a cooperative market.
Finally, we arrive in Akron, Alabama. A place that is both off-the-beaten-path and prone to flooding. The Akron Pavilion (1996) project pays respect to the town's former river and rail industries in the design and material decisions, resulting in a multi-functional space, that “at first glance... could be an old barn tucked into the woods." An example of how recycled and donated materials help offset project costs and also provide design inspiration. “Improvising is one of the lessons of the Rural Studio.” Another Akron project was the Boys and Girls Club (2001). A contrast to the “so-called community architecture that is driven solely by the architect-developer motives” this bold space provides a safe and welcoming place for kids play after school. The project, which started with a masonry shell of an old grocery store, was graced by fortuitous partnerships and genuine community support.
In Rural Studio, the students are taught to observe and respect the landscape. Many of the structures tend to embrace common rural building forms such as sheds, barns, and trailers, while also respecting the scale of the surrounding context. Exaggerated, protective roofs show up time and time again, along with sturdy walls and covered breezeways. As one second-year student put it, “this work is making our designs become simpler. They’re more functional than studio work by Auburn students who haven’t been here. We’re not putting in a lot of extravagant things like we did before.” With only a dozen case studies, the book begins to capture the evolution of the students’ work and the portfolio of the studio over a 10-year span.
The book concludes with two essays. One, by Lawrence Chua, is about Sambo and his paintings. In addition to being an architect, Mockbee is also an artist. Mockbee’s drawings and paintings, like his buildings, are bold and expressive; they also serve as a social commentary. Chua’s essay explores the tension and contradictions observed in Mockbee’s art and architecture, which demonstrates his awareness of the shadows and circumstances that produce generational poverty.
The other essay, by Cervin Robinson, is about the work of photographer Timothy Hursley in contrast to other photographers who’ve worked in Hale County, specifically Walker Evans and William Christenberry. “A set of photographs of a place is in part a report and in part a creation; the representation is not the same as the original, and if we change the selection of photographs, we change the place created.” This essay reminds us that we tell a story with our lens and that story is as much about the pictures we take, as it is about the people and objects just outside the frame.
So what is an architecture of decency? For context, Webster's Dictionary defines decency as a "conformity to standards of taste, propriety, or quality." Also, according to Google dictionary, the use of the word “decency” has appreciably declined since 1800. When I think about an architecture of decency, words like “conformity” and “traditional values” don't seem accurate or complete. Yes, there is a definite sense of reunion between the craft and the craftsman but I believe Rural Studio is after something that is much more inclusive and progressive.
Beyond product and process, Rural Studio is about developing a practice that will stay with students long after they've graduated architecture school. “Through their own efforts and imagination,” Mockbee says, “students create something wonderful - architecturally, socially, politically, environmentally, aesthetically. That’s the mission of Rural Studio. And once they’ve tasted that, it’s forever there. It may go dormant for a while, but at least they’ve experienced and created something that they’re not going to forget.” Mockbee passed away in 2001 but his legacy lives on in the thriving Rural Studio community.
Do you have the courage to make your gifts count? What are your thoughts on this alternative version of the traditional studio course? Share your thoughts in the comments area below.
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