Warm, Dry, And Noble

The Bryant hay bale house and smokehouse. Photo by Timothy Hursley

In HALE COUNTY, ALABAMA, you see ghost buildings: abandoned barns, tumbledown shanties, and rusted trailers—fragile remnants of a more prosperous agrarian past. You see old people sitting quietly on sagging porches and scruffy chicken hens noisily pecking and wandering on hard dirt yards. Hale is a left-behind place. But it is also a land of dense piney woods, fragrant crop furrows, and hypnotic rolling hills. In Hale County the architect Samuel Mockbee found “an almost supernatural beauty,” and mainly for that reason he decided to locate his Rural Studio there.

When Mockbee founded the Rural Studio in the early 1990s, American architecture had retreated from social and civic engagement to a preoccupation with matters of style. The architectural stars, swept up in the new global economy and entranced by new technologies, were designing increasingly audacious buildings for affluent clients worldwide. Mockbee instead was digging in at home in the Deep South, focusing on the design and construction of modest, innovative houses for poor people.

Naive as it may sound, Mockbee, a MacArthur “genius grant” recipient in 2000, is battling for convictions. One is that the architectural profession has an ethical responsibility to help improve living conditions for the poor. Another is that the profession should “challenge the status quo into making responsible environmental and social changes.” Hence his belief that architectural education should expand its curriculum from “paper architecture” to the creation of real buildings and to sowing “a moral sense of service to the community.” Architecture students are typically middle-class youngsters working on theoretical designs. But those at Auburn University's Rural Studio are engaged in hands-on design and construction and in nose-to-nose negotiations with impoverished clients. You will find Mockbee there bucking his profession's prevailing emphasis on fashion, frantic speed, and superstardom to devote himself to the patient work of getting inexpensive but striking structures shaped and built by students while teaching them the fundamentals, not only of design and construction, but also of decency and fairness.

Slowly, the Rural Studio is inscribing its mark on Hale County. Into the community of Mason's Bend and the towns of Newbern, Sawyerville, Greensboro, Thomaston, and Akron, the studio has inserted simple but inventive structures made of inexpensive, mostly salvaged or donated, often curious materials—beat-up railroad ties, old bricks, donated lumber, hay bales, baled corrugated cardboard, rubber tires worn thin, license plates, and road signs. The studio's esthetic vocabulary is modern, but its buildings, with their protective roofs and roomy porches, shedlike forms and quirky improvisations, look right at home here. In Mockbee's view, “The best way to make real architecture is by letting a building evolve out of the culture and place. These small projects designed by students at the studio remind us what it means to have an American architecture without pretense.”

From living quarters in Newbern, Akron, and Hale's county seat of Greensboro, students fan out each day to work on construction sites, attend city council meetings, confer with the county Department of Human Resources (which provides lists of needy clients from which students make selections), meet with the nonprofit HERO (Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization), and attend community catfish fries. For many students, this “classroom of the community,” as Mockbee calls it, is the first intimate experience with “the smell and feel of poverty.”

Bruce Lanier, who graduated in 2000 and then went to work with a statewide rural poverty agency in Alabama, recalls, “I'd only driven through that kind of poverty on my way to private school. At the studio I learned that economic poverty is not a poverty of values but a fact of birth. You come to realize it's the luck of the draw that you don't end up poor. You learn poor people are like you and me. You get to know them and respect them.”

Although he did not take an active part in the civil rights struggle, Mockbee began in the 1980s to look for ways to help redress the wrongs perpetrated by his kin against “a whole army of people who've been excluded and ignored forever, people who are left over from Reconstruction.” He concludes that addressing problems and trying to correct them is “the role an artist or architect should play.”

By the early 1980s, the architectural practice that Mockbee had started in 1977 and later shared with Coleman Coker was thriving, but more and more, Mockbee says, he found himself thinking about the Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti's injunction that an architect must “choose between fortune and virtue.”

Shepard and Alberta Bryant were the Rural Studio's first new-house clients. In 1993, when the studio began work for them, the Bryants, both in their 70s, were rearing three grandchildren in a shanty without plumbing or heating. As the students worked on the Bryants' new house, they developed the studio's lasting methodology. Each house takes about a year to finish. Fifteen second-year students interview the clients to determine their needs. They work up several designs, have the clients select the best one, and begin construction.

The Bryant House shows the Rural Studio's hallmark use of ingenious building techniques and donated, salvaged, and recycled materials, the inevitable result of meager budgets. Recovered materials give the buildings “a feeling they've been rained on; they look durable,” says D.K. Ruth, chair of Auburn's architecture department. Students examined several low-tech solutions for creating a well-insulated, inexpensive dwelling before deciding to use 80-pound hay bales for the core of the exterior walls of the Bryants' 850-square-foot house and covering the bales with wire and stucco.

The studio's characteristic modern esthetic was from the start nudged and reshaped by typically southern rural forms and idioms: sheds, barns, and trailers. The Bryant House, for example, is all porch and roof, a steeply raked acrylic structure supported by slender yellow columns. In explaining the esthetic, Mockbee says, “I pay attention to my region; I keep my eyes open. Then I see how I can take that and reinterpret it, using modern technology. We don't try to be southern, we just end up that way because we try to be authentic. When you start to use historic references in a theatrical way, that's when I'm out of here.”

Almost all studio-designed buildings have exaggerated, protective roofs that appear to float over sturdy walls. Mockbee explains that the region's annual average rainfall is almost 60 inches, “so flat roofs just aren't going to do it.” The challenge is different from that of, say, designers in the arid American West who can concentrate more on sculptural forms. Turning a limitation of climate into an opportunity, Mockbee overstates his roofs. He cants them steeply and makes them look almost airborne, as with the Harris House, sometimes called the “Butterfly House” for its wing-spread roof.

Like Mockbee's buildings for private clients, the Rural Studio's work is usually asymmetric and idiosyncratic, qualities that reinforce the quirkiness that attends Mockbee's and the Rural Studio's jumbo roofs. The exterior materials, too, can be as unconventional as the shapes of the buildings. But even the most futuristic constructions look anchored in their neighborhood, because their scale fits and their shapes spring from the local vernacular.

More than 350 second-year students and 80 thesis students have now participated in the Rural Studio. So why have other architecture schools not spawned similar programs? Mockbee, who has lectured at architecture schools nationwide, says almost all have similar curricula and risk-averse faculty. “Most of them dress all in black; they all seem to say the same things. It's become very stale, very unimaginative.”

If architecture is going to “nudge, cajole, and inspire a community or challenge the status quo into making responsible environmental and social structural changes,” he says, “it will take the subversive leadership of academics and practitioners who keep reminding students of the profession's responsibilities.” No one, says Mockbee, loves to draw and make models more than he, but model-making and drawings are not architecture. The Rural Studio, he says, takes education out of the theoretical realm, makes it real, and shows students the power of architecture to change lives. “Through their own efforts and imagination,” Mockbee says, “students create something wonderful—architecturally, socially, politically, environmentally, esthetically. That's the mission of the 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.”

Talking about the legacy he hopes to leave, Mockbee singles out “something that's going to have power and live long after my living personality is gone. I'm getting close but I'm not there. I've got to keep cultivating and pushing so that what I leave is as significant as I can make it.” That is what makes the Rural Studio transcendent.

No Paywall. No Ads. Just Readers Like You.
You can help fund powerful stories to light the way forward.
Donate Now.