Alabama Inspiration: The Rural Studio 2013
I recently had the fortunate opportunity to make the journey to the Rural Studio in New Bern, Alabama. Although in its 20th year, the Rural Studio is not a household name. However, the mission and work undertaken in this remote and quiet corner of the American South deserves not only recognition but serious celebration. Affiliated and operated by the Auburn University College of Architecture, the program is housed in a series of lovely rural vernacular buildings with the patina of time and the place. It is under these inspirational roofs that the honest and true work of architectural education takes place. A philosophy known by all who have passed through the Rural Studio (many have stayed) of “Citizen Architect” is not only a pair of words…. The students who come to this place have the unique and distinct opportunity of belonging to something very special and being presented with hands on thinking, learning & teaching.
Founded in 1993 by architects Samuel Mockbee (“Sambo”) and D.K. Ruth , the program has produced over 150 private and public projects throughout Hale County Alabama. The county is home to 15,760 residents, where 28% of the population lives below the poverty line and the household median income is $29,409. The philosophy of the program is that everyone, both rich and poor, deserves the benefit of good design. Under Sambo’s visionary guidance, early projects were primarily homes for poor families and individuals.
The range of projects has expanded over the past two decades to include much larger civic and community-oriented projects. Resourcefulness and community participation have become core values of the students and staff at Rural Studio. And through the act of community collaboration and listening to the people of this place and hearing their needs and wishes…. Students have design and built dog pounds, Boys & Girls Clubs, firehouses, band-shells, birding towers, skateboard parks, concession stands, churches, meeting halls and more.
I traveled to many of the projects around the county and attended numerous student presentations over four days and what has struck me most powerfully about the experience is that these spectacular undertakings are fundamentally driven by the students.
Unlike any other architecture program I have seen, the students become immersed in every aspect of the process. From early conception, fundraising, grant writing, community presentations and outreach, to building the entire project with their own hands start to finish.
This is a truly inspiring Design Build Education – true to itself and its place. When current director, Andrew Freear was asked, “do you ever say no to the students?” He immediately answers, “No”. This question asked in context of how a projects take shape and the process which informs how the designs evolve. This type of environment is crucial for fostering the level of conviction and exploration I witnessed in the Rural Studio students.
The projects involve a massive undertaking on their part and the passion required is evident in the mental, physical and emotional focus of these talented and committed young designer-builders. The students have one year to complete their thesis projects and in many cases this means staying on long after they have graduated.
There are people depending on them and a community that they have committed themselves to helping. What they get in return is belonging to a very special group of people and a place rich in community, heritage and tradition if not in wealth and notoriety. These students have the extraordinary opportunity to change the way people view their place by carrying forward the values born of good design, hard work and community. They have the chance to truly become “Citizen Architects”.
I can’t conclude without extending a heartfelt thanks to the Rural Studio staff. A select few students go on each year to become part of the machine that keeps this studio moving. They are gracious, welcoming and tireless in their efforts to make visitors feel at home, neighbors feel welcome and keep everyone well fed. I do owe them a debt of gratitude for putting such wind in my sails.
This is the first of a four-part series I will be posting about the Rural Studio and the relationship brewing between the beautiful design build community there and JAS Design Build. In the Fall of 2014 JAS is committed to helping build one of the 20k house projects currently on the boards down in New Bern. We will be posting photos and more about the program, its origins and why it continues to inspire us from 3000 miles away.