Twenty Years Later, What Rural Studio Continues to Teach Us About Good Design

by Rennie Jones
Originally published on ArchDaily, 13 May 2014

Hale County, Alabama is a place full of architects, and often high profile ones. The likes of Todd Williams and Billie Tsien have ventured there, as have Peter Gluck and Xavier Vendrell, all to converge upon Auburn University’s Rural Studio. Despite the influx of designers, it is a place where an ensemble of all black will mark you as an outsider. I learned this during my year as an Outreach student there, and was reminded recently when I ventured south for the Studio’s 20th Anniversary celebration. While the most recent graduates took the stage, I watched the ceremony from the bed of a pick-up truck, indulging in corn-coated, deep-fried catfish, and reflected on what the organization represents to the architecture world.

Since its founding in 1993 by D.K. Ruth and Samuel Mockbee, the Studio has built more than 150 projects and educated over 600 students. Those first years evoke images of stacked tires coated with concrete and car windshields pinned up like shingles over a modest chapel. In the past two decades, leadership has passed from Mockbee and Ruth to the current director, Andrew Freear, and the palette has evolved to feature more conventional materials, but the Studio remains faithful to its founding principal: all people deserve good design. Now that it is officially a twenty-something, what can Rural Studio teach us about good design?

Contemporary architecture tends to halt where the imagined becomes the tactile. Ideas are handed off on a tidy sheet set, to be constructed by the next runner in the relay race. As a design-build, Rural Studio represents an alternative to this approach; the same hands that draw the plans are those that build the formwork and pour the concrete. What truly distinguishes the Studio, however, allowing it to be heard over the increasing roar of fast-paced, globalized design, is its commitment to an architecture of place. In contrast to the heavily-branded architecture that is often exported from one continent to another, each project is geographically contextual. It is not formulated for mass production or assembled from globally homogenous materials. It can’t be packed up and transplanted to another region. This localization of effort may seem archaic, but as Mimi Zeiger recently noted, “engagement with real, local conditions is crucial for architecture’s global relevancy.”

Hale County is located in Alabama’s Black Belt, a region named for its dark soil. Local conditions are largely characterized by the last wave of the cotton industry, which devastated the once-fertile soil and left a wash of poverty and clay-bottomed catfish farms in its wake. The Studio designs architectural details specifically for the climate: foundations are structured to endure the shifting, clay-rich soil, and cedar rain screens provide a solution for naturally mitigating the humidity. Rather than trying to teach the vernacular how to behave, students learn from it, implementing cross ventilation and deep eaves to provide shaded relief from the stifling heat.

The design media tends to glorify Mockbee’s decision to plant the seeds of the organization in rural dirt and continually tend to them, but it is important to note that it was created on an exchange system from the outset. It donates a building, and the recipients agree to be part of an experiment, playing host to inexperienced students while they roll around the yard on a backhoe.

Mockbee chose Hale County because it provided the right conditions for creating a symbiotic relationship between architecture students who needed education and people who needed buildings. He recognized the importance of understanding and investing in a place, realizing that the input and invitation of the impoverished population would be crucial to the Studio’s success. There is a lot of focus on ‘design for good’ in the architecture world, but ‘design for good’ does not necessarily qualify as good design. The latter approaches the people it designs for as clients rather than charity cases, focusing on their desires and taking responsibility for the end result. As mentioned in this article by Michael Kimmelman, cooking up creative solutions for the poor is most successful when their ideas are part of the recipe. While Mockbee initially worked to find willing recipients for the projects, the community now approaches the Studio, lending credence to the theory that it often takes commitment to a place to earn the acceptance of its people.

Initially, the 150 miles separating Rural Studio from Auburn University’s main campus provided a buffer from code constraints and the tight timelines of more established and expensive cities. There was little threat of an inspector trekking down a dirt road to check whether the structural details of stacked carpet tile walls were up to code. As its roots grew and gained traction, the Studio received more attention from all sides. Traditional building materials became available through donations and the experiments began to solidify. The radius of project sites expanded as far as 25 miles from the Studio’s main campus. Under Freear’s direction, the focus shifted to community centers and parks intended to serve larger groups of people. The 20K House project was developed to create affordable housing that fits the local vernacular, maximizing modest resources to shelter more people living on a very restricted income.

Despite growing larger, the Studio has not abandoned its investment in place. Instead, it has grounded itself more firmly, working with municipal politicians and school boards to discuss project ambitions, scheduling, and financing. While working with clients like the local Boy Scouts and the Boys & Girls Club, Rural Studio teams attended Scout meetings and tutored local students after school. At other institutions, typical studio assignments might omit pesky political forces and skim over the complex issues of class and race, but these are a historic and present part of life in Hale County, as in the world. Theories about politics and space are not based on the resources available in the university library (which is, of course, hundreds of miles from the Studio). Instead, the projects function as a collective case study, with research continuing even after construction is finished.

The approach is admittedly slow- it is a considered, iterative, and exacting process. Sheets of trace paper are pinned to the walls, drawn over, torn down, and replaced. This is repeated, sometimes to the point of tedium, even when the detail in question is the juncture of a column composed of 2x6s and a layer of pine decking. Some students stay on for a year or two after officially graduating, often to complete the larger community projects.

Naturally, Rural Studio’s efforts are not without fault. Freear and Auburn faculty continually evaluate what should be built rather than pressing ahead with what can. As a result, some teams never see their projects realized, and these are folded into the research of the ongoing experiment. Of those that transition from two dimensions to three, some end up underutilized or hindered by an imperfect detail. Twice each year, every student takes a week to spruce up existing projects, fixing a leaky roof at the Newbern Fire Station or pulling weeds in Lions Park.

At times, Hale County residents see the built work as more alien to the area than the students anticipate. By remaining present and involved in the place it builds, the Studio is able to reflect on past work so each project benefits from those before it. “Some of our work has been successful, some less so. Since we live here, if we screw up, we hear about it,” says Freear in the Studio’s most recent book. The architectural world at large tends to consider a building’s final photo shoot its highest moment, before the purity of the architecture is disrupted by years of use. No one at Rural Studio would claim to disregard the power of images- it has benefited from the photographic prowess of Timothy Hursley for several years- but the emphasis is on how projects perform over time, not for their photo shoots.

Rural Studio might be just a small-town twenty-something, but it offers an atypical approach that all architects can learn from. Its ability to refocus and redirect, to adapt to new directors and constraints, shows us that curricula can change, pedagogy should be self-aware and deliberate, and education need not be limited to late nights in the studio and early mornings in the lecture hall. It reminds us that work by the privileged meant to aid the underprivileged should be a reciprocal exchange of ideas and input, and that the architecture of place is still a worthy pursuit in an increasingly globalized world.