Architecture with heart
NEWBERN, ALA. — In pockets of Hale County, Ala., visitors are often surprised by what they see. Among the shacks with sagging porches that scar the landscape are a house that resembles a butterfly, a chapel with a glass roof made from car windows, and a home whose supporting pillars are constructed of stacked carpet remnants.
The structures seem so out-of-place, with dramatic lines and sloping roofs, that passersby might wonder if they were transported here from somewhere else.
In a way, they were.
These buildings - a few new ones are added each year - were constructed by the Rural Studio, an experimental education/outreach program of Auburn University that was co-founded by D.K. Ruth and the late architect Samuel Mockbee. Mr. Mockbee, who grew up in Mississippi, believed architecture should uplift people, sheltering the body while making the spirit soar. Beautiful homes are especially needed by the poor, he felt, and who better to do the building than students, who need hands-on building experience, not just "paper architecture."
The result, over the past 12 years, has been a changed landscape: bold, modern structures that delight locals and draw visitors from around the world.
Yet this fall, as three new houses go up, the Rural Studio will be framing its own future, as well. Three years after "Sambo" Mockbee's death, the studio is trying to answer two difficult questions: How does a program continue to soar without its famous, charismatic leader? And how long can a bold idea remain bold?
Andrew Freear, co-director of the studio, has given a good deal of thought to both queries. "The studio has always been a little bit [revolutionary]," he says, "but it's hard to keep it that way without having a big character like Sambo."
Mr. Freear, a British-born architect, moved to Alabama to work with Mockbee, who was known as much for his generosity and humility as his award-winning designs. The key to progress, Freear says, is following his colleague's example: be creative and work hard, focus on meeting people's needs, and above all, build houses that are "noble."
"Noble is really important," Freear says, "You have to make people feel good about where they are and who they are."
That's something many Hale County residents have never felt, he says. Some areas of the county have a poverty rate of 38 percent.
But for people who've received a Rural Studio home, free of charge, life takes on a whole new hue.
"I was glad to get my house," Alberta Bryant, whose house was completed in 1994, told Andrea Oppenheimer Dean, author of the book "Rural Studio." "The children was glad; even the chickens and the dogs was glad. I'm proud of my house."
The one-story home, built with stucco-covered 80-pound hay bales, features a large porch with a transparent roof that seems to float over the structure. The family spends much of its time in that light-filled space. But the four bedrooms, one for the Bryants and each of their three grandchildren, brightened life even more.
One of the children improved his grades dramatically after he had a quiet place to study, says Freear. He got into college, completed a degree, and now wants to be a lawyer.
Kendra Patrick, whose family moved into their new home this summer, is also delighted to have her own room, and to finally have indoor plumbing. Before, the 19-year-old and her 6-year-old brother had to walk to their grandparents' home nearby to bathe.
What Miss Patrick loves even more than the conveniences, though, is how the house looks: the three shades of stain on the exterior, the elaborate tile designs in the bathroom, the coordinated paint and rugs in the children's loft bedrooms. "I like the design," she says, smiling broadly. Then, more quietly, she adds, "I like the fact that someone decided to do this for us."
Comments such as that delight Freear, who says, "[Mockbee's] spirit is everywhere here."
Sometimes, Freear says, that "spirit" is the willingness to work hard and persevere, as do the students, some of whom have never swung a hammer before. Sophomores spend either the fall or spring semester at the studio,which is 150 miles from the university.
The first group designs a house, with the family's input, and starts construction. The second group completes the job, including plumbing, painting, and electrical work. Fifth-year, or thesis, students spend a year with the Rural Studio, usually working on community projects.
Outreach students, who are part of a noncredit certificate program and usually have backgrounds other than in architecture, work on various projects.
This year, Freear oversees 35 students. Mockbee began with only 12. Despite the growth of the program, Mockbee's insistence on creating beautiful, functional spaces still guides the work. So does his emphasis on giving junk a second life.
The two ideas go hand in hand, says Emily McGlohn, a former student who now teaches at the studio. "If it's scrap, and it's lying around, we'll probably use it."
This "recycling" has included beams salvaged from an old church, a tub from a washing machine (for a light fixture), rubber from old tires (for stair treads), even sticks from a beaver dam (for framing love seats).
This saves money, which is important, since each house costs roughly $30,000 and must be paid for with grants and donations.
More important, says Ms. McGlohn, the use of scrap materials teaches students to see the potential in materials they might normally overlook.
The same thing could be said for people. "The best part [of the program] is getting to know clients," she says. Despite the obvious social and economic differences, we "have such good relationships that we otherwise wouldn't have."
Evelyn Smith, a student last year, agrees. "We got attached to the family. We participate in their lives as much as possible. We go to the school for lunch, help them with homework."
Mockbee would be pleased to hear that, says Freear. The founder's example has clearly helped the Rural Studio maintain momentum in his absence. His fame has even helped with finances. Shortly after his death, Auburn University increased its support to $400,000 a year. (This doesn't cover the cost of building materials.)
What is less clear for Freear and company, however, is how they can continue to expand without losing the program's cutting edge. Mockbee's admonishment to "proceed and be bold" provides only general guidance. The specifics must be worked out over time.
What the studio has done so far is find ways to share the load.
Fifth-year students, who used to choose their own projects, now work more with towns and counties that commission - and pay for - projects ranging from community centers to parks to bird-watching towers.
The studio has also hired a former outreach student, Pamela Dorr, to help residents apply for federal funding to build or refurbish homes. Ms. Dorr, who worked as a senior production manager for the Gap, has identified close to $1 million for which residents qualify.
The maximum award is $20,000, she found, which led her to issue a challenge to Freear: Can you design a house that can be built for $20,000?
Freear is trying to do just that, which means spending $10,000 to $12,000 on materials and the rest on construction costs. If he succeeds, the low-cost houses could benefit many. But one worry is they may also sacrifice beauty for practicality.
Such changes have led some observers to wonder if Mockbee's legacy is fading. Among them is Carol Mockbee, one of the architect's four children, who is now a Rural Studio outreach student.
Carol fondly recalls her father's admonitions: "Make sure you are being socially responsible"; "Don't do anything that is normal, be different"; and "Go out there and be yourself." (She also recalls, as a young child, being allowed to draw on the walls.) "I can see my father in the early projects," she says. Many of them are close cousins to buildings he'd designed while in private practice. But she thinks that more recent projects show less of his influence.
Yet, Carol Mockbee's future, like that of everyone at the Rural Studio, is being shaped by her father's example.
An interior designer by training, she plans to study architecture next year. For now, though, her mission is to complete an underground memorial space her father began shortly before his death.
The subrosa pantheon, as he called it, was meant to offer silence and solace for people connected with the studio. "He felt this was the most important project of his career," she says.
The architecture world may or may not agree with that assertion, once the space is completed. What Mockbee's peers do agree on, however, is that his "architecture of decency" has impacted people far beyond Hale County and Alabama.
"What the Rural Studio does is give people a greater understanding that architecture is not always a high and refined art. It's very much art of and for the people," says Chase Rynd, executive director of the National Building Museum in Washington.
"[Mockbee] helped people understand that there are possibilities beyond their wildest imagination, including how one's living condition can be improved in many ways," Mr. Rynd says. "He proved over and over again that architecture is as much about addressing real needs as it is about design."
Jimmy Lee Williams, a Hale County resident known as Music Man, uses simpler words to say much the same thing. Music Man, so called because of his huge collection of stereo equipment and because he has worked as a DJ, became homeless after a tree fell on his mobile home several years ago.
The Rural Studio built him a house that features bathroom walls made from bed liners of pickup trucks.
The collage on the front door of his house contains pieces of old highway signs, as does the gate to his property. The students designed the gate - which also features quirky metal pieces - so that Music Man doesn't need to get off his motor scooter to enter.
"This house is a blessing," says Music Man, who is unable to hold a full-time job. "God and Jesus got people they work through."