Dec. 10, 2015
On Dec. 10, the Board of Directors of the American Institute of Architects bestowed the 2015 Whitney M. Young Jr. Award on Auburn University’s Rural Studio. The award was granted in recognition of the student-led design/build projects that Rural Studio established to address the dire needs of one of the South’s poorest and most underserved regions.
Established in 1972, the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award has honored architects and organizations that embody the profession’s proactive social mandate through a range of commitments, including affordable housing, inclusiveness, and universal access. The award is named after the civil rights–era head of the Urban League who confronted—head-on—the AIA’s absence of socially progressive advocacy at the 1968 AIA National Convention.
If not the original blueprint for the most recent wave of socially conscious architecture, Auburn’s Rural Studio set an undisputed precedent for new intersections between practical experience and formal study that jointly pursue a singularly important question: How can architecture make a difference in the lives of people who need it most?
Rooted in place
Students of this Newbern, Ala.–based design/build program within Auburn’s architecture school, founded in 1993 by D.K. Ruth and Samuel Mockbee, build homes and community buildings for the residents of western Alabama, where nearly 40 percent of residents subsist below the poverty line. To put it in perspective, when Rural Studio delivers a new house, there is decent chance it will be the first time its residents have ever lived in a home with running water.
Although many American practices and programs that have evolved since Rural Studio’s founding take on social and architectural challenges in countries around the globe, Rural Studio is devoted to Hale County itself and the possibility of helping one family or community at a time. As students spend semester after semester there, they engage racial, economic, cultural, and vernacular issues at a pace and depth unrivaled by any other program. Out of this, Rural Studio students and alums have created opportunities for Hale County residents to thrive.
Tellingly, Rural Studio’s 20th anniversary newsletter, published in early 2014, reads like a firm-style monograph with a letter from its director, Andrew Freear, project briefs, abstract massing studies, and more. But, look closer and it’s really a community bulletin with new-baby announcements, accounts of boyhood hijinks, and Ladies Home Journal-worthy descriptions of an anniversary dinner with “pork raised by the Spencer family and prepared by Bobby Scott of Newbern.” Words like “axonometric” or “liminal” nowhere appear.
If that sounds a little too homespun for “true” architects to appreciate, don’t be fooled. Tod Williams, FAIA, Bille Tsien, AIA, Architectural Association-trained Freear, and others were at the anniversary dinner, enjoying the Spencer family’s pork.
Scaling up the magic
From its beginnings, under Mockbee’s leadership, Rural Studio students and instructors have created Southern Gothic masterpieces out of scrap and refuse—idiosyncratic, a bit ramshackle, mystical, and entirely provincial. Each project, in other words, could have been a Faulkner character.
But they all start with a deep understanding of common vernacular building types seen across the region (antebellum mansions, sharecropper shacks, catfish processing plants, tobacco barns) and zero in on a handful of iconic design features that orient these buildings to the local climate: overhanging pitched roofs for shade, large front porches, shotgun-house profiles that invite interior breezes.
Material ingenuity is another hallmark, as microscopic budgets pushed designers to reuse car windshields as glass walls, tie together steel drums as a playground canopy, or cover hay bales in stucco to form a wall. This approach to architecture as found-object outsider art was joined with intensely geometric expressions of Modernism. Their sharp-angled eaves composed of locally sourced wood ribs and trusses display a Frank Lloyd Wright–like quality of organic expression of the landscape but are more strident and angular, as if to insist: Ambitious design has a place in west Alabama. These buildings can appear ancient, timeless, and sometimes refreshingly contemporary. With their unrefined edges, endless (and nearly baroque) layers of cypress trusses, play of light and shadow, and breezy connections to the outdoors, they are settings for ancient ritual.
Rural Studio’s projects prove that an authentic conversation with the residents, no matter how unconventional the client, can yield ambitious architecture. Rural Studio’s work doesn’t condescend to Hale County; it respects residents enough to know that they can understand nontraditional design. Many affordable housing architects and developers insist on slavishly plopping neo-Craftsman confections into impoverished neighborhoods without regard for context, simply because this is what they say poor families recognize as home. But the Rural Studio example points to another way. A long-term community-based conversation with residents can take both client and architect to new places. “Simply put,” wrote Marlon Blackwell, FAIA, in a recommendation letter, “Rural Studio is an inspiration to firms that believe architecture can happen anywhere, at any scale, at the highest level.”
Following Mockbee’s death in 2001 (he received the 2004 AIA Gold Medal posthumously), Freear took over and built on the co-founder’s legacy by building more and larger community buildings, and creating new ways to replicate the studio’s affordable housing. The need for these public buildings is just as dire as the need for affordable housing in Hale County. The 2004 Newbern Fire Station was the town’s first new public building in 110 years. They’ve completed museums, park spaces, Boys and Girls Clubs, and chapels. In recent years, these buildings have become cleaner, tighter compositions, trading a scavenger’s quirk for proficient precision. Instead of stuccoed automobile tires, the recently completed Newbern Town Hall has walls of neatly stacked cypress timber.
Architecture for 20k
The most dramatic and innovative change to the way Rural Studio does business is its 20K House Product Line. Using Hale County as a laboratory, the studio is creating a set of easily reproducible templates for one- and two-bedroom homes that are affordable for someone on a Social Security fixed income. These houses (16 so far) have less room for the formal experiments of earlier one-off homes, but are intensely suited to their context and climate. Most offer residents a typical shotgun-style house with a generous front porch that is passively ventilated, heated, and cooled.
But Rural Studio’s foremost creative challenge here isn’t about form; it’s about design economics. They’re tasked with creating a system for building exceptionally inexpensive housing that can be replicated at a profit beyond Hale County. They’re tasked with making some of the Rural Studio magic scalable.
The 20K House project is not a charity but a business plan aimed at making it blindingly obvious how much money socially relevant architecture can make. As such, Freear and his team have designed a quick construction schedule for these houses (three weeks), calculating that a contractor can make $61,000 a year building them. They’re developing construction documents with the Chicago-based affordable housing firm Landon Bone Baker Architects, and they’re working with local contractors to refine their pricing model.
“Our expectation is that commercial success will create a new cottage industry,” wrote Freear in Rural Studio’s latest book Rural Studio at Twenty: Designing and Building in Hale County, Alabama, which was excerpted in Slate.
Since the Great Recession laid bare the seemingly intractable inequalities of the globalized economy, the outside world—and occasionally architects themselves—have decried the perception of designers as bit players in the image maintenance of entrenched cultural and financial institutions. But the 20K House could offer architects liberation and access to million of new clients representing a broad swath of America who could never before afford their services. “If every firm in our profession operated in this manner, our relevance to society would increase tenfold,” wrote Blackwell.
Legacy and influence
Rural studio has completed 160 projects in Hale County and environs, and seen 700 students come and go. In its two decades, the studio’s greatest legacy is the surge of university-based design/build programs that have formed in its wake.
Programs like the University of Kansas’ Studio 804 and Virginia Tech’s design/buildLAB (founded by Keith Zawistowski, Assoc. AIA, and Marie Zawistowski, who met as instructors at the Rural Studio) have expanded the Rural Studio model nationwide. “The Rural Studio has not only influenced the academic community in inspiring institutions across the county to establish their own community-based studio programs, but they have arguably shown the way for the entire profession by raising awareness on the importance of designing for underserved communities,” wrote Eskew+Dumez+Ripple’s Steve Dumez, FAIA, in a recommendation letter.
The commitment to designing for those who need it most—which Rural Studio has inspired in a full generation of architects—is the force-multiplier for this small group that echoes beyond Hale County. “The Rural Studio is not merely a resume of wonderful projects,” wrote AIA Vice President Don Brown, FAIA, in a recommendation letter. “It is a living idea of service that has thankfully become the vocabulary of the next generation of architects.”