Time moves at its own pace in Hale County, Ala., where cotton was once king, and where former slaves and their descendants were left behind to eke out an existence. One hundred and thirty years after Reconstruction, poverty and substandard living conditions remain prevalent in small towns such as Greensboro, Akron, and Mason's Bend. Roughly one-third of residents live below the poverty level, with a county per capita income of $12,292 in 1999.
A burly Mississippian named Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee arrived in Hale County in the early 1990s offering hope and promise, but Mockbee—godfather of Auburn University's acclaimed Rural Studio—died late in 2001 following a battle with leukemia. So six years later and with new leadership, what has become of the country's most celebrated design/build program?
Even in Hale County, time has not stood still. Quite the contrary: The activity of the studio seems to have picked up steam. Under the energetic direction of Andrew Freear, who came to Auburn after practicing and teaching architecture in Chicago, the Rural Studio has become broader in impact, more exacting in execution, and far less reliant on the funky range of salvaged materials that typified its early years. The result: buildings that are less about folk art and more grounded in pragmatic concerns such as longevity and livability.
Says Freear, a straight-talking Englishman who relishes his teaching role, “It's phenomenal—we've done about 60 buildings now. And we can look at those buildings and see where we've done a good job and where we've done a bad job.” In fact, says Freear, the 14-year inventory of Rural Studio buildings has become one of the program's key teaching tools. At the beginning of each year, new students are taken to visit the earlier buildings, and the result is a heightened emphasis on craft. “I've tried to up the ante with the detailing,” Freear says. “You have to be very careful about the choice of materials, particularly in a place like west Alabama, where there is no maintenance.” The recent generation of projects relies heavily on hardy materials such as galvanized steel and cedar. Materials are detailed in ways that combine aesthetic beauty with ease of care. Or, to quote Daniel Splaingard, a Rural Studio graduate and recent staff hire as clerk of the works: “If it's going to be a dude's house for 40 years, it has to be thought out.”
The most visible change in the studio's work over the past six years is a shift in scale. Long known for its experiments in low-cost houses and use of offbeat materials such as carpet squares and hay bales, the studio has embarked on a series of larger, community-based projects. Many of these span several years and are built in phases. “It enables us to help more people,” Freear says. “The projects are more academically challenging and more worthwhile socially.”
A recent example is the Rural Heritage Center, a nonprofit foundation in Thomaston, in nearby Marengo County, that approached the Rural Studio already armed with a $190,000 grant from HUD. What started out as a small rehab project blossomed into “a three-year lovefest,” Freear says. The students demolished interior walls at the center and built a new glass-enclosed display space, director's office, and cafe. The final flourish was a 100-foot-long perforated metal sign that provides a backdrop for an outdoor stage.
Ironically, given how closely it is still identified with Mockbee, the studio's financial situation has gotten more stable since his passing. Auburn University, after years of providing piecemeal support to the program, has budgeted $400,000 per year for overhead and maintenance, says Freear. Now Freear and his students have to fundraise only for materials. In-kind donations are still quite common, and the studio has also received substantial annual gifts from a pair of family foundations, which have kept new projects moving ahead.
Through it all, Freear says, he has tried to maintain the same naughtiness, fun, and can-do attitude that the Rural Studio was built on. He characterizes his role as a combination of hand-holder and psychologist. “I'm just there saying, ‘Yes, it will be OK.' I never say no to the students. I exhaust them, because I keep coming back for more. But I'm really about giving them confidence.” Apparently, he is equally hands-on himself: After working at breakneck speed for five years, Freear is burnt out. He is currently on sabbatical in Italy, where he's reflecting on the Rural Studio experience and writing a book. In the meantime, Mississippi State University professor David Buege, a longtime advocate of the Rural Studio and a frequent visiting critic there, watches the fort as interim director.
Students continue to flow to the studio, where they gain the kind of experience that Freear equates to seven years in practice: “I couldn't make the decisions they are making as 23-year-olds. They are so mature—and so intensely proud of the things they have done.” One clear benefit of accepting more civic projects is learning to work with public agencies and community volunteers. For example, students initiated the long-term project at Lions Park, a Greensboro recreation complex, by negotiating with three landowners and a host of stakeholders ranging from a Little League board to a local riding club.
Bill Hemstreet, a Lions Club member involved in the project, was stunned by the sophistication of the student team leaders. “The diplomatic aspects of trying to pull off something as complicated as this—you can't overestimate how important good communication skills are,” he says. “These students have been incredible.”
And while Freear continues to push students toward greater accountability, he clings to a fundamental belief in the program that traces back to Mockbee. “I love and respect greatly the fact that Sambo thought going to school was not only about yourself, but about making the world a better place,” he says. “It sounds a bit romantic, but if architects cannot make the world a better place, there are not many people who are better positioned to do that.”