After Sambo, Rural Studio Takes a Radical Trajectory

Founded by the late Samuel Mockbee, the Rural Studio has now morphed into a hothouse of practical and pragmatic design, helping students to redefine the terms of socially relevant architecture.

“This is not Taliesin West.” Andrew Freear paces absently outside the headquarters of Auburn University’s Rural Studio, where he has spent the past nine years—nearly eight as on-site director—schooling students in the practice of designing and constructing buildings. It’s mid-May. A pale early light steals over the pine and pecan trees here in Newbern, a town of 225 on the western edge of the Alabama Black Belt. All around him, the studio blooms with its own history: to his left, a rehabbed barn­like general store, now the studio’s academic center; behind him, dorm pods cobbled together from cardboard pulp, license plates, and other detritus only 22-year-olds would dare turn into walls; and to his right, a classic antebellum home donated to the studio’s beloved founder, the late Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee, several years before his death.

But Freear, 43, isn’t interested in talking about history. The mere mention of Taliesin West, the school that Frank Lloyd Wright built and that never quite reconciled itself with its founder’s death, seems to annoy him. That place knows nothing but history. “This place is rocking and rolling and moving,” Freear says. “We’ve moved on.”

Mockbee cofounded the studio in 1992, determined to improve conditions for poor Southerners and teach architecture students how to make beautiful buildings. Soon, his devotees were schlep­ping three hours west to Hale County, Alabama—the region immortalized by James Agee and Walker Evans in the Depression-era Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an influence on Mockbee—to sire “shelter for the soul,” as Sambo would have said. Mockbee was a fifth-generation Mississippian with a big nest of a beard and a way with words. He often advised students, “Proceed and be bold.” They obeyed, producing some spectacularly whimsical buildings—a house made with hay bales, another made with carpet tiles, a chapel crowned in car windshields—that became etched in the pop­ular imagination, paragons of an “architecture of decency.”

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Mockbee died of leukemia in 2001. He was 57. Freear, who had been hired to teach thesis students less than two years earlier, was the obvious (and willing) successor. He is in many ways an unlikely leader, a lanky, wild-haired “yob from Yorkshire,” as he tells it, set down in the anguished heart of the Deep South. He leavens his speech with “fuckin’ ’ell”s and, to accommodate local custom, “y’all”s (sometimes in the same breath). He’s a rigorous teacher, the sort who’ll grill you on your punch list at 10 p.m. when you’ve been swinging a hammer since 6 a.m. If Mockbee preached an architecture of decency, Freear preaches an architecture of pragmatism, stressing details and efficiency every which way. He is a living, breathing rebuke to some of the mythology—the heroism of architecture, the nobility of poverty—that hangs off Mockbee’s Rural Studio like Spanish moss. And with Freear at the pulpit, the studio happens to be turning out some of the most practical-minded young problem-solvers around.

Students have gone on to work for Norman Fos­ter, Nicholas Grimshaw, David Chipperfield, Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, HOK, and Marlon Black­well, among others. They have become consultants, professors, artists, and, of course, architects. “Andrew Freear is moving toward serious construction for socially relevant buildings,” says Peter Gluck, principal of Peter L. Gluck & Partners Architects, which has hired several Rural Studio graduates. “It’s the opposite of starchitecture. It’s great architecture that works, and great architecture that can be built.”

Let us now praise a famous man. Let us praise Mockbee’s “humane genius,” to quote Architectural Record. Let us praise the man who swept into Hale County and lifted up a community slumped wearily against 400 years of history, one flamboyant house at a time. Let us praise his “deep ties to community,” as this magazine’s editor in chief has done. And let us praise him as “a folk hero … an unpretentious straight talker, a diehard South­erner who drove a pick-up, ate breakfast at Crispy Chick and yet talked eloquently about architecture as both art form and social symbol,” as the Sydney Morning Herald put it. None of this is false, but it’s not the whole truth either.

Mockbee himself was ambivalent about his role as social-justice architecture’s patron saint. “He would tell his students, ‘I don’t have any courage at all,’” recalls D. K. Ruth, the studio’s cofounder. “‘Not when you think about these young African-Americans who tried to register voters’” in the civil-rights era. “‘That’s courage.’” A composite of sandy hillocks, catfish ponds, and kudzu, about 150 miles west of Auburn, Hale County is among the poorest counties in the nation’s fifth-poorest state, with 24 percent of the population living below the poverty line. Mockbee’s early work there—designed and built by students, but very much in his style—improved the lot of underprivileged clients at the same time as it presented complications: How to maintain it? Who would assume ownership in the long run? How to deal with the faintly pornographic aspect of it all, the sudden onslaught of architourists, the privation hounds who’d pilgrimage through dusty back roads seeking the Ricketts family redivivus? Famous Men itself wrestled with the same issues of aes­thet­icizing poverty.

By most accounts, early clients prized their new homes, but critics pooh-poohed the architecture as self-indulgent, and not unjustly. Mason’s Bend, the remote site of many of the original Rural Studio projects, has become a pit stop for European shutterbugs, privacy be damned. On a recent visit, I—alas, no better than the rest—knocked on several doors, the eerie wah-wah of TV indicating some life inside. I wanted permission to snap photographs; only one woman answered her door. “Do you get many visitors?” I asked. She replied cheerily through a stilted smile: “Every day.”

Freear doesn’t go for any of the gooey stuff. Or if he does, he has a distinctly British way of showing it. “Once Andrew has a few Heinekens,” Leia Price, a former student, says, “he really believes in all those things too.” Freear arrived at the Rural Studio after working in Chicago as an architect and a teacher. In Hale County, he and Mock­bee became roommates and fine friends. He is a graduate of the Architectural Association School of Architecture—incubator of the likes of Zaha Hadid, Ben van Berkel, and Rem Koolhaas—which he found mildly distasteful. “My pretentious AA education,” he sighs. “What a whole load of crap.” He came of age in the 1970s, during the U.K.’s pre-Thatcherian fling with a mixed economy, when the government sprung for welfare and free enterprise with equal vigor. He approaches architectural education in a similar spirit of social responsibility. Students are there to learn how to design and build. That it’s socially minded is a given, and everything else is incidental. “His version of ‘Proceed and be bold’ is ‘Draw, draw, draw,’” Price says. That and, in Freear’s own words: “If you don’t like it, write a letter to the dean.”

Three students slouch into a semicircle on the second floor of the Red Barn, awaiting a review. Graduation was two weeks earlier, but their thesis assignment, a mobile concessions stand, shaped improbably like a barracuda’s mouth, is still under design, so they will spend their summer in Hale County hauling two-by-fours until hot dogs are sizzling on the grill. Freear is there, and a couple other teachers too, former students he hired who are, in some instances, younger than their pupils. One starts the conversation with the thoroughly professorial insight that on a certain Tuesday in May the barn smells like pigeon shit.

“So what are you showing us today?” Freear asks, taking a seat alongside the others. “What do you want to talk about?” A student begins by explaining that his team has scrapped an idea to erect a barn sliding door, because the stand has enough room to accommodate a pocket door, which frees space for storage. “And the door’s made of what?” Freear asks. Another student, Sandy Wolf, tacks a drawing to the wall and, with the aplomb of a TV weather reporter, details the entryway’s composition. Later, Freear will describe her as someone who can field just about any question—“Fucking hell on wheels,” he’ll say, “so smart and so political.”

“How do you open and close it?” asks Daniel Splaingard, one of the young teachers. Wolf pauses, all but scratching her head. “Like handles or something,” she says flatly. “That’s a good point. We don’t have any right now.”

The projects have grown bigger—students have master-planned parks and built a fire station, a birding tower, and a bridge—but Freear insists they train their sights on minutiae, on the easily overlooked matters, such as handles, that separate lofty concepts from buildable ones. Whereas Mockbee encouraged freewheeling discovery (which sometimes translated into trial and error—and more error—on the construction site), Freear’s a stickler for getting things right the first time. “We say, ‘OK, you’ve decided it’s going to be that way. Now how are you going to make it clearer, simpler?’” he says.

Like many of her classmates, Wolf, who is 23 and has clipped blond hair and a dancer’s posture, chose the Rural Studio because she wanted to get her hands dirty. And like many of her classmates, she has dreamed since childhood of being an architect, which explains why she enrolled at Auburn. “Rural Studio is one of the main reasons why Auburn’s School of Architecture consistently ranks among the top in the Southeast,” she explains. Unlike most her classmates, she hails from the Midwest: Dayton, Ohio. Rural Studio stu­dents are largely Southerners—Alabamians, Geor­gians, Tennesseans, and Floridians. They come from middle-class white families. They believe in social justice. More than you’d expect are Republicans.

Under Freear, they spend hours in the studio. They draw, they argue, they make models, they build full-scale mock-ups outside, they have reviews—formal reviews, informal reviews, reviews without teachers, over dinner and after too many drinks—and they’re not allowed near a nail gun until they’ve resolved the kinks. “Come March, everyone wants to get into the ground and build,” says Kellie Stokes, a former student. “Freear reins you in and says, ‘You’re not ready for this.’”

Efficiency, of course, is the goal, and the proof is in the buildings. The recently completed Boys & and Girls Club in Akron, Alabama, has a striking floor-to-ceiling cylindrical roof called a lamella (similar to Houston’s Astrodome) that’s anything but superfluous. It forms an indoor-outdoor playground for 75-odd kids in town and acts as a moral barricade of sorts, its length positioned against an occasional drug-dealing spot in this onetime railroad outpost, which has become a favorite refuge of Tuscaloosa traffickers. Raised up over three months with a homemade jig, the lamella is left proudly exposed; each timber fairly drips with students’ sweat. It’s wedded to a smaller building, a 2,500-square-foot indoor club, via a steel trough, that both braces the curved roof and pipes rainwater to the ground. Four students built the Boys & Girls Club over two years; the first eight months were spent in studio. “Everything needed to be resolved before we got out there in the field to build,” says Dan­ny Wicke, one of the students (and now a teacher).

For the past four years, Freear has set the studio on a radical new trajectory. He has summoned outreach students, who are postgraduates spending a year in Newbern, to design and build model homes for an astounding pittance—$20,000, for materials and labor. That’s like trying to build the Acropolis out of cardboard. It’s a significant departure from the sculptural shelters of Mockbee’s era—the dogged pragmatist’s undertaking. Some 30 percent of Hale County’s households receive Social Security; an additional 10 percent collect disability. The 20K House, as it’s called, would furnish residents with an appreciating asset, for just $108 a month on a Rural Housing Services loan. If it works, it’ll revolutionize affordable housing in Hale County and beyond.

Each class has constructed at least one $20,000 home, but none have been ripe for cloning until this year. Drawing on lessons learned from their forebears—big porches, yes; tin siding, which for residents conjures farm buildings and poverty, no—Charity Bulgrien, Ian Cook, and Obinna Elechi have alighted on the consummate $20,000 home. It’s modest—not much more than a box, with a generous front porch and a steep, sloping roof. From the road, it’d barely rate a second take. And yet it’s the Rural Studio at its most ambitious. Freear expects the 20K project to result in three or four homes that can be reproduced anywhere Section 502 Direct Loans are available. “I would hope that ultimately through this the Rural Studio becomes more relevant and able to help more folks,” Freear writes in an e-mail. “Not just isolated academics and architects playing in the woods.”

Let us now praise practical men. Freear’s in his car now, a Honda Fit with “BRITISH NUT” on the front plate. He bought it after his truck died, with grant money from the Graham Foundation, which he was supposed to use to write a book. “You know,” he says, “I hate it when people say the work’s more professional in the Rural Studio. God. The last thing I want to be is professional. I hope it’s more rigorous and built to last, I hope people feel more comfortable in it, but don’t tell me it’s professional. Fuckin’ ’ell.”

Perhaps sensible is a better word. The archness of Mockbee’s Rural Studio has had the not entirely salutary consequence of turning houses for the poor into art objects. That wasn’t the intent. Shortly before founding the studio, Mockbee painted portraits of impoverished clients, hoping to telegraph their plight to potential patrons. He later wrote, “The paintings are by no means an attempt to aestheticize poverty. It’s about stepping across a social impasse into an honesty that refuses to gloss over inescapable facts.” He might’ve said the same thing about the studio. Architecture, though, has different responsibilities from art. It answers first to its client, and then all future clients. Mockbee laid the foundation, but for the studio to truly step across that “social impasse,” it needed Freear’s unromantic touch. Fifty years from now, people will still be knocking on the door of the Hay Bale House. Not so the 20K houses. And that’s probably a good thing.

Back in the car, Freear’s talking about the book he has yet to write. It was supposed to highlight the Rural Studio’s pedagogical ethos, but as soon as he left the place, he realized it was the last thing he wanted to think about. “The studio is represented in a thousand different ways,” he says. “I’ve been here longer than Sambo was here, and I’d like to get some stuff out there. We’re not trying to make a trade school. We’re not trying to educate builders. We’re educating them in the making that informs design.” And if you don’t like it, write a letter to the dean.

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