Thursday, January 22, 2009

Rural Studio || Road Trip

My father and I sat out early on a brisk Friday morning and headed west towards the neighboring state of Alabama. We would drive for a couple of hours before we reached our first destination, the sleepy college town of Auburn, where we waited in one of the only open coffee shops for my good friend Forrest. No, it is not a joke (as my mother initially thought)—I really went to Alabama to meet my friend Forrest (Fulton, not Gump). Ironically the place was called Cambridge Coffee House and I believe the intention, through its name and crimson interior, is that it would remind us of Cambridge, Mass. and the institutes of higher learning found there. Ironically, I say, because it was in Cambridge Mass that Forrest and I first met each other about five years ago where we would bond as fellow southerners. The bond continued to grow as we found ourselves strangely living in the same cities through the years—Cambridge first, then New York, and most recently in Beijing where we both found ourselves working in late 2007. In August 2008, just before the Olympics, Forrest left Beijing to pursue other ambitions which took him full circle back to Alabama.

Early on in our relationship I learned that Forrest was an alumnus of the renowned Rural Studio program of Auburn University. Not only that: he had constructed, along with three other classmates, the Glass Chapel that had long been my favorite project of the program! So for a long time I had been intending to make the pilgrimage from Georgia to Alabama to get a firsthand look at the RS projects. This was the day that dream was finally going to become realized. Forrest eventually arrived and after general greetings the three of us set out once again for Hale County, the epicenter of the Rural Studio program.

The Rural Studio was started in 1991 by Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth, professors at Auburn University, to provide students an opportunity to get a unique educational experience combining construction experience through design/build projects and community activism. Mockbee, a well regarded regionalist with partner Coleman Coker in the 1980s, would give up private practice to found the program and “dedicated his life, as a teacher and as an architect, to the goal of providing 'shelter for the soul'. His inspirational and authentic architecture served to improve the lives of the most impoverished residents of rural Alabama” through the Rural Studio. RS is renowned for its activism and community building, and its progressive, empirical approach to materiality and fabrication. In the Rural Studio, innovation comes through extreme forms of experimentation and pragmatism. Materials are formed and reformed through techniques of recycling, reconstitution, unusual combinations, and atypical selection, the latter often due to availability. Walls are made up of carpet and cardboard; buildings are clad in license plates and windshields; apertures are created out of beer bottles. When normal materials are used, such as brick or CMU, they are exploited to create textures and patterns rarely seen before. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is a story about a road trip.

Hale County is a three-hour trek from Auburn along long, flat stretches of highway that cross the southern portion of the southeastern states of the US. A highlight of the trip, besides noting minute variations in topography and foliage, was passing through Selma, AL, the tragic starting point of the Selma-to-Montgomery March (wikipedia). As we crossed over the Edmund Pettis Bridge, the site of the “Bloody Sunday” tragedy in which law “enforcers” attacked the marchers with tear gas and billy clubs on their first attempt to march to Montgomery, the car grew incredibly silent, and no one would say a word until we reached the other end of the historic town center. I can not speak for the others but I know I was overcome with the weight of history and the promise of a new future.

After another hour we reached the Super Shed in Newbern, AL, the home base of the Rural Studio program and the site of its endless explorations. The Super Shed is basically a giant roof, the likes of which you see on virtually every farm in the southeast, under which are built a series of small buildings for the students dormitory. According to Forrest the concept is based on Jefferson’s design for the UVA Lawn. The Super Shed also serves as the studio’s dormitory and workshop. Many of the program’s most extreme experiments are tested here first, in mockups and the students own housing. Highlights here include the cardboard wall house and the cylindrical brick shower building.

Then it was a short trip down the road to an abandoned house whose lot has been transfigured through a series of earthworks by the studio. Here we found one of the highlights of the entire trip. Subrosa is a subterranean cylindrical space made out of concrete and open to the sky which you reach through a long narrow concrete tunnel. It is one of Sam Mockbee’s last designs and it references the Greek and Roman myth of sub rosa and pledge to secrecy. The structure was constructed after Mockbee's death by his daughter. The oculus in the center of the space is filled with a sculpture made of steel rods and discs which resemble a field of reeds. In the floor is a small pond and on one side of the cylinder is a niche. In the niche is a bench where you can sit and converse indirectly to your neighbor through a tube that starts on one side of the niche, circles around the cylinder, and finishes on the other side of the niche. Sitting back to back my father and I whispered to each other through the tube feeling a little like two kids holding tin cans connected by a thread.

Moving on from there we arrived at the Newbern Fire Station, one of the more recent RS projects and a handsomely constructed building. It consists of a series of wood and steel structural modules clad in metal roofing on the north façade and translucent plastic and wood louvers on the south façade. A little farther down the road in Greensboro we found the Hale County Animal Shelter, a Shigeru Ban inspired barrel vaulted roof sheltering kennels below. In these two projects we clearly see one of RS’ consistent design tropes—the shed roof with dynamic profile.

From there we progressed deeper into the rural areas to Masons Bend, a small dirt road which featured many of RS’ early projects, such as the Butterfly House, the Hay Bale House, and the Lucy House. It also featured Forrest’s creation, the Glass Chapel. The Glass Chapel features one of the most iconic images (for me) of the Rural Studio, a glass façade made out of “1980s GMC sedan car windows salvaged from a Chicago scrap yard.” Its other distinctive tectonic feature is a series of rammed earth walls “containing local clay, cement, and a small amount of water.” The rammed earth is a beautiful material, orangy-red from the local clay, and with a texture like velvet. The only disappointment is that it was a little derelict from lack of maintenance and its usefulness in target practice to the locals. Forrest looked wistfully at his creation and said “there are so many things I would do differently now.” But to me the ambition of four young college seniors—to use a rarefied, labor intensive construction method (rammed earth) and an innovative, never-seen-before material (windshields)—was remarkable and the finished product something to be proud of.

In the end it was a great day—we got to see some inspiring architecture and some beautiful countryside. Unfortunately there are so many projects we were not able to see, including some bathrooms at a park that Forrest said were really great but we could not seem to find despite my dad’s new GPS system and our best intentions. It’s so awesome to see people thinking and working in an original, resourceful, and ad-hoc manner, and doing so much good through design.


namhenderson said...

The Subrosa project although much less "refined" reminds me quite a bit of James Turrell's Skyspace works.

My favorite aspect of the Rural Studio;s work is definitely as you touched on, is the fact that the work seems so responsive/matched to context (rural and southern). As well as the recycled/ad hoc/Earthship nature of so much of their work.

Dave Brown said...

It's funny that you mention Turrell because I was reminded of him also when I was there. It would have been amazing to see Subrosa on a more sunny day--the images on the rural studio website are really nice!