Twenty Years Later, What Rural Studio Continues to Teach Us About Good Design

Lions Park Scout Hut. Image © Rennie Jones

Hale County, is a place full of architects, and often high profile ones. The likes of Todd Williams and Billie Tsien have ventured there, as have Peter Gluck and Xavier Vendrell, all to converge upon Auburn University’s Rural Studio. Despite the influx of designers, it is a place where an ensemble of all black will mark you as an outsider. I learned this during my year as an Outreach student there, and was reminded recently when I ventured south for the Studio’s 20th Anniversary celebration. While the most recent graduates took the stage, I watched the ceremony from the bed of a pick-up truck, indulging in corn-coated, deep-fried catfish, and reflected on what the organization represents to the architecture world.

Since its founding in 1993 by D.K. Ruth and Samuel Mockbee, the Studio has built more than 150 projects and educated over 600 students. Those first years evoke images of stacked tires coated with concrete and car windshields pinned up like shingles over a modest chapel. In the past two decades, leadership has passed from Mockbee and Ruth to the current director, Andrew Freear, and the palette has evolved to feature more conventional materials, but the Studio remains faithful to its founding principal: all people deserve good design. Now that it is officially a twenty-something, what can Rural Studio teach us about good design?

Rural Studio Celebrates 20th Anniversary with Eight 20K Houses

Auburn University‘s Rural Studio, an undergraduate program that focuses on designing well-built, low-cost housing for the poor across three counties of Alabama, will be celebrating its 20th anniversary this 2013-14 academic year. Since 1993, Rural Studio has been recycling, reusing, remaking and using local materials while maintaining the belief that both rich and poor deserve good design. In honor of 20 successful years of helping ’s rural poor, Rural Studio will, for the first time, design eight 20K Houses in one year- and they need your help.

The Rise of Design/Build Architecture Inspires “All Hale” Love Story

Hale County Animal Shelter / ; © griner

All Hale, a new film written by Anita Banerji, follows the story of college student Alice Walker who finds herself in a small town in Hale County, building a home for a family that is going through personal and financial hardship.  The movie is filmed on location, with a variety of unique Hale County architecture serving as the backdrop for a story that rekindles a love for “home-grown architecture”.  At a time when so much emphasis is focused on “starchitects” and the “Bilbao effect”, the story of this movie has a social agenda that highlights the backlash to this phenomena: the rising trend of design/build architecture.

Join us after the break for more on the underlying social inspiration of this film and a sneak peek at the trailer.

Lions Park / Rural Studio


Lions Park Gate © Rural Studio. Photo Timothy Hursely

Back in 1993, professors Dennis K. Ruth and the late Samuel Mockbee created Auburn University’s design-build program with the intention of bringing architecture to some of ’s poorest areas. Rural Studio quickly gained international attention as the students responded to the needs of the less fortunate with innovative and thoughtful designs. The students participating in the studio not only benefit from the hands-on experiences of physically constructing their ideas, but also from fulfilling our profession’s social responsibility by providing a person’s most basic need, shelter.

With the passing of Mockbee, Andrew Freear became director of the studio and began to shift the program from the design and construction of small homes to larger community projects.  Currently, the studio is in their fourth year of an ongoing project which, when finished, will be the largest public park in Hale County.  The project, which began with building baseball fields, basketball courts, etc., quickly showed the potential for becoming a fully realized master plan.  And now, the Lions Club, the City of Greensboro, Hale County, and the Greensboro Baseball Association formed a joint committee to manage and care for the future of Lions Park.

More about Lions Park after the break.

Citizen Architect Airs Tonight

This evening at 10 PM ET/9 PM CT, PBS will be broadcasting a 60 minute documentary of the late architect, Samuel Mockbee, and his design/build education program, .  Deep in the heart of one of ’s poorest areas, Mockbee’s students choose specific families as clients and work together to create their dream residences, community centers or prayer spaces.   The students physically construct these spaces from simple materials, yet their innovative strategies and pure passion for design results in striking pieces of architecture.  This inspiring documentary makes a strong statement about architects and the profession – showing a new perspective on who we should be designing for and how we should be designing.   As our world is experiencing hardship after hardship, from earthquakes to monsoon floods, the video brings to light our responsibilities to use our talents to help each other.  Be sure to check it out tonight – it won’t disappoint.

Source: ArchRecord

Loft House / Ryan Stephenson, Joey Fante, Kait Caldwell, Aimee O’Carroll

“Learn by doing” sounds like something very obvious when it comes to education in most fields, and specially in architecture schools.

I have taught at schools that embrace it in different ways, either by doing a collective small project during the semester, or building a complete project over the development of the final graduate project. This last method was inspired by the work of the good ol’ Rural Studio.

For those of you that don´t know what Rural Studio is, Wikipedia describes it as:

The Rural Studio is a design-build architecture studio run by Auburn University which aims to teach students about the social responsibilities of the profession of architecture while also providing safe, well-constructed and inspirational homes and buildings for poor communities in rural west Alabama, part of the so-called “Black Belt“.

The studio was founded in 1993 by architects Samuel Mockbee and D. K. Ruth. Each year the program builds five or so projects – a house by the second-year students, three thesis projects by groups of 3-5 fifth year students and one or more outreach studio projects. The Rural Studio has built more than 80 houses and civic projects in Hale, Perry and Marengo counties.

And so, it´s not only building for educational purposes, but also to engage future architects with their community, establishing a true link between the needs of the society and the profession. The importance of Rural Studio has been recognized at Into the Open: Positioning Practice, the official US exhibition at the past Venice Biennale.

Future architect Joey Fante shared with us his project for 20K (team: Ryan Stephenson, Joey Fante, Kait Caldwell, Aimee O’Carroll), the Loft House, part of the 2007/2008 thesis class at Rural Studio. The idea is to design a build a house for  $10,000 in materials and $10,000 in proposed labor cost.

Project description after the break: