Rural Studio's legendary program celebrates 20 years of design-build in west Alabama.

Photo © Timothy Hursley
Fireworks marked the culmination of the annual pig roast and valediction ceremony, held at the Bodark Amphitheatre behind Newbern’s Main Street.
The Greensboro Boys & Girls Club was one of a dozen projects presented over the course of the weekend. Clad in a brightly hued corrugated metal, it refers to the vernacular rural barn.

On a recent blazing, blue-sky afternoon, a crowd of 300 assembled in Newbern, Alabama, at the former local savings bank, a 1903 brick edifice that Auburn University's Rural Studio is transforming into the town's first public library. The occasion was the kick-off of the annual Pig Roast, as the graduation-weekend celebration is called. This year, it had been amped up to recognize the legendary program's 20th anniversary. The studio's 20 faculty and staff and 47 current students were there, as were parents and acolytes of the program, established in 1993 by professors Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth, and famous for fusing design-build with social activism in Hale County, one of Alabama's poorest regions. There were also dozens of alumni and former instructors, as well as members of the community, including the library board, the mayor of neighboring Greensboro, the fire chief, and the county's probate judge, commissioner, and sheriff. For Newbern, the one-horse town (population 186) that is Rural Studio's headquarters, this was no small affair.

Presiding over the weekend was Andrew Freear, the 47-year-old hyper-energized and dashing, if disheveled, director from Yorkshire, England, who assumed the mantle after Mockbee's untimely death in 2001. Downplaying the pomp and circumstance, Freear told us from inside the gutted bank building, “This event is more of a mass-eating gathering, moving from one project to another to keep you awake—and then there's a guy with a drum.” The festivities revolved around visits to a dozen recent and ongoing Rural Studio projects, including several “20K Houses” ($20,000 being the rough construction cost for a one-bedroom) in various stages of completion. There were also three ribbon cuttings for projects at the 40-acre Lions Park and the almost finished Greensboro Boys & Girls Club building. To cover all this ground, we traveled caravan-style, a winding procession of vehicles—moms and dads in late-model SUVs and students in vintage VWs—snaking along back roads through lush pasturelands. Heading up the parade was Freear, behind the wheel of a baby blue 1966 Ford pickup with an American and an Auburn U. flag waving from the back. At the conclusion of each site visit, a student in a straw hat and reflective safety vest summoned us to our cars by beating a tin can or snare, or blasting a conch.

But behind the folksy veil of the drummer boy, blues bands, fried catfish, and an atmosphere of general funkiness lurks a well-oiled program notable for the discipline and rigor of both its processes and finished work. While much has changed over the years, the program's mission is as Mockbee originally envisioned it. Sambo, as he was known, believed that architecture has a moral charge, and that architects have an obligation to affect social and environmental change. He found his laboratory in Hale County, with its fragile rural economy based on catfish, logging, and farming, where 28 percent of residents live below the poverty line. There, he taught his students to become “citizen architects” and left an abundance of idiosyncratic buildings and a flourishing program as his legacy.

But Freear—who just coauthored a book with his colleague and wife Elena Barthel, Rural Studio At Twenty—brushes off any indulgence in nostalgia. “Pig roasts and anniversaries are fine, but I'm slightly awkward with the sentimentality of it all,” says the director, often described as having charisma equal to his expressive and quirky Southern-born predecessor but with a more precise and refined approach. Still, this moment marked the program's apex. With more than 150 projects to its credit in Hale County (and nearby Perry, Marengo, and Dallas) and 10 more in the works; with a star-studded roster of 70 guest lecturers this school year alone— including Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Glenn Murcutt, and Deborah Berke; and with 700 graduates who have carried forward the program's ethos (many of them through nonprofits and design-build studios across the world), Rural Studio has a lot to celebrate. “This is exactly what Sambo wanted: to be sustainable,” Mockbee's widow, Jackie, said on Saturday evening as the merrymakers lined up for their traditional barbecued pig. One of the granddaddies of socially activist design-build, the program has made an indelible mark on the field and beyond.

The core principles behind the studio's successes have remained constant since its early days. Cultivating deep roots in the community has been a key to responding to local needs. “We don't believe in the helicopter model,” says Freear. “What's most important is this idea of staying in one place: building relationships, becoming a trusted neighbor—a resource—and learning from your screw-ups and your victories. When the toilets don't work at Lions Park, we get the call.”

The slow pace of Hale County is suited to a program based on incremental rather than revolutionary change. “I have the patience, and the plodding nature of the studio is in sync with life here,” says Freear. “If we could go faster, I don't think it would work,” he continues, pointing out that the tempo allows the program to adjust to challenges as well as take advantage of opportunities that arise midstream. “You build something with baby steps,” he says, mentioning Lions Park, where Rural Studio started work in 2006 and now has built a playground, playing fields, and a skate park, and where, just the day before, three new projects were unveiled: landscape improvements, gleaming red fitness equipment, and an elegant log scout hut. “It doesn't have to be this instant plan or instant success.”

This aging in place, you could say, has allowed the program to mature organically. “It's very fluid,” says Freear. “I would argue that there's never really been a plan.” Maybe so, but the non-plan has become the plan—and a part of Rural Studio's DNA. Though the studio may continue to improvise, it backs every project with strong organization, painstaking research, intense collaborations with consultants and community partners, a deep commitment to design and craft, and eternal energy and optimism. The team pulls off the feat of making simple architecture with a big impact appear easy.

The studio benefits from private gifts and grants as well as property donations from landowners, materials from product manufacturers, and hundreds of pro-bono hours from professional consultants. Since its basic costs are underwritten by the $400,000 annual commitment from Auburn University to cover salaries, rent, vehicles, and equipment, “I can say no to an idea,” says Freear. “I need to chase money to support projects, but I'm not chasing money to keep the doors open. You've got to make sure that the tail ain't wagging the dog.” This lets Rural Studio focus first and foremost on its role as an educator and second on best addressing the community's needs.

Under Freear, the studio's focus has gradually shifted away from one-off homes for people in need to more community-oriented projects. Today, the third-year studio is redesigning the program's Newbern properties to address issues of sustainability. The fifth-year studio is working on larger-scale civic projects, and the outreach studio, which brings together students from around the world, is focused on the 20K House project. Launched in 2005, this program aims to create a commercially viable, affordable prototype that can be replicated in rural communities across the nation as a replacement for the mobile home. On the tour, students and instructors presented eight of these houses, including two model homes at the end of a gravel road: compact, fiber-cement board and corrugated aluminum clad stick-frame structures featuring generous porches and metal roofs with deep overhangs. “Small rural communities are disappearing,” points out Rusty Smith, Rural Studio's associate director and Auburn's associate chair of the architecture program. “We want to help ensure the sustainability of both community and culture.”

Looking to the future, the program will continue to experiment with using local, renewable materials, like timber, says Barthel, who instructs third year. The studio also plans to further investigate how rural America should eat by promoting greenmarkets and maintaining its own garden, as well as completing a solar greenhouse made of 55-gallon galvanized blue barrels that is in the works on a site across from the headquarters building. The long-term goal is for Rural Studio to become largely “self-efficient,” as they say, with students and faculty growing their own food and supplementing it by bartering with others.

On Friday night of graduation weekend, the party convened for a picnic supper at the nearly complete Greensboro Boys & Girls Club. The long shedlike building, clad in vibrant blue corrugated metal, is sliced at one end, creating a prow-like roofline. A large cut in the facade yields a covered porch that became a stage for a local children's blues band. Following dinner, photographer Timothy Hursley, who has documented the studio and its work since its inception, hosted us all at a bonfire party in a remote pasture, at the twisted and bent silo he owns (reportedly mangled by a tornado). As a fire glowed within the misshapen structure, students and their parents, alumni, and instructors socialized into the wee hours. “It's a lifestyle,” says Barthel, of Rural Studio and everything that comes with it. This truth, present from the start, has helped fuel the program over the years, forming the foundation for its longstanding vision—fostered by fierce commitment and discipline—of bringing good design to all. “I hope that we take the work very seriously,” says Freear, “but I also hope that we don't take ourselves too seriously.”