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.