I’ve long questioned the idea of successful design, and how we go about determining the definition of successful. Design is a big word—much bigger than its physical stature would imply—so I’ll not make any blanket statements here about whether this question I’m posing applies to all things design. I’ll just use a specific scenario as an example from which to pose the question.
I spent a year of my life searching for the answer to this question—as I studied the work, the process, and the people of Auburn University’s Rural Studio—for my own thesis project in design school. I was drawn to this particular program because of its inherent humanitarianism—providing architecturally designed homes and community buildings for impoverished people in rural Alabama—people who, under any typical circumstance, would never have access to an architect.
Rural Studio is a pedagogical anomaly in architecture schools, as its purpose is as much sociological as it is architectural. Students are required to leave their university homes and live within the small, rural communities where they design and build. In the process, many societal lines are blurred, including racial ones—as white middle class students work closely with extremely poor African American residents. Not your typical architect-client relationship, for sure.
I recently attended a Portland screening of “The Rural Studio,” a 2002 documentary about this program. After having been to Alabama earlier this year on a research mission, I was mostly curious to see this film because of its relatively outdated status. I realize 2002 was not that long ago, but Rural Studio has only been around since 1993, and when Samuel Mockbee, its co-founder, died in 2001, a change in leadership naturally led to an evolution of the program that wasn’t evident at the time this film was made. I was curious to see how the program would be portrayed, and interested to view the film with my newly gained ‘more informed’ perspective.
By conventional views, two of the major projects profiled in the film would likely be considered failures, due to their statuses today. But maybe conventional views don’t always apply?
The design-build process of the Sanders/Dudley house, built for a young woman with six children, was chronicled in the film: Interviews with students and the client were paired with footage of interactions between them, and footage of students physically building the home. For anyone who believes in the power of doing good, acts of kindness, and the power of design, it is an emotionally heart-wrenching scenario to watch. I observed others viewing the film, and could see them visibly moved. I was moved as well. It was the perfect portrayal of the entire reason I chose to study this program in the first place—because it is about people. But I had this nagging little morsel of doubt, of defiance, swirling around in my head—because I knew what happened with this house after all was said and done.
As of February 2009, when I was in Alabama, the Sanders/Dudley house remained vacant, even though it was built some eight years prior. From what I understand, the client—for one reason or another—did not like the house once it was complete, and chose not to move into it. Her preference instead was the doublewide mobile home on the same property, adjacent to the new house Rural Studio built for her. [One of the conditions of the Rural Studio “charity” houses is that there are virtually no conditions. This home was given as a gift, with no expectations. It was handed over, and the new owner may do with it whatever she pleases.]
Another project profiled in the film, the Glass Chapel, might also be seen today as somewhat unsuccessful. While I know of no story with the Glass Chapel as dramatic as the story of the Sanders/Dudley house, the building appears as though maybe it’s unused, with the surrounding vegetation taking over a bit. Regardless of its status today, my preference with this building is to sing its praises, as I believe it is a beautiful display of architectural ingenuity—of turning trash into something useful. With a rammed earth structure made from local clay, and a roof composed of 1980s GMC sedan windows salvaged from a scrap yard, this building speaks volumes about what can be created with material resourcefulness. For that reason, it is probably my favorite Rural Studio building.
The film—again—profiled the creation of the Glass Chapel in an emotionally riveting way. Students were seen playing with local children during the process, and neighbors were frequently on-site, interacting with the students. The students were working tirelessly, in extremely unforgiving heat. They were dedicated to the job, and it came across loud and clear that a big part of the reason why they cared about what they were doing was because they cared about the people for whom they were doing it.
The most important thing I have learned through studying Rural Studio is that—often—our definitions of success and of beauty could stand some reworking. Nothing taught me more about this than my meeting with Music Man, at his Rural Studio designed and built home. Music Man is a legendary character in Hale County, Alabama, and rightfully so. I’ve never felt quite so fortunate to have met anyone, as I do to have met him. He really made me rethink my whole paradigm. Following is an excerpt from an essay in my thesis project, about Music Man and this subject of successful design and beauty:
Music Man is truly an enigma. He defies all logic and typical preconceived ideas about poverty and its people. Music Man’s love for life simply blows my mind, and causes serious reflection on the things upon which we typically place value.
How do we define successful design? And what is beautiful? If a design is serving its purpose—a safe, structurally sound shelter that is beautiful and functional to its user—dare we call it unsuccessful simply because it hasn’t changed or “bettered” its user’s way of living? Are we really so judgmental, and so predisposed to the idea that sterility equals beauty, that we can’t accept another human being’s way of living? If Music Man’s house is filled to its gills with items we’d assume are junk, does that mean the design of his house was unsuccessful?
As designers, we are trained to be problem-solvers. But as societal sheep, we are trained to think, act, live, and breathe conventionally. We are stifled. We are caged. We are often boring and dull. We work with prescriptions. We are afraid. We are weak. We are out of touch with humanity. We are touched by objects, by buildings, by light, by form, by shape, by texture. And yet we forget to be touched by the people for whom we create these objects, buildings, light, form, shape, and texture.
How about we reconsider the notion of successful design, and most certainly the notion of beauty?