Tag Archives: Rural Studio

An unsuccessful design? Not so fast…

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.

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Typical home in Mason's Bend, AL | Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

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Typical home in Mason's Bend, AL | Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

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to Alabama earlier this year on a research mission, I was mostly curious to see this film because of its relatively outdated status.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.]

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Sanders/Dudley Site: Rural Studio house on left; mobile home where the family lives on right. Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

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.

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Glass Chapel: roof of salvaged car windows | Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

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Glass Chapel in Mason's Bend, AL | Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

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.

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Music Man and his Rural Studio house. Much of the materials were gathered/found on-site. Photo by Audrey Alverson, Feb 2009

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?

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Music Man and Me | Feb 2009

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The Abundance Conundrum

Has the abundance of work, abundance of money—general abundance—of the last several years stifled creativity and obliterated the notion of experimentation?  Has it become more about production, building, and practicality—because that’s where the money is?  This article about architect Lebbeus Woods made me consider that perhaps this “Great Recession” could be a healthy and productive part of the design cycle.  Productive for the mind, that is.  Not necessarily productive for the built environment—at least immediately.  Freed from the chains of “the man,” minds are better able to wander, to experiment, to express.

Architecture, or rather good architecture, embodies a fine balance between form and function, creativity and practicality, art and space.  A fine balance between possibilities and realities.

Let’s face it: there is no shortage of reality, architecturally or otherwise.  The last thing we need is more reality.  How about a little fantasy?  A little fantastical, imaginative, whacked-out creative expression?  Maybe even a little absurdity?

Much of the debate and discourse among architectural theorists has long been related to the question: What is architecture’s role in society? In Theorizing a New Agenda for Architecture, Kate Nesbitt poses four possibilities that, in my humble opinion, are worth a serious ponder: “1) architecture can be indifferent to social concerns and their expression and representation; or 2) architecture can be an affirmative actor supporting the status quo and accepting existing conditions; or 3) architecture can gently guide society in a new direction; or 4) architecture can radically criticize and remake society.”

Given that I don’t care much for societal boxes or rules, I am of course most inclined to agree with option number four.  Anything that radically criticizes and at least attempts to remake society is automatically granted some form of validity in my book.  Change requires change, period.

Piranesi's Carceri Plate VI: The Smoking Fire

Piranesi's Carceri Plate VI: The Smoking Fire

Over the past few centuries, an array of architectural characters has created work that categorically debunked the status quo with designs, drawings, and ideas that boldly expressed distaste for the usual, and contempt for the pragmatic.  The 18th century was, in some ways, a time of architectural revolt, with architect-artists such as Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Claude Nicolas Ledoux, and Étienne-Louis Boullée—who all used their work to basically say, “I don’t care what everyone else is doing, and as a matter of fact I don’t like it.  How about we shake things up a bit?  Maybe this is how it should be.”

Ledoux's Inspector's House

Ledoux's Inspector's House

Piranesi built little over the course of his career, but he drew a lot—creating etchings of exaggerated and theatrical architecture—certainly not pragmatic, but emotion- and question-evoking. He wasn’t ignoring history, but he was certainly turning it upside down.  Ledoux and Boullée followed Piranesi by just a couple decades, and each left a body of work that could be considered more visionary than realistic—much of it never intended to be realized in the built form.  To be fair, I should note that Ledoux actually has a large roster of built projects to his credit, but this did not stop him from also designing more theoretical, visionary schemes.  All three—Piranesi, Ledoux, and Boullée—left legacies as architectural visionaries who scoffed at the standards of their times.  They were designers who were not bound by societal constraints.  Their work may not have been built, but it offered radical concepts and ideas to inspire change.  It wasn’t immediately acceptable; it required critical thought.

Boullée's Project for Newton's Cenotaph

Boullée's Project for Newton's Cenotaph

The point is, these visionaries left their marks on the architectural world not by designing what could have or should have been built.  They left their marks by doing quite the opposite.  And if Lebbeus Woods is now left to be the lone ranger—the only one who is not only willing, but also interested in, making work that evokes radical ideas, concepts, forms, and change—I believe we will be left with a barren landscape of horribly mundane architecture, and probably a generation of horribly unfulfilled architects.

Just as change leads to more change, ideas lead to more ideas.  Historically speaking, change and progression have come by way of revolution.  And revolutions typically come with much controversy, as do the revolutionaries who participate in them.  But what would our world be without revolutions, and revolutionaries for that matter?  Those who have made the biggest impact on the world, and left the biggest impressions, were not necessarily well-liked.

So now that the economy has ripped from our greedy little hands the ability to design and build hundreds more condominium towers or extravagant retail outlets, I’m calling for a moratorium on boring.  The way I see it, there are two options:  1) We can take the necessity is the mother of invention route—and design with minimal costs, minimal extravagance, and begin building with scraps and garbage (ala early Rural Studio); or 2) We can say screw it and forget about pragmatism, getting stuff built, pleasing clients (because where are they, anyway?), and being realistic.  Go wild, go nuts, draw crazy things, remake, reinvent!

I think it’s high time for another Piranesi.  Or maybe a generation of Piranesis.