Rural Studio is a design/build programme attached to the architecture department of Auburn University, Alabama. Founded in 1993 by the late Samuel Mockbee, the studio has built over sixty buildings in Hale County for some of the poorest communities of rural USA. Mockbee set up Rural Studio after fourteen years in private practice as Mockbee/Coker Architects, where he developed his particular style of vernacular architecture combined with modern techniques. Although one of their first projects was a design for three 'charity houses' for low-income families, after winning prestigious awards, the practice's commissions were for increasingly wealthy clients. Funding for the charity houses was never found and this inability to create architecture for those most in need led Mockbee to propose a design/build studio at the university where he had studied. The teaching and building programme gave him an opportunity to combine his particular design approach with a pedagogical agenda that is still embedded in the work of Rural Studio.
During this first phase of its existence, Rural Studio built homes in consultation with their future users, using salvaged and donated materials; everything from carpet tiles and paper for walls to car number plates for cladding were used. This was a product of a context-specific and sustainable approach to architecture as well as a response to extremely low budgets. Financial support from Auburn University was limited and erratic and the students were expected to find funding in the form of donations and materials for their projects. The houses were built by second year students, who spent a semester working on the project, with a second set of students completing the project by the end of the academic year. Students in their fifth year built larger, more complex projects, such as a chapel and community centre, spending the whole academic year on site. Under the direction of Mockbee, Rural Studio became one of the most celebrated and successful design/build studios, inspiring other universities to set up similar programmes, such as the BaSic Initiative, URBANbuild and Design Workshop.
Since Mockbee's death in 2001, the programme has changed somewhat and under the direction of Andrew Freear, with projects becoming larger and more complex. The studio is taking on more public projects, as well as developing a series of prototypes for a $20k house, whose design can later be given over to local builders in the hope that it will provide affordable housing and create jobs. The programme's success has meant that it now receives more regular funding from Auburn University, as well as donations from charitable foundations. The impact of the Rural Studio has been profound, not least on the students who attend it. Living and working in rural Alabama, Mockbee, and later Freear and their students, immerse themselves in the community. This exposure of mostly middle-class students to extreme poverty is also considered to be part of the learning experience-Mockbee called it the 'classroom of the community'. His pedagogical approach was in fact very similar to that developed by Charles Moore at the Yale Building Project during the 1960s, which manages to instil students with an understanding of the social responsibilities of the profession. It also teaches students valuable skills of working in teams, with real life situations, giving them a sense of agency.
Hay Bale House
Mason's Bend Community Centre
Andrea Oppenheimer Dean, Proceed and be Bold: Rural Studio
after Samuel Mockbee. (New York: Princeton Architectural
---, Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002).
David Moos and Gail Trechsel, Samuel Mockbee and the Rural
Studio: Community Architecture. (Birmingham AL: Birmingham
Museum of Art, 2003).
Chuck Schultz, The Rural Studio Film. (BluePrint Productions, 2002) www.ruralstudiofilm.com.
'Architecture is broad based but at the heart of architecture is
a social order that has to exist, that architecture works with. And
so in order to expose students to that social order that exists, at
some point in their education, it becomes necessary for them to
leave the classroom of the university and enter the classroom of
the community. And to leave an abstract world to a world of
- Samuel Mockbee quoted in, Chuck Schultz, The Rural Studio Film. (BluePrint Productions, 2002) www.ruralstudiofilm.com.
Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul,
architects should lead in procuring social and environmental
change. […] If architecture is going to nudge, cajole, and inspire
a community to challenge the status quo into making responsible
changes, it will take the subversive leadership of academics and
practitioners who keep reminding students of the profession's
- Samuel Mockbee quoted in, Andrea Oppenheimer Dean, Proceed and be Bold: Rural Studio after Samuel Mockbee. (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005), p. 7.
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