Following Function

While America’s urban poverty is a visible and often-addressed problem, the nation’s rural poor live a life apart. Examining one architecture program’s work to connect them with what they really need.

In July 1936 James Agee and Walker Evans spent three weeks in Hale County, Ala., chronicling the lives of three white sharecropping families. At the time, Hale was one of the poorest counties in the country. While its lot has improved somewhat since then—or, more to the point, while other counties’ lots have worsened by comparison—Hale is still a very, very poor place.

In our ever-urbanizing society, it is easy to forget the differences between rural and urban poverty. It takes a place like Hale County to remind us. Unlike urban poverty, which runs like a mineral vein through the nation’s collective culture and conscience, rural poverty is a thing out of mind. Urban poverty is a common backdrop to films, television, and novels, just as it is a font of inspiration and creativity for artists and intellectuals. And the poor parts of our cities are nevertheless vital nodes in American consumer culture: Visit an inner-city project and you will find markers of middle-class life: a boy wearing the latest tennis shoes, last week’s no. 1 hit song blasting from a radio.

But rural poverty stands apart from the rest of America. Distances between towns, even houses, split apart the connective tissue of social activity. While the rural poor might absorb the fashions and trends generated in urban areas, they rarely give back; instead, rural life turns in on itself, generating its own heritage and traditions. Rural poverty has its own beauty, and it is not for outsiders to decide if it is unworthy of appreciation. But it is still poverty, and we have an obligation to help alleviate it.

Such was the challenge facing the late Samuel Mockbee in 1993, when he opened Rural Studio in Newbern, on Hale County’s southeastern border. Mockbee was a successful architect and a popular professor at Auburn University, on the other side of the state. Rural Studio was his way of fusing architectural and moral education: Students preparing for a well-compensated, middle-class profession could choose to spend a year living in Newbern (per capita income $9,476), designing and building a project. It could be a house, a park facility, a church. The important thing was that it be low-cost and practical—the projects are gifts to the community, paid for by donations—while also fusing with the local vernacular.

Vernacular is a tough question. Where is the line between traditional and kitsch? The architects who designed the houses at Seaside, in north Florida, achieved a successful reading of the Gulf Coast lowlands vernacular, while the gaudy knock-offs in neighboring developments reek of kitsch. Superficially understood as a question of style and ornament, it is one of those things about which one could say a little goes a long way. And vernacular in this sense can be expensive. Hale County and its residents can’t afford to hang bells and whistles on its sheds.

But to Mockbee, vernacular was not primarily about ornamentation or style but about the accretion of practical and aesthetic responses to a community’s environment. It is a pragmatic, slippery understanding, but he believed that if his students pushed innovation, resourcefulness, and simple respect far enough, they would find the answer. As the studio’s mission statement reads, “The Rural Studio seeks solutions to the needs of the community within the community’s own context, not from outside it. Abstract ideas based upon knowledge and study are transformed into workable solutions forged by real human contact, personal realization, and a gained appreciation for the culture.”

Fifteen years and 80 houses and public projects later, that is precisely what the people at Rural Studio, under the direction of Mockbee’s successor Andrew Freear, have done. Before any designing or building begins, they meet with clients—a family of four, say—to decide precisely what they want out of a new home. How many bedrooms? How important is a porch? One man requested a shed for the smoked pork he sells. Another requested wheelchair accessibility. Energy and water conservation are clearly priorities—one home, nicknamed the Butterfly House, combines both with an enormous, inward-pitched roof; rain water pours down the center into a cistern, while the roof’s broad leaves keep out the glaring summer sun.

Such priorities define the core of the project, and they give shape to the students’ own understanding of the region’s vernacular. These are not new concerns, after all; much vernacular design is, at heart, the result of creative solutions to long-standing problems. Porches are a way to socialize in a community without many public facilities, as well as a place to sit outside while stifling heat cooks a home’s interior. Towers, such the one at Christine’s House, act as heat chimneys in the summer.

The store is all old wooden slats and shingles; the fire station is cedar and concrete and galvanized aluminum and translucent polycarbonate. Many of the projects are built from scrap or spare parts. The shower floor in the Music Man House is made from an old truck bed, while an innovative system of moving shelves in the house’s living room is mounted on used skateboard wheels. The walls of one house are made from plastered hay bales; another has walls of compressed carpet scraps. Both materials, it turns out, make excellent insulation.

I have been to Hale County twice to see Rural Studio’s work, most recently in November, both times with close friends. The projects have spread into neighboring counties; the studio’s target region probably ranges close to 1,000 square miles. To maximize our time, we laid out careful itineraries. On the most recent trip, we focused on the public facilities. We had seen some of the houses; now we wanted to see what sort of structures the studio has devised to tie the community together.

Coming from the south, our first stop was in Thomaston, just below the Hale County line, where we found the Rural Heritage Center. Unlike Rural Studio’s typical client, the Rural Heritage Foundation, which runs the center, could afford new materials and extensive design work, thanks to a $190,000 grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Completed in 2004, it was the largest and most involved project the studio has undertaken, with work stretching over two years and two phases. The first involved rehabilitating an old one-story brick structure, while the second focused on landscape renovations.

The heart of the new building is a Miesian glass and steel box that sits in the building’s cavernous back storage room. The outer room is open to the elements through a line of clerestory vents and is used as display space for local artisans. Inside the air-conditioned box is a crafts and gift shop, complete with a floor-to-ceiling rack for pepper jellies. The rack stands in front of one of the glass walls, and when the late fall sun poured through the particolored jars, the room could be mistaken for a roadside chapel under stained glass.

Up the road in Newbern we came to the fire station, completed in 2004 and the town’s first new government building in 110 years. The station sits across from a worse-for-the-wear general store, outside of which, as we arrived, three old men sat smoking. The store is all old wooden slats and shingles; the fire station is cedar and concrete and galvanized aluminum and translucent polycarbonate. The station is deep; inside is space for fire engines as well as a mezzanine office, accessed by either an indoor stair-ladder or an outdoor staircase that rises from the ground unsupported.

Amazingly, the station and the store mesh perfectly. Both have narrow street fronts; both have overhanging, protective roofs supported by strong, thin wooden beams. But what really makes the two work is the way the station, in all its size and newness, acquiesces to the store’s age and prominence as a community mainstay—as if it were not only admitting that its role is to serve, not dominate, the town, but also recognizing that it is, for now, an interloper, an injection into a fragile ecosystem.

Our last stop was several miles away, at Perry Lakes Park, a wooded reserve built around a series of shallow, narrow oxbows overgrown with ball cypress, water tupelo and blackgum trees. We stopped along a dirt road, about half a mile into the park. A covered bridge—with an asymmetric roof straight from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari—opened onto a raised wooden path that zigzagged along the lakeshore. The path in turn led us to a 100-foot birding platform, fashioned from an abandoned fire tower whose skeletal steel hid behind the cypress and pine until we were almost past it.

The stairway leading up through the tower’s frame is wooden, in soft contrast to the frame and in harmony with the surroundings. From the observation platform, nested just above the trees, we could see for 20 miles in every direction. The gentle contour of the central Alabama hills became apparent, as did the contrast between the turning deciduous leaves and the rivers of pine running through them, a combination prevalent in that part of the state but often imperceptible from the ground.

Standing there, it is easy to envy the people of Hale County who, despite their poverty, get to enjoy this view, for free, whenever they like. And that’s the point of Rural Studio’s endeavor: To give the people of Hale County buildings that respect their dignity and their culture, something they can be proud of and have as their own.


TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen