An Architecture of Decency
Andrew Freear is an associate professor of Architecture at Auburn University and director of the Rural Studio.
June 3, 2010
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “An Architecture of Decency.” We travel to the Rural Studio in western Alabama, a program that draws architectural students into the design and construction of elegant, sustainable buildings in some of the poorest counties in the United States. This is architecture as a social art.
MR. ANDREW FREEAR: It’s students and architects understanding the bigger, broader societal responsibilities that they can have and take on. I mean, we shape the environment. I mean, for west Alabama, we’re incredibly optimistic. We want people to dream about having a better world. And that’s — what better to have than a bunch of 22-year-olds who are just, you know, walk through walls to try and make it happen. And it becomes infectious. People love to be part of it.
MS. TIPPETT: This is On Being. Stay with us.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. This hour, we travel to western Alabama. Scattered across it are some 75 works of livable art: beautiful, economical homes and public buildings. They are the products of an architectural adventure called the Rural Studio. This is architecture as a “social art,” as a force for repairing the fabric of human community as well as the natural world.
From American Public Media, this is On Being, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. Today, “An Architecture of Decency.”
[Sound bite from building site]
MS. TIPPETT: The Rural Studio was co-founded at Alabama’s Auburn University in 1993 by the late legendary architect Samuel Mockbee together with Dennis Ruth, then head of the Auburn Architectural School. Mockbee was a fifth-generation white Mississippian known as “Sambo,” who left a much-lauded private practice to pursue his sense of architecture as a “social art.” In its early years, the rural studio focused on the construction of private homes designed around improbable materials that had been used, donated, or discarded: plastered bales of hay, used tires, carpet sample tiles. But they aspired to the highest standards of design and durability.
Samuel Mockbee liked to say that “everybody wants the same thing, rich or poor … not only a warm dry room but a shelter for the soul.” Though he died in 2001, his philosophy and vision still infuse the Rural Studio’s work today. Here he is describing the educational concept behind it.
SAMUEL MOCKBEE: 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, it becomes — at some point in their education becomes necessary for them to leave the classroom, as I like to say, of the university and enter the classroom of a community, and to leave an abstract world to a world of reality.
MS. TIPPETT: In 2002, Andrew Freear succeeded Samuel Mockbee as the director and guiding architect of the Rural Studio. I interviewed him in 2007, and he’ll be our guide this hour. We also visited the Rural Studio last year and bring you some voices of its student architects and their local clients and community partners.
This part of western of Alabama belongs to what is known as the Black Belt of the South. It’s been memorialized in modern American history and literature as a crucible of slavery, racial turmoil, and intense poverty. The landscape here is stunningly beautiful — vast and lush rolling hills, fields of grazing cattle, catfish ponds, pine forests. Two gorgeous rivers, the Black Warrior and the Cahaba, are saluted with oak trees draped in Spanish moss and kudzu vines. Yet venture down one of the brilliant red clay roads and you find poverty tucked inside this beauty. Extended families packed into one-bedroom shacks and rusted mobile homes with septic systems that often leach into their drinking water. I asked Andrew Freear, who was originally from England, how he experiences these contrasts.
ANDREW FREEAR: I mean — I think one of the things that always distresses me a little bit is that the descriptions of the Black Belt and west Alabama are always, they’re always biased towards the social and political strife and some of the poverty. And of course there is an extraordinary sort of burden of history, but from my point of view, I found a place where there is sort of an extraordinary optimism. I mean, there — you may well, when you were looking at the Rural Studio stuff, have come across a lady called Alberta Bryant, who was actually one of the first clients …
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. FREEAR: … well the first client for the first project. She is struck down by diabetes and has lost both of her legs. But I never wish to meet somebody with a greater sense of humor, a greater dignity than this woman.
MS. TIPPETT: Tell me about the house that Rural Studio built for her.
MR. FREEAR: Well, it was, it was the first one. And it was made of straw bales, and it was covered in stucco. And it’s a project that very much has Samuel Mockbee’s hands all over it. It’s very, very clever. It’s a kind of, I would say, it’s sort of got the classic Southern porch, the great family room on the exterior. It’s very, very simple inside — two very simple bedrooms and a bathroom. And then, these sort of three wonderful little sort of wagon wheels that stick out of the back that have very, very small circular rooms so the nephews and nieces could come and sort of lay down in.
It’s very smart, you know? They sort of — they can be used for stories; they can be used in different ways. But fundamentally, they were about the extended family. And even today, I don’t know which generation it is that’s running in and out of that house. But if you go down there, you’ll find the kids in those little sort of nooks in the back of the house, enjoying them. It’s very beautiful.
MS. TIPPETT: Where was she living before?
MR. FREEAR: They were living in a — back to the kind of characterized west Alabama landscape — they were living in a broken-down shack, literally right next to the building. It didn’t have any running water, didn’t have any electricity. And it’s extraordinary that in 20-, 21st-century United States of America, that you can find those sorts of conditions.
MS. LUCY HARRIS: This is my bedroom with the skylight. And I also have a breeze — what do you call that, Ben?
MR. BEN CANNARD: I don’t know what to call that. I think it was …
MS. HARRIS: Yes, it open up once it gets to a certain temperature of the house. As it gets hot in here, then it open up and let the air come in.
MS. TIPPETT: Lucy Harris is the daughter of Alberta Bryant, and she’s also a client of the Rural Studio. When we went to see her, we also ran into Ben Cannard, one of the architectural students who built Lucy’s house five years ago. He was visiting from Portland, Oregon, with his wife, Kim. Here, it becomes clear how the Rural Studio nurtures human connection and community even when it’s designing individual custom-made houses. Lucy Harris’s house was constructed around 72,000 stacked carpet tiles, and it is known as the Carpet House.
MS. HARRIS: You know, everybody that come, they’d just be amazed at this house made out of carpet. They can’t believe it, you know. Go ahead, Ben.
MR. CANNARD: I was just going to say, it’s — the walls, the carpet walls are about 19 inches thick. And that’s all solid material. So it’s very, very easy to maintain heat in it, even though there’s a large window in the front. It takes up about half of one of the sides of the house. So, yeah, it’s really quiet and really easy to heat.
MS. HARRIS: I tell you, the house, you know, it just, when you go in, it’s just a peace in my house. It’s just a comfortable place to stay, you know? That’s what built this house up. You know, it was built out of love and compassion, you know, and caring for one another. Because even, you know, now, I didn’t know Ben was coming down. I didn’t know him and Kim was coming down, but, you know, they became a part of my family. And we always stay in contact with each other. And I love them as, just like I love my children.
MR. CANNARD: One of my favorite memories of the project and working was, on a weekly basis, you would come and be on site with us and pray over us.
MS. HARRIS: Amen.
MR. CANNARD: And it’s, that continues every time we come to visit this. There’s always a parting prayer. And it’s like a blanket.
MS. HARRIS: Amen.
MS. TIPPETT: These days, the Rural Studio is working on a different kind of private home, a prototype known as the 20K House. Rural Studio director Andrew Freear says this might eventually invigorate the local construction industry.
MR. FREEAR: It’s a house that’s inspired by a rural development grant that is given out, I guess I should describe it as a $20,000 loan. And it’s to the poorest of the poor, typically, those that are on the welfare, and they can qualify for this loan. And the prerequisite of the loan is that you go and you use this loan to build yourself a home. So what we have said is let’s see what we can actually build ourselves for $10,000 in materials, understanding that our labor is free. So we build into that, you know? There is an assumption that the other $10,000 would go to overhead and to costs and to, for some degree of profit for a builder.
And we’ve just finished the third one, which I would say it’s about 800 square feet. And I think it’s a really beautiful thing. What we have an opportunity to do at the Rural Studio is that we can actually go and explore something like this and not lose our shirt. I mean, in some respect, I think in academia, we have a responsibility. I have students who are sort of free labor at the moment, with all of these different ideas. And so we’re going out there and testing them and trying to come up with the right $20,000 house. And we’re looking in the future, I hope in the next two or three years, to have, to let a builder build these things and to have them scattered around Hale County. So it’s actually pretty ambitious.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, would they all be the same?
MR. FREEAR: I mean, it’s, you know, for $10,000 in materials, it’s very difficult to say that they can all be the same. I think what we would hope is that the client begins to personalize them. But the one we’ve just done, I think, is spectacular. I think it could last 150 years. It’s very, it’s very smart, it’s lifted off the ground, it only touches the ground in six places, there’s a minimal use of concrete, it’s really highly insulated, it has good ventilation, it’s got a beautiful outdoor space, and it’s very clever.
And I mean, I, we’ve built on these idea over the last three years and I, my hope, really and truly genuinely, is that not only can we help sort of solve some of the housing problems in west Alabama, but it will also give somebody a job, that a builder will begin to go and make a living doing this and give jobs to other people.
MS. TIPPETT: Who’s going to be living in that house you just described to me?
MR. FREEAR: We have, in that particular house, are a couple of brothers. And we started to look at the way that people lived in west Alabama. And there’s an awful lot of sort of situations or conditions of extended families. And you’d often find a mother or a grandmother with a daughter or a daughter-in-law living with a younger child. So there would be sort of different generations living together. And it’s not often that architecture sort of responds to that kind of family dynamic. And so the two brothers living together actually is sort of an ideal condition. And we will watch how they live in it, because that’s, the other thing is that we give this house away. These are, these are experiments. So they’re given away.
MS. TIPPETT: And then you learn from what happens.
MR. FREEAR: And we sit back and watch and we listen and we learn and, you know? It’s, this worked and this didn’t work. And so next year, we’ll build on that conversation and improve on that.
MS. TIPPETT: Joe Moore is one of the brothers who lives in that 20K House, and he gave us a tour.
MR. JOE MOORE: OK. This is our living room. That’s where we sit, where we watch TV over there. This is where we sit. This is our eating table. This is our sink, sitting by the stove, and the stove sitting by the refrigerator. This is our cabinets over here. As everybody says, they look like cubbyholes. And you can take it and you can fix anything up, make it look like you want. I’ll let you all see the other side too. This is our screened-in porch. And it’s real, real nice to have. This is my brother’s, his living quarters.
OK. Y’all come on in. He has his bedroom. He has what I call a small refrigerator. He has his little sink. He has his bed, and he has his little bathroom back here. It’s real nice. We really enjoy it. We wouldn’t take nothing for it because we, we, you know, we lived in an old house. The house we lived in was probably about 100 years old. It’s over 100 years old. You know, watching them put a house together, that, that was a sight, you know? Really and truly, I come over here every day just to see what they’d done. A lot of times we’d come two or three times a day, you know? They told us that they really appreciated us showing that kind of interest. And it really made them work harder. I love to hear the rain hitting that rooftop too. That’s, that’ll put you to sleep.
MS. TIPPETT: You can take a visual tour of Joe Moore’s 20K House and Lucy Harris’ Carpet House at our Web site, speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett. And this is On Beingfrom American Public Media. Today, “An Architecture of Decency.” We’re at the Rural Studio of Auburn University in western Alabama, an experiment in architecture as a social art and a force for sustainability.
In recent years, the Rural Studio has focused more on designing and building public spaces, from a children’s center to a farmers’ market, from a park to a basketball court. This has involved a sensitive interface with civic leaders and local government. But it is very much in keeping with current director Andrew Freear’s philosophy of architecture. He was trained, as he puts it, by architects who literally rebuilt England after World War II. And so in a kindred, but different sense than Rural Studio founder Samuel Mockbee, Andrew Freear brings a vision of architecture as a world-changing, world-shaping profession.
MR. FREEAR: What the beautiful thing for me about that is that you, obviously, if you make a piece of public architecture, you have the opportunity to touch more people. I mean, last year we worked on a 40-acre public park in west Alabama. We were engaged with the hospital in Greensboro — Hale County Hospital — and we worked on the Hale County Animal Shelter. And I would argue, in those three buildings, we’ve touched more people in those three buildings than we previously did perhaps with all of the projects that we’ve ever done.
And I, you know, the projects get bigger and there’s some criticism with the projects getting bigger. But I think that the, you might, if I whisper it, I, it might suggest that I’m a socialist. And I, I believe, I do believe in the public realm. I believe in good local and central government and I believe in the role that they can play.
MS. TIPPETT: And that’s a good Yorkshire tradition as opposed to an Alabama tradition.
MR. FREEAR: Perhaps, yeah. But I mean, I think that there are also tremendous local politicians — even in the place that I’m working, that doesn’t, perhaps, have any great tradition of that — who are incredibly public and civic minded and are struggling against such deep, ingrained lack. I mean, very often, we’re taking on public projects simply because there’s a little bit of money, but there’s not enough money to actually hire somebody to do the job, you know? Or to do it well enough. And we’re able because of, you know, essentially the free, the labor of the students and our intensity and the sort of the gift of our time to make that money go much further and even be able to employ local contractors, because the projects are big enough where you can actually say, ‘Look, you can come and do the roof for us.’ And so, that money starts to be spent and spread much further. And I think it — I hope that everybody wins, you know. The local communities enjoy, get to enjoy the fruits of the projects; the students get a terrific education. It allows us to bring people together who would never, ever under normal circumstances come together. And that’s just a terrific joy, honestly.
MS. TIPPETT: Civic leaders Robbie Hoggle and Don Ballard have been working closely with student architect Dan Splaingard for the last two years on a community park, Lion’s Park, in Greensboro, Alabama.
ROBBIE HOGGLE: With the formation of the planning committee and Auburn University Rural Studio guidance, we were able to submit an application to the Baseball Tomorrow Fund, which is an outreach of Major League Baseball.
DAN SPLAINGARD: It was inherently complicated because it was going to be the county, the city, the Lion’s Club, the rodeo, the baseball, everybody involved. It seemed like a role where the Studio could actually do some good by stepping in and just putting some designs on the table and making people talk. And not necessarily coming up with all the answers, but at least present the questions to get people thinking about solutions.
DON BALLARD: And once Auburn stepped in, started doing some designing of, you know, what we would like, we looked at it, we talked about it, we voted on it. Each little part of the park has been talked about, scrutinized, re-looked at, come back with another plan of the backstops here. You’ll never see a, I have never seen a backstop with this type of design. And when you get off and you’re in the field playing, and when you see the big backstop the way it is, you think you’re in a stadium somewhere. You know, I get that feeling.
MR. HOGGLE: One thing for certain when these kids get out here playing baseball, they’re not black and they’re not white. They’re baseball players. And with the joint planning committee and everyone working together and leaning in the same direction, in the 44 years that I’ve been in Greensboro, it’s been by far the most positive unifying single activity that’s happened.
MR. SPLAINGARD: Yeah, I think like you, just geographic location of the park is coincidence in a way but also strategic and that it’s not in that sort of polarized ‘this is a white neighborhood, this is black neighborhood.’ It’s just a big piece of land on the south end of the city.
MR. HOGGLE: We actually had a lady from Baseball Tomorrow to fly down and come to the opening ceremonies. And we’re out here looking at, she was looking around, and actually we have four full-size fields and two smaller tee-ball fields. So that we can actually have six games going on at a time. And one of her comments was, you know, we, before we’ve never gotten six fields for $100,000. So they were very pleased with what we were able to produce with the funds that they provided.
MR. BALLARD: As you can see or hear, there are kids out here right now practicing football on a baseball field. They play their games on a regulation football field, but this is the only grassy area in Greensboro where you can scrimmage. And so, you know, you’re building a quality of life for everybody in this area.
[Sound bite of children playing]
MR. FREEAR: Well, I think all that we’re trying to do is the right thing. I mean, there’s many things that we can do in west Alabama and we try to enjoy life. I mean, I think the act and the art of building is such a positive and optimistic thing. I mean, just seeing something come out of the ground is incredible. One of the really beautiful things about a place like west Alabama is that there are many, many antebellum homes still remaining in west Alabama. And many of the homes that were built …
MS. TIPPETT: The big white houses …
MR. FREEAR: You know, the big white houses, absolutely, are tremendously well built, very, very cleverly built. And they’ve survived, not just because they’re big white house and that they’re cared for, but because they were very smart. They have big roofs. They’re very well ventilated. They have big porches. They have big window openings, you know? And they’re held off the ground. And our students go and look at them every day. And it’s not to sort of copy the big white architecture, but it’s to sort of think about the street smarts of it. I mean, today, our contemporary society is housing people in tin cans, where there are very few openings. Everybody has the air conditioner. You have two seasons. You have the air conditioning season and you have the heating season.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. FREEAR: And it’s dreadful and it’s very unsocial, and there’s no community to it. And it’s very sad that we have, you know, we’ve forgotten how to live, I think. If anything, I hope that our 20K House can battle against that and, you know, we can’t afford to run all of these air conditioning units; so we’ve got to figure out natural ways to do it …
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. FREEAR: … and rediscover just what the Romans and the Greeks did. And my goodness sake, you don’t have to look back very far, even into west Alabama, to see that they survived without air conditioning pretty damned well.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MS. TIPPETT: We’ve tried to capture the aesthetic and historical context of this part of Alabama through rich visuals and sound. Explore our interactive map of the area, which gives a sense of place and the vast amount of space the Rural Studio projects span. And as part of my background research, I read and inspirational essay by Samuel Mockbee that conveys the spirit and ideology he brought to the work of the Rural Studio. You can read it on our Web site, speakingoffaith.org.
After a short break, we’ll hear about the Rural Studio’s advances in what Andrew Freear calls zero-maintenance construction. They’re also recycling entire buildings, creating something new while preserving history and memory.
I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us. On Being comes to you from American Public Media.
Welcome back to On Being, public radio’s conversation about religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “An Architecture of Decency.”
We’re at the Rural Studio of Auburn University in western Alabama, a program that draws architectural students into the design and construction of elegant, economical buildings in some of the poorest counties in the United States. We’re exploring what happens here as an example of sustainability, both material and spiritual and driven by architectural principles. Our guide this hour is Rural Studio director Andrew Freear, whom I spoke with in 2007. Freear succeeded Samuel Mockbee the visionary architect who founded the Rural Studio in 1993, and who was haunted by what he saw as the unfinished business of Reconstruction in the South.
dink Hudgens has an architectural practice in Selma, Alabama. And he also teaches the history of architecture at the Rural Studio. He does this, as he puts it, “three-dimensionally.”
MR. dink HUDGENS: Well, some of the houses we see, that we tour, were built right before the Civil War. And I think, if you know the history of the Black Belt in west Alabama, it’s one of the poorest areas in the nation now, but not then, not in the 1840s and ’50s, particularly 1850s. It was one of the most prosperous parts of the nation. And the houses had to work with the climate without any kind of artificial systems. And I think a lot of architecture students today tend to take artificial systems for granted and don’t consider orientation, climate, and sun angles, and prevailing winds, and things like that.
And so these houses are a great document on how to build with simple systems to work with the climate. You know, they’ve survived, they’ve lasted and they have certain principles and certain truths — you might even use the term architectural truths — that are still valid today. And so I emphasize proportion, quality of light and how that impacts design. And then the other thing that I try to emphasize is slavery and the effect of slavery on architecture. And this, and just about all those buildings we see, would not be possible if it were not for slavery. It’s a direct result of that.
And so you can’t teach architectural history as just buildings. You got to understand what was going on socially, culturally. I don’t know that I could ever have anyone that I teach fully understand slavery. I don’t know that I fully understand it myself. But it’s a subject that has to be talked about. I mean, it’s just embedded into everybody’s history in America. And so, if you can understand how people can create great beauty being in that kind of situation, that’s like a triumph of spirit.
For example, some of these beautiful curving spiral staircases — all the little, small pieces of wood are put together and creates this wonderful volute at the end of the stair for the railing and that thing. And I’m telling the students, ‘Well, you build that with just hand tools. How do you do that?’ It’s a mystery. I still don’t quite understand it. And it’s just as important to see the slave houses, which we do see some of those. And we see the outbuildings and the cookhouses and the kitchens and things like that to understand that whole dynamic.
MS. TIPPETT: Recently, the Rural Studio has begun to experiment with recycling older buildings to create architecture that is at once traditional and new. Again, Rural Studio director Andrew Freear.
MR. FREEAR: We’ve taken buildings that probably other people would tear down and said, well, no, this building has some value. What can we put our time and energy into this building to remake it, reuse it, and make it useful to contemporary life? That also doesn’t mean that that building disappears, so the sort of the collective memory. I mean, we can’t just throw things away. The easiest thing is not to just throw things away. So we’ve really concentrated on remaking and reusing. We’ve rebuilt a church. We actually literally demolished a church and used between 70 and 80 percent of the materials. And …
MS. TIPPETT: So you took it down, but you then reused the materials for a completely different structure?
MR. FREEAR: Exactly. The congregation knew and understand that. And there’s …
MS. TIPPETT: You actually — retained the history while also doing something completely new.
MR. FREEAR: Absolutely. And I think, typically, anybody else would have just pushed it into a pile and burnt it. And we took the time to recycle it and plane off some of the white paint that was on the church and reuse it. And they loved that. They know that. They feel that. And that, I think, and spiritually, is incredibly important. And I, the issue that comes up when you do recycle and you take chances on some of these materials and you do experiments is that they may fail or they may have to be refinished. And in a place where there’s no money from maintenance, our sort of focus, particularly with some of the public buildings, has been to say, ‘Well, look, I can’t guarantee that we can come back and rebuild this …
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. FREEAR: … or the people can afford the paint to repaint this.’ So we try not to do that. We try to literally use materials that have a natural lifespan of their own that’s as long as we can possibly find. But they don’t rely on any level of maintenance. And that’s just, that’s, it’s incredibly important. It’s really been borne of necessity.
[Sound bite of building site]
MS. TIPPETT: You used a phrase so that you’re aiming for zero-maintenance structures. But I mean, what an amazing concept. I mean, talk about sustainability, which is now a catchword for everyone.
MR. FREEAR: Well, we use the term sustainability with a small “s.” There’s always a lot of questions. People come and see the work and say, well, you know, why aren’t you using composting toilets? Or why aren’t you using solar panels? And the truth of the matter is, is not just that the sort of the huge sort of upfront costs of things like that. But the fact of the matter is that I am better off making sure that if I put in a septic system, that the local people can fix it if it fails. And for me, that’s sustainability with a small “s.” It’s not trying to reinvent the wheel. It’s simply recognizing the capabilities of local people when they’re dealing with essential services.
And it, perhaps that’s not particularly ambitious. But you have to choose your moments with those things, I think. I mean, if all of the discussion about how the forms and things of the Rural Studio are strange and look very different to contemporary life, at the Rural Studio, we very rarely actually have a conversation about the sort of the stylistic nature of the architecture.
It’s, more often, it’s about, well, how do I decide which material to use here? And often, the forms are actually driven by the materials, the fact, for example that, you know, corrugated tin, it’s easier to cut it one way than it is to cut it the other way. So somehow, the form and the shape and the, kind of the grain of the material can actually begin to generate the form of the building. You respond to the type of material that you’re using. And it, very rarely do we say, well, you know, I want to do a tower, because it looks cool.
Ms. Tippett: View an audio slide show of the students’ design critique and see other buildings they’re creating at speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. This hour, we’re in western Alabama at the Rural Studio, a model of sustainability driven by an architectural vision.
[Sound bite of building site]
MR. FREEAR: Another thing that we’ve really tried to do relative to sustainability out here is to understand the long-term sustainability of the programming. Because if you give somebody a public building …
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. FREEAR: … if there’s no money for the long-term programming of that, the building will fail if it’s empty. And I’ve been, you know, extraordinarily proud over the last few years of how, really, 50 percent of the work that our students do is working on the programming of the building, the long-term survival of the building, which is not just about the architecture. It’s about who’s going to work here, how are we going to fund this, getting into the grant writing, getting into the talking to different organizations who will be getting involved to make sure that they have enough legs to help us help the building survive, and what happens inside it.
MS. TIPPETT: And it — is there a synergistic relationship? I mean, do you think that having an “architecture of decency,” that’s one of the terms that’s used with this …
MR. FREEAR: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: … having “an architecture of decency” housing a program, is that also something that strengthens and supports the program?
MR. FREEAR: It’s responsible. I mean, it’s responsibility at the root of it. I mean, in Hale County, we’re just building an animal shelter. And I think that the students spent their entire first term educating the client as to what they needed to do to offer the citizens of Hale County an animal shelter in terms of liability, in terms of insurance, in terms of collecting money to make sure that this thing worked. And that’s just part of the responsibility that I think that architects need to accept.
I mean, we, before Sambo died, we used to talk about the education of a citizen-architect. And I think it’s students and architects understanding the bigger, broader societal responsibilities that they can have and take on. I mean, we shape the environment, you know, when planning and planners were so sort of badly mauled in the ’60s and the ’70s, they’ve lost their sort of ability to dream about the way that we live. And if, so if we don’t have those folks doing that, that means probably that the architects are the only ones who can be the societal dreamers.
I mean, for west Alabama, we’re incredibly optimistic. We want people to dream about having a better world. And that’s, you know, what better to have than a bunch of 22-year-olds who are just, you know, have got so much energy and will walk through walls to try and make it happen? And it becomes infectious. People love to be part of it. I mean, they just, the people are just being blown away by the energy and commitment and enthusiasm that students bring to these projects.
I mean, you know, in the last few years, the students taking on these community projects have actually virtually accepted that the project will take two years, even though, technically, they’re only out here for a year’s education. So they graduate on May the 5th, and then they spend an extra year building and finishing off their projects just because they want to. And that’s like, wow, you know, what a young person that is to …
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. FREEAR: … walk off into the world having shown that they can make that kind of commitment to the world and to society? And that’s just, for me, that gives me goosebumps that they’ll do that.
WHITNEY HALL: Boys and Girls Clubs have to be located on city-owned property in order for the Boys and Girls Clubs of America to come in and take over. And we’ve been really working with the town closely for the past year and a half on getting a client base together, basically, a group of citizens that will oversee the project, and will take over the project when we leave, and help raise funds for it, and help run the club.
DANNY WICKE: When you have a town of 512 people and you’re building the largest building in town, it’s hard for people to miss what’s going on. And so everyone’s pretty aware.
MS. HALL: Oh yeah, we’ve been in parades. We were in their homecoming parade last year. And we’re in their Christmas parade. It’s really a great scene. They all come by and wave to us. They know who we are.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, the word charity is a word that Samuel Mockbee used. And I think the word itself has become problematic.
MR. FREEAR: Yeah, yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: But it — does the reason it’s become problematic also have to do with kind of a fine line between helping other people and being paternalistic?
MR. FREEAR: Yeah.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, between making lives better …
MR. FREEAR: Yeah, guilt.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. How do you, you know, is that a line you walk? How do you think about this?
MR. FREEAR: For my students, we don’t really talk about it being charity, I’ll be actually frank to you. The, what we see as being the exchange that’s taking place here is that our client is a good and willing and interested and observant and rigorous and questioning client. And that’s the privilege that we have in that situation. Yes, we will work with you. We want to listen to you. We want you to be very critical about what we do. Don’t just say give us anything.
And we work with people who don’t know what an architect does, so we have to educate them as to what an architect can bring to a situation. We educate them to understand drawings, to engage in a conversation about spaces, to engage in, you know, the question of, what do you want? When people have never been asked what they want. We make lots of models. We make lots of perspectives, so people can begin, or at least try to begin, to imagine themselves in that place, because they have never been asked to do that before. They’ve never been asked to imagine before. And that’s an amazing situation to be in as a student, I think.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, if you look at what you’ve learned or gotten out of this or if you look at the place, not really the students, I think you’ve talked a lot about the students, but the people in the region or that part of Alabama, I think you’re now in a, you’re an honorary citizen of Marion, Alabama? Is that right? How do you think about that? What words would you put to what the worth of this is, why it matters?
MR. FREEAR: I mean, I suppose to my teachers in London or in England, I, they were able to make such large, sweeping, bold moves. And in west Alabama, what you really appreciate is small victories, very incremental interventions. And there’s no money to do huge, great master plans and huge, great visions. But what you do is just sort of one, little piece at a time. For example, we were just working in a public park, Lion’s Park. And there was an area of asphalt, and I always say the word asphalt wrong. Asphalt, asphalt, asphalt.
MS. TIPPETT: Asphalt, yes.
MR. FREEAR: My students love that. The, we wanted to take automobiles out of the park, and our inclination was to tear up that piece of asphalt. And the local judge said, no, you just, we can’t do that. You know, that represented a substantial public investment and, for us. And you have to understand that I, for one, don’t think that you should do that. And what that forced us to do was to begin to make creative interventions into that piece of asphalt that was a parking lot and is no longer a parking lot. It’s now a pedestrian surface. And our students have begun to imagine ways of dealing with that surface and putting planting in that surface that softens it, that stops it taking in so much heat, makes it more beautiful.
And he challenged us. And if he just said, tear it up, we’d have torn it up, but he said, no, this was of value. And for me, it was just a marvelous example of a, you know, local politician saying, doing the right thing and provoking us into thinking laterally about the way we were going to deal with our preconceptions of this surface, because everybody thinks of asphalt as being, it’s automobiles. And our students have been provoked into this situation of making a surface that will be unlike any surface anywhere in the world. And, you know …
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. FREEAR: You know, it’ll be changed completely. But it’s those small changes and valuing what exists, that you can’t just go in there and tear it up and start again with everything. And I enjoy that sort of, or I delight in the sort of the beginning to sort of fix the fabric, you know, sew together in very, very small ways, both architecturally, but also sort of community-wise and …
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. And families and individuals’ lives as well as …
MR. FREEAR: Absolutely. That, it’s the sustainable aspect of that. You know, maybe if we have a good public park in west Alabama, kids will stay in west Alabama. I mean, Don Ballard who works for Alabama Power locally and is on the Lion’s Park committee, you know, his family have gone off to university and all that. And he’s a local guy who’s got involved with this park. And his, he has nothing to gain from this other than he wants to make Greensboro a really good place to live. He doesn’t feel that it needs to get a Nissan plant or a Toyota plant. He just wants it to be a good place with a good education and good public parks. He comes to public meetings. He’ll be at a public meeting on Monday night to talk about the future of the park and what our students are doing. And he steps up and says, you know, we should do this, because it’s the right thing to do for our town.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. FREEAR: He’s just incredible.
MS. TIPPETT: A citizen meeting you citizen-architects.
MR. FREEAR: Absolutely. Absolutely.
MR. BALLARD: The young men and women that’s in their fifth year, some of them graduated in May. And they committed staying here until this project was completely done. They could be using their degree making money in the real world, but they opt to commit to getting this part of the project done, and which they did. This whole park is still a, you know …
MR. HOGGLE: Work in progress.
MR. BALLARD: … work in progress. And it’s going to take a little bit more time to get it done. But it’s so much better than what it was.
NOURAH SAID: Well, after I finish architectural school, hopefully, in another three years, I’m hoping to go back to Kuwait and take everything I’ve learned from here and apply it there.
ANTHONY TINDELL: You know, the root of the whole thing is to make someone’s life better in some way. And the reason, you know, that the projects are so successful and they get a lot of the acclaim that they do as pieces of architecture, I think, really just grows from that. It’s pretty easy to make good architecture, I think, when you have the right intent behind it.
JENNIFER MAGNOLFI: I’ll never forget one time when I was here, I was, it was just probably like in the first week as a thesis student. And we were all so arrogant and we all thought we rule the world. And we just didn’t have a clue, because we were young seniors. And this guy from the town just came by and had a big hammer and another big tool. And he said, ‘Which one of you can frame a window?’ And all of us just shut up. None of us knew how to build something that we could detail and draw and form in so many different ways. But we just couldn’t do it. And for me, that was one of the most memorable moments of, sort of a humbling experience. But from that, you grow.
MR. SPLAINGARD: There’s a phrase that Sambo used to, used a lot that still is around the Studio a lot, which is, “Proceed and be bold.” There is a lot of moments for all of us in this project where we were in over our heads. The funding wasn’t coming through. We almost lost our grant. We’d screw up waterlines, you know, the lights wouldn’t turn on. All these bad things happened. But once you get a track record of just proceeding and being bold, you kind of get used to it. This is how we attack problems, and we just keep going.
JENNIFER BONNER: And I think, given the opportunity, I think communities do pull through. And, you know, you have to believe that.
MR. SPLAINGARD: I mean, that’s been a lesson from this project is what it feels like to take on something bigger than you think you can do and end up doing it. And it’s not by virtue of one person’s brilliance and endurance. It’s by everyone kind of …
MR. BALLARD: Working together.
MR. SPLAINGARD: … being in together and rowing that boat forward ’til you get there.
MS. HARRIS: Even one man here that came in here told me that, so he got a house with so many rooms. You know, he got a big house and all. And he told me, he said he’ll give it to me for my Carpet House. I told him, I said, No. I keep my Carpet House and he could keep what he got, because this was built special for me. You know, and I thank God for it.
MS. TIPPETT: The Rural Studio is based in Newbern, Alabama, and is a program of the Auburn University School of Architecture. Andrew Freear is its director and an Auburn associate professor.
MS. TIPPETT: Explore some of the most iconic Rural Studio structures that are tucked away in Mason’s Bend. They have evocative names like the Butterfly House, the Glass Chapel, and the Carpet House. View a narrated slideshow of these warm, dry, and noble buildings on our Web site, speakingoffaith.org.
And while there, delve into our series we’re calling “Repossessing Virtue.” It’s an ongoing conversation on the moral and spiritual impact of the economic crisis. As part of that, we’re posing some questions to some of our past guests. Now you can hear the thoughts of Harvard’s Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein and evangelical new monastic Shane Claiborne. And we’re recording some of your reflections on these tumultuous times. Tell us how your community or family have been affected by this crisis — and not just financially, but in terms of personal conscience and values. Share your story on “Repossessing Virtue.” Look for that link on our homepage, speakingoffaith.org.
The senior producer of On Being is Mitch Hanley, with producers Colleen Scheck, Shiraz Janjua, and Rob McGinley Myers, with assistance from Amara Hark-Weber. Our online editor is Trent Gilliss, with Web producer Andrew Dayton. Special thanks for this program go to Michelle Coomes, Linda Shook, David Buege, and Dan Splaingard as well as other students, staff, and clients of the Rural Studio. Kate Moos is the managing producer of Speaking of Faith, and I’m Krista Tippett.