Samuel Mockbee is eager to show off the buildings his Rural Studio has designed throughout Hale County, Ala. Driving his pickup truck, he barrels past catfish farms, abandoned barns and sleepy towns, pointing out houses and community structures along the way. Even the 100-degree temperature and nearly 100 percent humidity don't seem to slow him down. It is only when he reaches the hamlet of Mason's Bend and the home of Alberta Bryant that this bear of a man with a bushy graying beard slips into low gear and momentarily seems to surrender to the heat. Plopping down on Bryant's couch, Mockbee rests his straw hat to the side and catches up with one of his studio's earliest clients.
Bryant is not your typical home buyer. She is very poor, and previously lived in a decrepit shack with openings large enough to allow animals to walk through. But Mockbee, 55, is not your average architect. A recent recipient of a "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation and an architecture professor at nearby Auburn University, he is a man with a mission. Rural Studio finds people and communities in need of buildings and, using inexpensive and unusual materials, designs structures that are practical and affordable, but at the same time unconventionally beautiful.
A Mississippi native and graduate of Auburn's architecture school, Mockbee has long been troubled by the poverty found in the South. He got his first hands-on experience with low-cost housing in the early 1980s, when he worked in Canton, Miss., with a nun who was finding homes for that area's poor.
In 1993, now teaching at Auburn, he used what he had learned in Canton to develop the Rural Studio. Mockbee sees the studio, which is financed by the university and such philanthropic groups as the Alabama Power Foundation, as a way to train a new generation of students in his belief that "architecture is a social art. It has to function in an ethical, moral way to help people."
Rural Studio has been dubbed Redneck Taliesin South and compared with Habitat for Humanity. Yet the apprentice architects in the studio have more design freedom than students at Frank Lloyd Wright's famed Taliesin studios. And unlike Habitat, which to date has built 100,000 affordable houses, the Rural Studio turns out only a few handcrafted homes, farmers' markets and community buildings each year.
Hale is an ideal laboratory for the studio's architectural experiment. This region of west-central Alabama is one of the poorest stretches in the nation. The writer James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans passed the summer of 1936 here while preparing their Depression-era classic "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." While prosperity has come to parts of this area, the region is still dotted with the shacks chronicled in Evans' haunting photographs.
The Bryant House exemplifies the studio's approach to affordable housing. After Mockbee asked Alberta and her husband Shepard if he could build a home for them, he introduced the couple to some of the Auburn architecture students assigned to the project. The students quizzed the family about how many bedrooms it needed as well as how much time family members spent in the kitchen, and then started on the house.
Mockbee is an advocate of what is called "site-specific" architecture, so he made sure that the home picked up qualities of the area's cultural heritage, from its antebellum porches to the curves of silos. And in keeping with the studio's philosophy of building with local and inexpensive materials, the students scavenged for supplies, gathering bales of hay for the walls and sheets of acrylic for the roof. "When they started on the house, I told people that the cows would eat up my house," Alberta Bryant jokes, recalling her nervousness about having her home constructed from stuccoed-over livestock fodder. Yet six years later, the building is still sturdy. The translucent overhang filtering light onto the porch's yellow columns and the cavernous green Quonset-hut-shaped rooms jutting from the back make the house a cool place to relax during a lazy afternoon.
The Bryants are fishermen, and a few feet from their home, the studio team constructed a smokehouse out of scrapped wood and concrete gathered from an imploded silo. The students set colored bottles in the rough walls to draw in light and capped the swooping roof with layers of discarded highway signs. "We try to be innovative, economical and appropriate as possible, reusing materials that otherwise will be discarded," says Mockbee. The result can be surprisingly pleasing to the eye. The Bryants' smokehouse, for example, conjures up Le Corbusier's seminal chapel in Ronchamp, France. The Bryant home and smokehouse, however, cost less than $17,000, and Mockbee gave both to the couple free. "The students that work with Mockbee get an experience of architecture at the level of the soul," says Jeffrey Kipnis, curator of architecture and design at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. "He is trying experiments that no other architect is doing."
Not far from the Bryant House stands the Harris House. Its winged roof is responsible for its nickname, "The Butterfly House," and it truly looks as though the building is about to lift off like the yellow lepidopteran fluttering nearby. And, also like a butterfly, it is light and airy. The sharply angled woodwork in the towering screened-in porch could be mistaken for the patterns on a diaphanous wing. The high quality of the workmanship would also please the exacting Norm Abram of "This Old House."
It is not only for the poor that the studio builds. In downtown Greensboro it constructed the Children's Center. Serving as a shelter for abused youngsters, it is a colorful, even humorous place with tilted windows, a welcoming canopy, children's handprints in the concrete, and a tractor-tire swing. And on a nearby farm in Sawyerville, it built Yancey Chapel. The church rests on a ridge in the woods and is made from discarded tires and old timber as well as slate dredged from a creek. All the materials are humble, yet Yancey is anything but pedestrian. With a font whose water trickles through the sanctuary, clerestory openings to the sky and an upward-sweeping roof cupped like hands set in prayer, the chapel is a sublime embodiment of worship.
Rural Studio structures have transformed Hale County. Yet when Mockbee gazes across its undulating fields, he sees more work that needs to be done. "How deep can I take this? How far can we go?" he muses about his desire not only to try new experiments like building with wax-impregnated cardboard but also to further spread his ideas so that others might emulate them. "Most people say we are already on the edge," he says. "But I want to jump into the dark to see what happens and where we land. It won't be fatal. We are onto something good."