A Poor County, Rich in Modern Architecture
Published in The New York Times
December 25, 2005
The Rural Studio's buildings in Alabama
By FRED A. BERNSTEIN
Published: December 25, 2005
"YOU come just in the nick of time," says Jimmy Lee Matthews, emerging from his house west of Greensboro, Ala. Buttoning his shirt, Mr. Matthews - who refers to himself as Music Man - instructs me to drive him to a store to pick up dog food for his mutts. He begins directing me down his driveway to my car, never asking who I am or where I've come from.
Within minutes, I am standing in the Dollar General, on Tuscaloosa Street in Greensboro. Along with cans of dog food, Music Man has grabbed a couple of bottles of cola. I pay the $7. It's a small price for the chance to see his house, which was designed by some of America's boldest young architects. As it turns out, Music Man gets so many visitors - architecture buffs who have seen his quirky domain in books and magazines - that he relies on them whenever he needs staples.
Music Man's house, with colorful glass embedded in concrete floors and shelves that move on skateboard wheels, is one of about 40 buildings conceived and built by the Rural Studio, an ever-changing troupe of architecture students who bring their tools, tenacity and talent to impoverished western Alabama. The 13-year-old program, under the auspices of Auburn University, is sometimes called the "redneck Taliesin."
Like Frank Lloyd Wright, the master of Taliesin, Samuel Mockbee, the Rural Studio's founder, was a larger-than-life figure. Born in Mississippi, Mr. Mockbee established his academy in dirt-poor Hale County, Ala., a place where trailers teetering on cinderblocks and disintegrating barns were two of the most common building types.
Hale County was where James Agee and Walker Evans lived when they gathered the material for their 1939 book, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men." And until Mr. Mockbee arrived, visitors remarked that little had changed since Agee and Evans captured its heartbreaking poverty in words and pictures.
Under Mr. Mockbee, who died in 2001, students identified the poorest of the poor and built them modest dwellings. Materials were rudimentary - whatever they could beg or borrow - and so the students made their mark with quirky details: a window inserted on a 30-degree angle, a concrete wall studded with soda bottles to let bits of light through. One house has walls made of car tires; another is made of hay bales; yet another of stacks of carpet tiles.
It's an open secret that Mr. Mockbee liked to work in Hale County because there was no building code enforcement - allowing the students to experiment with unconventional materials and forms.
A number of the houses are in Mason's Bend, a hamlet near Sawyerville occupied by four extended families. At the center of the enclave is a community chapel, its towering glass wall made of surplus Chevrolet Caprice windshields. When I was there, one of the windshields had shattered and others were in need of washing. But the power of the building - rising skyward with ambitions that belie its low budget - shone through.
Newbern, a town of about 200, is the studio's headquarters, and probably the last place you would expect to see contemporary architecture. But there, among abandoned farm buildings and modest Greek Revival churches, are half a dozen buildings with the high-tech surfaces and odd angles of architecture's avant garde.
Lately, the studio has turned much of its attention from houses to such public spaces as senior centers and playgrounds. The reason, according to Andrew Freear (who took over from Mr. Mockbee as the Rural Studio's director) is simple: community leaders ask for help. "And how can I say no?" he said.
The Rural Studio buildings that aren't in Newbern are less than an hour away. Seeing them requires two full days of driving. It helps that the landscape, of rolling hills, cow pastures and the occasional catfish pond - adjoining Talladega National Forest - is lovely, and entirely devoid of sprawl. It helps, too, that Greensboro, a town of only 1,600, has a bed-and-breakfast as luxurious as any big-city hotel - for $75 a night.
The B & B was outfitted by Winnie Cobbs, a local college professor, for the bridesmaids at her daughter's wedding. Soon afterward she opened Muckle House to paying guests. The alternatives, a rudimentary guesthouse in Newbern and a couple of chain motels in nearby Demopolis, aren't in its league. Ms. Cobbs piles her beds high with down, and her breakfasts - poached eggs with the slightest touch of Dijon mustard, fried green tomatoes with melted cheese and basil, fresh biscuits with six kinds of preserves - are stellar.
Not only that, but the breakfast table at Muckle House is a good place to learn about the Rural Studio. Guests when I was there included a graphic designer from Maine who had known Mr. Mockbee and had come to see the buildings, and a landscape architect from Barcelona, recruited to critique Rural Studio projects.
From Muckle House, driving east down Main Street, I saw my first Rural Studio building: a storefront (for a social service agency) with a metal mesh awning that seems to echo the older, tattered awnings all around it. Many of the Rural Studio buildings recall the work of Frank Gehry (who built a house in the 1980's with angled chain link fence and corrugated metal), with an added layer of down-home informality.
Main Street turns into Route 61, which leads directly to Newbern, about 10 miles south. There, an old mansion, Morisette House, serves as the Rural Studio's office and visitor center. Behind it is a series of tiny "pods" created by the students as an experimental dormitory. The pods - one is made of bales of recycled cardboard; another is sheathed in old license plates - cluster beneath a vast shed roof, creating a kind of folk-art cloister. Students, if they're around, are happy to give tours.
Down the street, a rusty barn contains the architecture studio, where Mr. Freear holds court when he isn't putting the finishing touches on the Newbern Volunteer Fire Station, directly across the street. If that building is locked, G. B. Woods, owner of the Newbern Mercantile Company, the only store in town - has keys. Newbern Mercantile may sell bullets, peach Nehi and souse (pickled pig snout), but the firehouse is the height of urban sophistication, with walls of polycarbonate that shimmer every time a car goes by.
On the other side of the red barn is an underground chamber (called the Sub Rosa Pantheon) built as a memorial to Mr. Mockbee by his daughter Carol. Elsewhere in town, a playground and a pair of baseball fields bring a startling nonconformity - the batter's cages look as if the Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí had shaped them - to places that would otherwise be generic.
From Newbern, it's a pleasant drive to Perry Lakes Park, on the Cahaba River. The park was closed decades ago, leaving Perry County, Hale County's neighbor to the east, without a single public outdoor space. County officials asked Mr. Freear to help reopen it.
The students' handiwork includes a pavilion with concrete and steel columns that look like tree trunks, and three idiosyncratic outhouses that suggest art installations. Last year, the students added a bridge over a creek, and this year they are working on a boardwalk connecting the bridge to a 100-foot-high tower, which will allow birders to surmount the canopy of trees.
On the way back from Perry Lakes Park, I stopped in Marion, a down-and-out town where the students were creating a new alternative school within an old brick building. South of Newbern, in Thomaston, the Rural Heritage Center is a kind of museum and gift shop designed and built by studio members. Within an old vocational school building, the students inserted a sleek glass box that serves as store-cum-showcase. Handmade wooden toys and jars of pepper jam are inexpensive souvenirs; there are also quilts (including some from Gee's Bend, two hours south) and baskets made from wisteria vines by two local artists, Andrew and Etta McCall. The shopkeeper, Ethel Gunter, said the Rural Studio students "were just like our own kids - we got so attached to them."
The town of Akron, northwest of Greensboro, contains another cluster of Rural Studio buildings: a park pavilion (worth walking into the woods for), a boys' and girls' club, and a senior center, built out of an old drugstore, that was hopping on a recent Tuesday.
At most Rural Studio buildings, there's as much sociology as architecture to discover, and the senior center is no exception. At lunchtime, the center's clients were eating at large tables, where they had separated themselves by race.
Later that day, I was trying to find another Rural Studio building, a church. I stopped at a grocery and asked how to get to the Antioch Baptist Church. The cashier said, "Are you looking for the black Antioch or the white Antioch?" (The Rural Studio's church, I later learn, is the black one.)
The church turned out to be a stunning building made of new metal and old wood, deep in a picturesque meadow. It reminded me of two small churches by great architects: Peter Zumthor's fish-shaped chapel on a hilltop near Chur, Switzerland, and Tadao Ando's Church of Light, in Osaka. I have visited both buildings, on trips that took me across oceans. It's a thrill to see their match in Alabama.
WHERE TO STAY
The Muckle House Bed and Breakfast, 2005 Main Street, Greensboro, 334-624-8374, has three glorious bedrooms and a suite, each with its own bath. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHERE TO EAT
Restaurant options in Greensboro are limited.
El Tenampa, 812 Tuscaloosa Street, 334-624-0515, serves tasty Mexican food.
The Smokehouse, 111 Demopolis Street, 334-624-4414, is a middling barbecue place.
Magnolia Restaurant, 905 Hobson Street, 334-624-0777, around the corner from the Muckle House, serves Southern classics. The cuisine is hit or miss, but the owner, Buck Whatley, a former Peace Corps volunteer and retired Episcopal priest, is an intelligent and charming raconteur. El Tenampa and Magnolia serve alcohol, unusual in Greensboro.
WHAT TO SEE
The Rural Studio office, 8448 State Highway 61, Newbern, 334-624-4483, www.ruralstudio.com, is open when school is in session, from September to May except during holiday breaks. A map is available at the www.ruralstudio.com/contact.htm.
Two books written by Andrea Oppenheimer Dean, with photos by Timothy Hursley ("Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency" and "Proceed and Be Bold: Rural Studio After Samuel Mockbee," each $19.80, Princeton Architectural Press), are indispensable guides to the buildings. But they do not include the most recent projects (including the firehouse and the school in Marion) and they do not have maps. One of the most intriguing structures, the Yancey Chapel, is on a private estate. From the post office in Sawyerville, drive three and a half miles south on County Road 17, then turn left onto a gravel driveway. The owner may try to shoo you away.