(james benedict brown) on the road

Welcome to the Rural Studio

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 29 August, 2006

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When Andrew Freear, current director of the Rural Studio of the Auburn University School of Architecture, spoke at the University of Sheffield a few years ago, he described the small village of Newbern as a ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ kind of place. I don’t think that’s quite fair, but it is true to say that if you were to sneeze at 70km/h, you would certainly miss most of it. The sign at the edge of town that reads ‘Newbern Town Limits’ seems to be an overstatement. Stretched out along a single dead straight road, Newbern is definitely more like a village, or even a hamlet. Only a few buildings, mostly built for long failed commercial purposes, are brave enough to sit right on the main road. A couple of homes are dotted alongside the road, ranging from overgrown trailers to attractive, turn of the century whitewashed colonial-style houses that sit back from the road, in the middle of lush, green lawns.

I arrive in Newbern just after four o’clock on Tuesday afternoon. I recognise the town immediately from the photographs, slides, magazines and the books. This quiet corner of rural Alabama is of immense importance to some of the ideas that have emerged in my interest in becoming an architect. If there is any one school of architecture in the world that I envy, I can say that it is most the school that is based here. For fourteen years, Auburn University has allowed one, and then two years of its architecture syllabus to be taught here. Founded by the late Sam Mockbee, and subsequently lead by the Englishman Andrew Freear, the school brings architecture students out from their warm, secure and safe studio environment and drops them into the real world. Each year, the undergraduate, postgraduate and a third group of ‘outreach’ students undertake real life building projects here in rural Alabama. There is always a real client, a real budget, and a very real timescale (although the last two have been known to be stretched).

I find the studio’s red barn (an old building on Newbern’s main street) to be locked, but the husband and wife who operate the adjacent mercantile store direct me further down the road to Morisette House, which is the administrative heart of the Rural Studio. I introduce myself to Anne, one of the secretarial staff, and get given a warm welcome and a map of the studio’s projects. In an area of no more than one hundred square kilometres, Alabama has a concentration of note worthy contemporary architecture that could rival virtually every other state in the country. I’m too tired to begin exploring straightaway, so I head back to Greensboro to find a motel for the night. There is only one motel, so it’s a fairly easy choice to make. At $35 a night, I don’t expect much from the room, which means I’m not too disappointed with what I find. On the recommendation of the Rural Studio staff, I sample the peak of Greensboro’s culinary sophistication, a recently opened Mexican restaurant in the town. I eat well, and return to collapse on my king sized bed. Cable television only serves to put me to sleep quickly. I will begin my explorations tomorrow.

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