(james benedict brown) on the road

Two days at the Rural Studio: part one (edited)

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 31 August, 2006

It’s Thursday evening, in the quiet town of Greensboro, Alabama. I’m sitting on the steps of a small detached house on a shady street. Across from me is the town’s football field, and from time to time cars come by, perhaps on their way to or from the town’s supermarket, the Piggly Wiggly.

Sitting in the shade of a low hanging tree in front of me is my little red hire car. Together we have now racked up almost four hundred miles, criss-crossing Hale, Perry and neighbouring counties of Alabama. I have had two days to explore the heartland of the Rural Studio, and to visit some of the projects that have helped bring the school its world wide fame. It has been a wholly enjoyable little trip, giving me the chance to see some of the buildings that I have admired for years, and to get a taste of how the school works.

On Wednesday morning, I returned to Newbern to talk some more with Ann and Brenda, the two admin staff at the Rural Studio. I work out a plan for my explorations, and talk a bit with them about where I have come from and why I’m here. Without sounding too gushy, this is something of a pilgrimage for me, or at least a holiday which is built around a visit to the Newbern. Most of the newly arrived students (term began here less than a fortnight ago) are away at the main university campus in Auburn, putting together an exhibition on the work of the Rural Studio. The place is not entirely deserted, however, as there remain a number of ‘leftover’ students, who have yet to complete the building projects that were started in the previous academic year. One project is on site, creating a small courtyard garden in Greensboro’s small hospital. The other is creating a dog pound for the city of Greensboro that will be built on a plot of land adjacent to the county jail. That project has yet to go on site, but a full size prototype of the structure is being constructed behind another house owned by the university in Newbern.

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I drive up the street and find a few of the students at work on the building, a beautifully light arch structure that is composed of interlocking timber pieces. The modular structure can be built to create a long, free standing and self supporting building. It reminds me instantly of a similar wood construction that was built at the Weald and Downland Museum in England. The mock-up is about to lifted off it’s supporting structure and placed onto delicate steel struts that will support the weight of the roof. If all goes well with this next step, the team of four students tell me they hope to begin on site this week.

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I stop off once again at the Newbern Mercantile store to borrow the key to one of Newbern’s most notable recent projects. Directly opposite the store and the school’s studio space is the Newbern Volunteer Fire Hall. The remarkably simple structure is executed in timber and black steel. The bulk of the skin of the building is a translucent plastic material that may reappear on the dog pound later this summer. The building is not particularly large (it has room for two fire tenders parked end to end), it has the sophistication and quality of finish of a building that had twice the budget. It’s hard to believe that a group of architecture students designed and built this facility. Sensitive and mature use of materials, such as in the choice of timber for the interior ceiling or the slats that surround the washrooms and kitchen space is balanced with delicate touches of entertainment: the stair to the upstairs meeting space is constructed with two slices of the same oversize steel stair section, offset by a couple of inches to create and stepped staircase. Everywhere I look, the finish is near perfect: junctions and joints are tight, and the cleaness of the design is complimented by a very thorough construction.

From Newbern, it’s a drive of half an hour to Mason’s Bend. You probably won’t find Mason’s Bend on any map except the one the Rural Studio distributes. It’s a small community of dilapidated trailers and shacks at the end of narrow lane, which in turn is at the end of a minor county road. Hidden in a thick forrest, Mason’s Bend could be the Alabama that America forgot. A black community living well below the poverty line in substandard housing, often without proper facilities.

Except Mason’s Bend has become one of the Rural Studio’s landmark sites. In this small community there are a half dozen projects, built in the last decade or so by students of Auburn. All but one are houses, and one of them (the Green House) was officially handed over to its new occupant less than a week ago.

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Above: the Haybale House, with it’s large overhanging roof providing shade to the thick walled structure behind.

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The famous Carpet House, so called because the exterior wall nearest the camera in this shot is constructed with layer upon overlapping layer of surplus carpet tiles. The large, overhanging roof provides shade to the large windows (this image was taken around midday, when the temperature was hovering around the mid thirties).

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The name of the Butterfly House needs no explanation… as with many Rural Studio domestic projects, a spacious screened-in outside porch is included, providing a blissful space that is both indoors and outdoors, catching even the gentlest of breezes and shading occupants from the intense midday sun.
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Completed this summer, this (above) is the Green House, a home built for the daughter of a Mason’s Bend resident who moved into her own new Rural Studio house last year. The two houses face each other across a small raised garden. As I stand taking photographs of the two homes, a car pulls up and I am introduced to the mother who will soon have her daughter living directly across from her. She introduces herself and invites me to look around inside. The back door is open, and step around. Once again, the finish of the house is incredible. Two light, spacious bedrooms feature floor to ceiling windows, and share a masonry wall with the other internal space, a large kitchen/living room. Above the kitchen is a tower, which will carry warm air up and out of the interior.

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The two houses, with the Green House to the rear. Expect to seem them in a trendy architectural magazine near you soon, and expect to do a double take when you read that they’re both in rural Alabama, not California.

I drive back to Greensboro for lunch, in the strangely deserted Smokehouse Restaurant. When my lunch comes, the large oval plate is similarly deserted, with a burger at one end a toddler’s handful of fries at the other end. Perhaps that’s why there are so few people here. Near-by, some of the ‘leftover’ students are working on the courtyard garden of Greensboro’s small hospital. I drive by and find the students arranging some plants which will soon be growing up and over a structure of steel and wire to create a shady terrace. Raised beds are faced in broken chunks of marble, bought very cheaply from a stonemason that specialises in making headstones for graves.

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I chat with the students about the project. It will doubtless be a calm and attractive courtyard when it’s finished, but there is an honest sense of admission amongst the people working on the project that the end is a long way off. Several months have already passed since the end of the academic year in which this project began, and less than a quarter of the garden is complete. As it’s nearing the end of the day, two of the students jump at the opportunity to leave the site and show me one of the studio’s more interesting recent and unpublished projects.

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This one of the prototypes of the ’20k house’, a home which could theoretically built by a developer for less than $20,000 (about £10,700) using readily available materials and construction techniques. I’m introduced to the man who has recently moved into this, the most recent evolution of the project. Each year, a new group of students takes on the brief and produces a prototype. The house is a simple timber framed structure, with a single large room inside. There’s a small kitchen counter and a bathtub and toilet to the rear. A white curtain separates the front and back of the single room.

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At the rear the roof continues over a screened in stoop. The same timber frame that supports the walls of the house (which are clad in inexpensive corrugated stainless steel) emerges here. Walking out onto the back porch makes you realise that this house actually has another room here: a pracitcal outdoor space that catches the breeze and is useable for most of the year in the warm Alabama climate. The building is beautiful because it is so simple. The implications of the 20k project are great: in the wake of last year’s hurricane season, the importance of cheap and rapidly built low-income housing is more relevant than ever before. Later on in my trip, I was to see thousands of caravans in New Orleans, as authorities desperately tried to find a solution to a massive housing crisis in the city that was flooded after Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps the solution to those made homeless by future hurricanes can be found right here, in Greensboro, Alabama.

My day ends in Newbern, where I meet up once more with the students who have been working on the dog pound prototype structure.

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During the day, the arch framework of the building was successfully rolled into position and lifted down onto the steel pins that connect it to the concrete strip foundations. The supporting structure that had held the arch together during its construction was lowered on its hydraulic base, and rolled back to let the structure stand freely.

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These pins are causing some concern, since they seem to be experiencing too much stress in their lower joints. It’s not a major problem, however, and one of the students explains to me how the next struts will be made from two pieces of steel welded together, rather than a single piece folded in two points.

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I’m privileged to have actually seen some progress in one of the Studio’s live projects. As the sun sets towards the west, I also get to glimpse some of the satisfaction that Rural Studio students experience when a building begins to take shape. While the hospital garden project seemed to be dragging down the other group of students, it was encouraging to see the flip side, and the rewards that come when a good day on site comes together. This prototype structure in the yard of the student residence will be extended and finished to make a barn for one of the Rural Studio’s trucks. Work will begin on the foundations of the actual Dog Pound tomorrow.

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