Going up the country - Issue 165 - Magazine | Monocle

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To reach the tiny town of Newbern, Alabama, you take a long drive south from Birmingham, past catfish ponds and scores of bright white churches, until you come to the South’s strangest-looking fire station. This big- shouldered structure, all steel webbing and soaring timber trusses, sticks out among the trees and trailers on Highway 61. John Dodson, volunteer fire chief and a man of few words, runs his hand admiringly over the polycarbonate exterior and cedar slats that catch the heat of the low sun in winter and help to prevent the fire engines’ water tanks from freezing. “We used to park the trucks outside the house of a guy who lived across the street,” he tells monocle. “So this is certainly better.”

Newbern Fire Station
Volunteer fire chief John Dodson

The fire station was Newbern’s first public building in 110 years when it opened in 2004. It is the work of Rural Studio, an off-campus programme run by Alabama’s Auburn University, in which third- and fifth-year architecture students learn how to design and, crucially, build from the ground up. In 1993 two Auburn professors came to this corner of the state, called Hale County, when Newbern was little more than a few dusty streets and churches, and many people were living in precarious old houses. The architects’ proposition was simple: let our students live here and learn by doing, and we will help to build your civic infrastructure. In 30 years students have delivered more than 200 projects across western Alabama, from Scouts’ huts to skate parks, in towns such as Moundville and Footwash. They have also built many homes, helping residents to swap leaky trailers for a more contemporary pad.

Lions Park in Greensboro

Working in teams of four, students raise funds, source materials and engage with the community just as one would with a commercial client, though the students’ services come for free. When the time comes to realise their designs, they rig up the electrics, install the plumbing and oversee the pouring of foundations. “No one comes here with construction experience,” says student Adam Davis, who is hard at work on “Patriece’s Home” and showing off his tool belt.

Rural Studio accepts about 50 students a year and is highly selective. Their final projects are assessed on whether their structures can stand the test of time, surviving the notorious tornadoes of “Dixie Alley” and the extremes of summer and winter here. “We still use computerised drawings but taking the time to do it by hand is so important,” says student Meagan Mitchell, who is drawing the dormer of a house in the Red Barn, a former shop building that serves as a communal studio. The walls are lined with watercolour studies of the local architectural vernacular, which students paint in the field as research. “If you don’t have the confidence to draw it by hand, how can you expect to build it?” asks Mitchell.

Students come from all over the US and soon acclimatise to the region’s subtropical heat and slower pace. It might sound idyllic but Newbern is also at the sharp end of rural life. As in many small, isolated communities in the American South – as well as Italy, Spain and elsewhere – old families are dying out or departing for cities in search of work and opportunity. For generations, there was little civic infrastructure to keep people rooted and local leaders now seek out the services of Rural Studio to arrest their town’s decline.

Hard work on ‘Patriece‘s Home’
Lunchtime at the Great Hall on campus
Rural Studio HQ in Newbern

Over a period of 30 years, waves of students have created the vast Lions Park in nearby Greensboro, turned a defunct bank building into Newbern Library, which became the first place in town where high-speed internet was available to the public, and built Newbern’s town hall out of cypress logs. Before that, citizens had nowhere to vote and the mayor kept everyone’s records in his basement. (Newbern still has some way to go when it comes to making all residents feel that they have a say in how the place is run; there’s an ongoing row, for instance, about exactly who is the legitimate mayor.)

“Rural Studio has made a real difference to so many families around here,” says Barbara Williams, the town’s librarian, who uses her elegant reading room to host children’s book festivals and signings by authors from across the state. She grew up in Hale County at a time of racial segregation. The town sits in a region of the South that was historically known as the Black Belt, named in part for its fertile soil but also because it was once an epicentre of US slave labour.

Despite its history and today’s economic travails, it’s a resilient, tight-knit community. “I tell our students, ‘You’re not here to save anybody,’” says Emily McGlohn, an associate professor at Rural Studio, who came as a student and decided to stay. “These folks don’t need us. The main thing that we’re doing is learning architecture and how to build buildings – and, as a by-product, someone gets a house.” 

The days start early at Morisette House, an old mansion gifted to the studio by a local family in 1996. By 06.00, students are on their knees, weeding the campus farm, where they grow food for their lunches in and around a pyramidal greenhouse. With just a few weeks to go until the annual pig roast that marks the end of the academic year, fifth-year students Naomi Tony-Alabi and Jake Buell are affixing drywall to a staircase that they have mocked up for the project that they’ll submit to their professors. Requested by a resident with a sliver of family land to build on, it’s a compact home that has two storeys and would sit comfortably in a parking space for two cars – and could be reconfigured for leftover land in inner-city developments. If it passes muster, they’ll stay on into the summer to build it.

“To maximise the space, we built upwards,” says Tony-Alabi, who is originally from Johannesburg. “We want people to live in the way that you would in any other home and use their own furniture.” Buell takes a step back, assessing their creation. “Having built these stairs, we would draw them very differently now,” he says.

Prototypingnew ventilaton system
Cutting materials on the site
Faculty member Judith Seaman

The morning sun beats down on prototypes scattered all over the campus’s muddy lawns. At one end of the garden is a row of dormitories, erected by past students, including a sturdy one made from the waxed cardboard used to transport catfish. Currently in development is a ventilation-research project that takes design cues from how termite mounds regulate heat, with timber walls that create natural chimneys. At most other colleges, these architectural and structural ideas would probably never make it off the drawing board.

One such structure is a house built by Rural Studio’s late co-founder Samuel Mockbee, a charismatic, Mississippi-born architect who arrived in Hale County in 1993 with a vision to train what he called “citizen architects”. “He was really interested in getting architects out of the ivory tower,” says Mockbee’s successor, programme director Andrew Freear, a Brit who delivers acerbic but astute architectural critiques to his charges and swears prodigiously. “Certainly, it’s giving the students a hands-on education but it’s also about engaging with ordinary, everyday folks.”

Members of the faculty talk about “predictive, not prescriptive” design, which means that domestic layouts include obvious cues for where they could be expanded, often using eaves and overhangs to lead the way, in case the house’s owners want to make additions to their home in future as families grow or elderly relatives move in.

The defining feature of several new Rural Studio homes is a large, overarching roof, raised on columns, inspired by agricultural sheds called “pole barns” that are found all over the surrounding countryside. Usually, the actual house is built underneath it as a free-standing building that is not physically attached to the roof. “It’s a guiding infrastructure that gives us shelter from the elements as we build,” Freear says.

One of Rural Studio’s model homes
Barbara Williams runs Newbern Library

The home of Reverend Reginald Walker, for instance, has a large, angular roof with a series of small buildings beneath it on a concrete foundation, comprising bedrooms, a kitchen and a storage shed, which together create a courtyard shielded from the wind and rain. Walker, a former military man and pastor, moved here in 2021 and has already plotted out additional space for his extended family. “For now, though, it’s just me and my dogs out here,” he says.

A short drive away is the new home of Margie Myers, which is striking while still looking somewhat like a house on a Monopoly board. It has two front doors with an easily reconfigurable layout inside that offers the option of turning the downstairs area into two separate living spaces. It’s a home made to be passed down the generations. Myers sits in a rocker on her vast porch – another feature of Rural Studio’s design language and a major part of life in the South, where large families gather to sit in the afternoon sun and sip sweet tea. “I’ve lived in Hale all my life,” says Myers, who moved out of her trailer 18 months ago and has made the place her own, decorating it with family portraits and framed Bible passages. “I ain’t intending to leave.”

Front porch of a Rural Studio house
Church in Newbern

Rural communities might seem far removed from the problems facing major US cities but, despite all of the space, many also face housing shortages. As its portfolio of houses has grown and matured, Rural Studio has tried to create a series of smart, cost-effective model homes that can be built elsewhere and are replicable at scale. In 2019 this programme, the Front Porch Initiative, caught the eye of mortgage lender Fannie Mae, which is now supporting the development of Rural Studio-designed homes in parts of the rural South, where people often have the desire to put down roots but lack access to affordable housing.

Closer to home, in Hale County, the current intake of students is working on a rapid rehousing project for a homeless charity in Uniontown and has built sheltered accommodation in Greensboro for an organisation called Project Horseshoe Farm, which works with vulnerable people in the community.

Reverend Reginald Walker and his house’s fireplace
Rural Studio’s baseball dugout at Lions Park

Rural Studio’s work hasn’t entirely reversed the outflow of people from many of the smaller towns here but the sense of community that now exists in places that it has designed is impressive. Little leaguers pile out of Lions Park at the end of their baseball game; there’s a warm glow in the windows of Newbern Library as an author reads aloud from her latest novel. In Greensboro, Main Street now has its closest thing to a pub, called The Stable, which started life as a Rural Studio refit of an old building and holds a popular quiz every week. (A group of Presbyterians always wins, apparently.)

Yet the most radical thing to emerge from the studio is the encounters that it has brought about between people from seemingly opposite sides of American life. Take one client, Frankie Fikes, who emerges from his trailer with a pistol holstered on one hip and his mobile phone on the other. He and his wife, Rosie, have become quite attached to the Rural Studio students working on their new house. Fikes has built them a picnic table, on which he serves them barbecue at the end of a long week.

The Red Barn studio
Students work on the campus farm daily

“Back in the day, they called it ‘mother wit’, which means that anything I can imagine, I can build,” says Fikes. That’s the kind of rural nous that students hope to pick up in their time in the country. But how does the couple feel about students hammering away in their garden for months on end? “We’ll miss them when they’re gone, so they can take their time,” says Rosie. “I’ve got time.” 

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