Buildings With a Feeling of Belonging
As a matter of course, you proceed inside -- it's nice. The roof and earthen walls define a long, open room. Seven backless wooden benches march from front to back. The pattern of light and shade and the angled roof supports, made of laminated cypress wood harvested in a nearby forest, create an enticing, comforting, useful space for meetings or just hanging out. The county bookmobile stops here, you learn.
Those windshields, not incidentally, were hauled from Chicago by one of the students, who purchased them for $120 in a scrap yard. The deed is symptomatic of the blend of utility and ingenuity (and sheer youthful fun) that informs the Rural Studio operation. There wasn't money enough in the limited budget for expensive plate glass. So, windshields it was.
Recycling has become an ingrained habit at the Rural Studio, for reasons both of economy -- budgets are always limited -- and sustainability. In keeping with sound environmental practice, however, most of the materials do come from sources closer to hand than Chicago.
The walls of the Bryant House, for instance, were constructed with stucco-coated, 80-pound hay bales, an efficient and cheap insulator. Those of the Lucy House, completed in 2002, were built with bundles of used carpet tiles donated by a local corporation. A group of Rural Studio students came to Washington to construct a display room for the show, with thick wood posts and walls of discarded fabric.
Although most of the design work and almost all of the labor are done by the students, the Rural Studio aesthetic is, essentially, Mockbee's. Many of the attitudes that you see expressed in the Hale County work were present in the pre-Rural Studio buildings Mockbee designed in partnership with Memphis architect Coleman Coker -- the use of regional materials, the abstraction of regional forms, the presence of dramatically different facades and masses in the same project and, above all, those soaring, floating roofs of different pitches and shapes.
That is, perhaps, just another way of saying that Mockbee was a great teacher. His influence clearly was benign and, fortunately, it continues. The most recent of the Rural Studio projects, conceived and executed after Mockbee's death, is one of the most spirited -- the so-called Music Man House, a fabulous collaged concoction created for a well-liked Hale County eccentric.
The exhibition is sure to create a new band of Mockbee/Rural Studio aficionados and aficionadas. In addition to the catalogue published by the Birmingham Museum of Art, where the show originated, converts may want to consult Dean's two-year-old book "Rural Studio," with its complement of superior photographs by Timothy Hursley.
"Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio: Community Architecture" continues through Sept. 6 at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW, open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Samuel Mockbee, in front of his work "The Children of Eutaw Pose Before Their Ancient Cabins," believed in "using art to improve people's lives."
(Photos Timothy Hursley -- National Building Museum)