Traveling to Hale County, Ala., to see the Rural Studio's modest yet magical works of architecture in their home settings would be the ideal choice. A trip to the National Building Museum is the next best thing.
Opening today, the exhibition titled "Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio: Community Architecture" takes visitors on a quick if gratifying tour through interesting, and in some ways amazing, terrain.
Hale County is a backwater characteristic of what used to be called the "other America" -- passed by, depopulated and poor. Its rich social and aesthetic landscape, however, has been put on the world's cultural map through the work of four creative individuals.
First came the 1941 book "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," coupling James Agee's impassioned descriptions of sharecropper lives with the dispassionate photographs of Walker Evans. Then, starting in the 1960s, William Christenberry, a photographer-sculptor-painter who makes Washington his home, began to use Hale County imagery as the source of his haunting art.
And then came Mockbee, who died in 2001 at age 57. He was the gifted architect with a social vision who in 1993 established the Rural Studio as part of Auburn University's School of Architecture. He set up shop in Newbern, a one-store Hale County hamlet nearly 200 miles west of the university's main campus.
"A classroom of community," Mockbee called it. About 30 second- and fifth-year architecture students gather each year in Newbern to live, learn and work. At the end of its time there, each class leaves behind a building, either a home for a family in need or a structure with a collective purpose -- a church, say, or a new ballpark fence.
The idea was (and still is) that architecture students would learn to design and build by being both designers and builders. They would engage the local community by living within it. They would absorb, Mockbee hoped, the lesson that architecture is a matter of aesthetics and ethics.
The Rural Studio, Mockbee told architecture writer Andrea Oppenheimer Dean when she was researching her excellent book on the subject, "is really about using art to improve people's lives." Just so. As we can plainly see in the scale models and documentary photographs at the Building Museum, both art and social utility are equally important.
Rich. Joyful. Playful. Inventive. Robust. These are apt words Building Museum chief curator Howard Decker deployed the other day to characterize the Rural Studio works. And beautiful, he might have added. My, how beautiful these little buildings can be.
Take, for instance, the Bryant House, the studio's first building, completed in 1994. The house stands at the edge of an open field. With its stuccoed walls and steeply pitched porch roof, made with thin wooden beams supporting translucent sheets of corrugated plastic, the house looks as if it belongs precisely where it is.
And that's the beauty secret of the Rural Studio approach. In this and subsequent projects the young architects and their teachers -- Mockbee especially, but also Andrew Freear, who became co-director of the studio after Mockbee's death -- and others managed to catch something of the spirit of the vernacular buildings that dot the Hale County landscape.
At the same time, they did not replicate. Rather, by using everyday, mostly local materials in unusual ways and by subjecting the local vernacular to fresh interpretations, they come up almost every time with building forms that are at once familiar and surprising.
What a treat it must be, for example, to come unexpectedly upon the little Mason's Bend community center (completed in 2000) as you drive along a dusty back road. It's a low-lying barn, you might think, and yet it doesn't look quite like a barn. There's something a little sneaky or quirky about the way it rises from a low, red earth wall.
Naturally, you stop so you can figure it out, only to discover more splendid quirkiness. Part of the roof is sheathed with conventional barn-like metal sheets, and another part is covered with -- you pause here to scratch your head -- yes, those are automobile windshields, carefully overlapped.
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.