As you drive the two-lane highway into Newbern in the heart of the Alabama Black Belt, you might experience a massive shift in your perception.
There is something different about the architecture of the buildings downtown. I use the term “downtown” loosely to describe a handful of buildings along state Highway 61.
Those buildings, including a city hall, a fire station, a library and a few others, look uncommon, unconventional, exotic and almost idiosyncratic.
Some are covered with brick and mortar, others with old sheets of metal. To view these iconic structures can be best described as an out-of-this-world experience.
“That is the reason you go to college, not to make more money, but to gain the knowledge to make this a better world.” Sambo Mockbee
Welcome to the Rural Studio, a program of the Auburn School of Architecture. Since its inception in 1993 by architects Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee and D.K. Ruth, the studio has become renowned the world over for providing students with a unique learning experience, while offering affordable and inspirational homes to the residents of Hale County and the surrounding poor communities. More than 150 have been completed, half of which are private while half are public. One-third of Hale County residents live below the poverty line, and the Rural Studio has become one of the only ways they can afford a well-built home.
“It’s not about your greatness as an architect, but your compassion.” Sambo Mockbee
United Kingdom-born architect Andrew Freear now leads the studio. He took the helm after Mockbee’s death in 2001 from leukemia. Freear sat with me last week to talk about what drives him to live in Hale County year after year.
“The studio has become a great opportunity as well as a responsibility for the community. There is nobody else able to do the work so we have to figure out how to do it. The students work with the community to raise money and to help them understand how these projects will be used, and then how to fund the projects and hopefully make them sustainable in the long term,” Freear said.
“As an artist or an architect, I have the opportunity to address wrongs and try to correct them.” Sambo Mockbee
Freear enjoys seeing an idea birthed in the students’ minds, then go all the way to a living building that houses a family in need. He leads the students from idea to concept, then to actually designing and building the project.
“The students get really involved in all of the projects. The library you just saw, the students were here technically nine months but stayed for two years after that. It’s a remarkable commitment,” Freear said.
“For me, it’s the act of drawing that allows the hand to come into accord with the heart.” Sambo Mockbee
Touring a few of the projects, I found some students working near their dormitories, which looked like they came out of a picture book. I asked one of them what it meant to be a part of the Rural Studio. After the “Wow – that has so many layers to it,” Julie Long continued: “It is being a part of an educational system where we learn how to put together projects. Then there is the element of designing buildings for people who need them and otherwise wouldn’t have them. It’s about being a part of something bigger, something beyond architecture school and the studio.”
“Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul.” Sambo Mockbee
The Rural Studio has been featured in media outlets such as Fast Company, Architectural Design, Detail, The Huffington Post, and Alabama Living to name a few. The awards it has received are way too many to list, but perhaps this one sums things up:
“In celebration of two decades of forging lasting ties between the program’s students and the people of Alabama; as together they develop real solutions that have healed communities, while teaching rising generations of architects the value of listening carefully to the needs and dreams of those they would serve. The great work of the Studio shows that, more than skill in draftsmanship, design excellence is compassionate when sweat is shared in the struggle to make a positive difference in the quality of peoples’ lives.” – American Institute of Architects Presidential Citation.
As I drove out of Newbern at the end of the day, one thought lingered: The Rural Studio not only teaches students architecture and provides affordable housing for poor people, it touches the souls of everyone who encounters it – including this one.
Alabama Bright Lights captures the stories, through words, pictures and video, of some of our state’s brightest lights who are working to make Alabama an even better place to live, work and play. Award-winning photojournalist Karim Shamsi-Basha tells their inspiring stories. Email him comments, as well as suggestions on people to profile, at [email protected]