2015 Essay | Rural Studio: 22 Years of Designing and Building in West Alabama

2015 Essay | Rural Studio: 22 Years of Designing and Building in West Alabama

Rural Studio: 22 Years of Designing and Building in West Alabama

By Andrew Freear and Xavier Vendrell

  First Rural Studio Project. Smoke House
Mason Bend, AL, 1994

Rural Studio was founded in 1993 by architecture professors Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth. Putting into practice their philosophy that everyone deserves access to good design, they led a group of architecture students to rural West Alabama to give them a hands-on, educational experience, designing and building homes for an underserved population. Since 2001 the Studio, under the direction of Andrew Freear, has evolved toward more community-oriented projects across four counties. With a triple focus of community, housing, and food, the multi-year, multi-phase projects – such as the recently completed Newbern Library – continue the Rural Studio ethos of recycling, reusing, remaking and delighting in using local materials, while maintaining the belief that affordable, good design is important to all.

In establishing Rural Studio, Mockbee was convinced that architecture must have a strong ethical imperative to be meaningful. He believed architects should become leaders in bringing about environmental and social change, and called on them to place less emphasis on pleasing the rich and more on helping those who don’t have access to design services but need them. Mockbee wanted to supplant the predominantly theoretical “paper architecture” that was taught in most schools with hands-on teaching methods that included implementing designs on-site. For this initiative, Mockbee posthumously received the AIA Gold Medal, the greatest accolade in American architecture.

Twenty-one years and nearly 160 projects later, Rural Studio continues to educate citizen architects through a mixture of hands-on learning and a healthy dose of social and resource responsibility. The Studio’s rich existence in rural West Alabama is now rooted in building relationships and earning trust from their neighbors and friends in the community. Immersing themselves in West Alabama has afforded their students the opportunity to apply their skills as designers, while also learning about the nature, history, culture, economy, architecture and community in this unique educational landscape.

Rural studio is based in Newbern, Hale County. It is located in west-central Alabama, in an area of the state known as the Black Belt. Once known for its fertile soil, the region still retains its agrarian roots, though catfish ponds have now largely replaced cotton fields.  At present, Hale county includes four incorporated municipalities: Greensboro, Akron, Moundville and Newbern as well as a number of smaller communities. According to recent census figures, the population of Hale County is around 15,700. Of that number, around 2,500 live in Greensboro, the county seat, while Newbern has 186 residents.

Corrugated Cardboard Pot, Newbern, AL, 2001


Over the past twenty-one years Rural Studio has had a logical and necessary evolution. From its first built project, the Smoke House built in Masons Bend in 1994, to the Newbern Library completed on May 2015, what connects every project, and continues to connect evolving projects, is the place. The Rural Studio academic program, inspired by founder Samuel Mockbee whose inspiration was based on a deep knowledge of the place, embraces this natural evolution and provides answers to questions or situations that evolve over time; answers unique to the place, its community, and the ever-evolving needs of society-at-large. The Rural Studio academic program concerns itself with place, architecture, and society, all three of which are in a continuing state of flux.

Such a logical evolution transformed intuition and survival skills into research and rigor. Spontaneity was replaced by operating with an agenda. ‘Let’s do it, we can do it’ becomes ‘what should we do and how should we do it.’ The architect-cum-chef as sole creator becomes of a team working with a more complex and integrated blend of disciplines. Always, a deep knowledge of place drives the experience: that which comes from the heart at the beginning, to an understanding and reading of the place in the context of the here and now.  What’s called for today is different from what was being called for when Rural Studio was founded.

It has been stated that place is the connecting thread linking Rural Studio projects, but the evolution of its projects cannot be fully understood without an appreciation of the importance of transmitting knowledge from one project to the next, year in, year out. Every project is in some way the result of the experience, mistakes, and successes of all previous projects.

This evolution can only be understood as the studio has become embedded in the place and its community. Additionally, its endeavors contribute to the coherence of the place rather than create individual pieces of architecture.

The main goal for Rural Studio projects is to develop architecture for that particular place; to look at the context through contemporary eyes, keeping in mind that the Studio is creating architecture for everyday life; and that architecture becomes architecture when users take over. 



Lions Park Skatepark, Greensboro AL, 2009

Newbern Fire Station, Newbern AL, 2004



Andrew Freear, from Yorkshire, England, is Wiatt Professor at Auburn University Rural Studio. After the death of Samuel Mockbee, Andrew became Director of Rural Studio in 2002.  Moving to Alabama from Chicago sixteen years ago, he lives in the rural community of Hale County where his role, aside from directing Rural Studio, is project advisor to undergraduate students and their building projects. 

Xavier Vendrell has been collaborating with the Rural Studio as a consultant since 2003 and since fall 2013 he has been a visiting professor teaching the third year studio. He is a Professor at the School of Architecture, at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He studied architecture in Barcelona, where he has been practicing architecture since 1983. He founded in 1999 Xavier Vendrell Studio Chicago/Barcelona, a collaborative practice of architecture, landscape and design. 



Newbern Library, Newbern AL, 

completed in May 2015

Presented in conjunction with the SOFA CHICAGO special exhibit Rural Studio: 22 Years of Designing and Building in West Alabama, presented by Rural Studio, Auburn University, Newburn, AL; curated by Xavier Vendrell, Professor, Rural Studio, Auburn University and UIC with Andrew Freear, Professor and Director, Rural Studio, Auburn University, Mary English, Lecturer at Auburn University, and John Marusich, Rural Studio alum and architect at Wrap Architecture.

All photos by Timothy Hursley.

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