For architect Samuel Mockbee (1944-2001), place-based education was a the center of his life and work as an artist.
Mockbee’s work is often referred to as the Architecture of Decency, where he believes that smart, avant-garde architectural design should not be something reserved for the upper echalons of New York or L.A., but instead should be used to better the lives of the American population who need it most.
Because of his strong belief in the social importance and implications of architecture, he believed that an architecture student cannot learn about the complexity of their social role unless they leave the abstract classroom and learn about how their practice works in the fibers of the larger community. As a professor at Auburn University, in 1993 Mockbee created the Rural Studio, an off-campus study opportunity for Sophmore Architecture and Thesis students as a way to show how good architecture can be used to impact and change the local community, rather than merely being reserved for the elite.
The Mission Statement of the Rural Studio program is:
To enable each participating student to cross the threshold of misconceived opinions to create/design/build and to allow students to put their educational values to work as citizens of a community. The Rural Studio seeks solutions to the needs of the community within the community’s own context, not from outside it. Abstract ideas based upon knowledge and study are transformed into workable solutions forged by real human contact, personal realization, and a gained appreciation for the culture.
With this in mind, in this program sophomore architecture students from Auburn University spend the semester away from campus living in Hale County, and other rural and impoverished parts of the state of Alabama. Working with other community organizations in the area, Mockbee, and now his team, identifies families in need of housing, and it becomes the work of the students to build houses around the needs and aesthetic desires of the family, for the smallest amount of money as possible. Under these conditions, students are immersed in the community and collaborate directly with their clients, come up with strong, innovative designs with very low cost materials, and are then responsible for carrying out all of the construction work that is usually only an abstract concept for many architecture students. Each year the undergraduate students involved in the program design and construct a house, while Thesis students work on community focused structures including chapels, Boys and Girls clubs, community centers etc. To date the Rural Studio has completed over 80 projects in Western Alabama.
Projects created by the Rural Studio must organically arise out of what the community itself identifies as needs, and the must students work to bring these projects about. Working with a limited budget, students must rely on community resources and often uses salvaged materials such as street signs, pipes, hay bales, cardboard, and even car windshields to complete structures. The intended result is to create culturally appropriate, socially and environmentally conscious buildings to benefit these rural communities.
The Rural Studios website explains:
“Mockbee once said that ‘Everybody wants the same thing, rich or poor … not only a warm, dry room, but a shelter for the soul’. The Rural Studio epitomizes that aspiration. Working from this ideal, students enrolled in the Rural Studio are exposed to the concept of ‘context based learning’ where they actually live in and become a part of the community in which they are working. It is through this process that they learn the critical skills of planning, design, and building in a socially responsible manner.”
The NPR Program “Speaking of Faith” ran a piece about the work of the Rural Studio. The show’s website includes great information about the Rural Studio including slide shows, audio, video clips of various projects, and interviews. To view the “Speaking of Faith” site click here.
It is interesting to consider the model of the Rural Studio as a way to develop similar kinds of learning experiences for students in the urban art classroom.
- How can we create “real world” art making experiences for our students so that it becomes more meaningful?
- How can we encourage our student’s to view art making as something that could help to directly strengthen the community?
- In the way that Mockbee believes that his students benefit from having to complete the entire construction process of their projects, how can we use technical skills to empower our students?
- How can we create opportunities for students to leave their geographic comfort zone and have the chance to collaborate with people different from them?
Oppenheimer Dean, Andrea. Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency. New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c2002 (Book)
Moos, David. Trechsel, Gail. Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio: Community Architecture. Birmingham, Ala. : New York, NY : Birmingham Museum of Art ; D.A.P./Distributed Art Publishers, c2003. (Book)
Documentary on the Rural Studio: Rural Studio Film, http://www.ruralstudiofilm.com/launch.html
Interview with Samuel Mockbee, from BOMB Magazine: http://www.bombsite.com/issues/75/articles/2380
Gallery Images from flickr user Samuelmockbeedotcom: http://www.flickr.com/photos/samuelmockbeedotcom/