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The following review of the exhibition of the work of Auburn University's Rural Studio was published in e Oculus, 17 October 2005


The exhibition at the Joseloff Gallery of the University of Hartford presents an engaging overview of several of the realized projects of the Rural Studio program of Auburn University. The program was originally conceived by Samuel Mockbee as a way to teach architecture as a vehicle for great design, but also an expression of civic participation. The projects are represented here by basswood models produced by the original design teams and photographs of the projects under construction and after completion. The exhibition is organized around two pavilions and a projection room. The pavilions are representations of the material predilections of the Studio.

One, an "igloo" of hay bales, entered through a triangular entry reminiscent of the treasury at Mycenae, has an oculus at its top. In the opening, lavishly treated oak leaves hang from monofilaments, creating a dappled interior light.

The other pavilion has walls of cast off knitting yarn bound into bales with raw steel framed window openings in which models of the projects are presented. The bales of yarn offer as random a surface as one can imagine, but have been beat into a rectilinear geometry through obvious effort.

A characteristic of many of the completed projects is the inclusion of unusual materials - carpet tile walls, rammed earth common to road construction, automobile windows. These materials find their way into projects from a combination of several factors. There is an underlying interest in treading lightly on the land, in re-using where possible and re-conceiving where practical. Recycling is a common theme of our time of course, but in the projects of the Rural Studio, the assembly of the list of construction materials becomes another entrepreneurial task of the student teams. These donated and found materials expand the likelihood of success in unreasonably small budgets. The acceptance of the un-ordinary, the re-conceived, the original is a testament to the potential of a community of people with real needs and a desire for a comfortable, meaningful living experience.

Students in the first year of the five year program relocate to Hale County for a semester to design and produce a house for a needy family. Fifth year students spend the year on larger, more public projects. Currently, the Studio is involved with projects for a large public park, a dog shelter and a hospital. These would be significant commissions for any architect. In recognizing the benefit of aligning themselves with the program, Community leaders are creatively harnessing an unnamed subsidy in the form of the Auburn architecture program. The significance for the student is Samuel Mockbee's original desire to produce "citizen architects". The goal of the Rural Studio is to teach students how to make a life of architecture, to reach out to their communities with all their skills. Architecture is like that. It is widely ranging and only tends to feel its limits through its practitioners' need to manage its endless possibilities.

The rural studio exists in a world far from the overbearing energies of the metropolis. The work takes place in the economically dwindling environment of Hale County, Alabama.

It could be that this environment, without dominate economic overseer is ideal for this kind of pedagogical experiment. The endless latitude afforded architecture students in their consideration of design problems finds expression in the Rural Studio's connection to the problem of making and managing a building project. The problem is extended, the rules relaxed, the potential inflated. The politics of making are challenged on every level.

This is an exhibition of student work, but it is also a presentation of an understanding of the potential for the skills of an architect when the political, economic and cultural mechanisms of production can be controlled in an effective manner. The assumption that architecture can only come from grand budgets-that it can only be made for the sophisticated-that it must occur in important public settings-all are reconsidered. The answers given back are jarring, unsettling and breathtaking.

The exhibition continues 30 September - 6 November.