Food Feature: Studio time

Alabama's Rural Studio an exploration of form and culture

The smell is the first thing I notice as I walk in the door of the Bryant "Hay Bale" House. It's warm and dark inside, and I imagine it's what a bear's cave smells like. I retreat because of the overwhelming heat and stench to be cleansed by the breeze outside.

But this isn't a troglodyte dwelling. It's one of the centerpieces of Auburn University's Rural Studio program in Hale County, Ala. I followed women in khakis and pearls as they picked their way delicately through the muddy, red earth — the dirt road that leads to featured architectural gems such as the Hay Bale House.

Architect, teacher and visionary Samuel Mockbee (who died last December) started the studio, along with professor Dennis K. Ruth, as an extension of Auburn University's School of Architecture to improve the living conditions of rural Alabamians while also gaining hands-on experience for students.

Mockbee inspired a group of young people to turn away from the appeal of star-chitecture. Instead, he urged his students to focus on designing and building modest, innovative houses for the poor.

Sambo, as Mockbee was known, took the dilapidated land of the rural South, refashioned its refuse, and filled the area with new structures built from the old: windshield roofs, tire houses, butterfly porches. The vernacular of the destitute transformed into a mythical place with rammed, red earth and unfettered, naive hope. In his innovative studio, the coated cardboard used to pack catfish became walls. Old tires filled with standing water, once a breeding ground for mosquitoes, were packed with earth and coated with cement to become the walls of a chapel.

At the end of a school term, you can see what students have carved from the landscape over the past year. In Mason's Bend we investigate an under-construction "Carpet House" — its walls made from stacks of multi-colored carpet squares. It's a fantasy building next to a mobile home sinking into the mud.

To get to Mason's Bend we pass large rectangular water pits, catfish farms that line the rural roads. We later see a water tower in the town of Greensboro proclaiming it "Catfish Capital of Alabama."

Out front at the Hay Bale House sits an aging black woman, Alberta Bryant, beckoning visitors to step closer. "Come on inside!" she says cheerfully. Her husband, Shepard Bryant, sits like a wax dummy in his chair.

His home was the first completed by the Rural Studio in 1994 (the sum to build it, $15,000, covered by grants and donations). It gets its name from the 80-pound hay bales used for the substructure of the walls. The architecture students wrapped the bales with polyurethane, stacked them like bricks and then covered them with several coats of stucco to create inexpensive, insulated walls.

The house pops out of the green landscape with its yellow and blue porch and acrylic roof. It was supposed to be a study in minimalist shapes and colors. In a coffee table book featuring the building, pictures emphasize the clean, dramatic lines. The book explains the function of the shape as well — to provide natural ventilation to cool the house.

But the Bryants aren't living in a showpiece and experiments don't always succeed. They've adapted it in a more traditional style with parquet floors, silk flowers and bronze tchotchkes to fill the nooks and crannies. Heavy curtains block out the baking heat of the sun and trap the living smells of humans and heat to fester inside. A satellite dish points to the sky.

Outside, Bantam roosters roam and perch next door where the family once survived in a corrugated steel shack that has collapsed into muck and vines fight to rip the structure apart. I am embarrassed that I couldn't stand the smell of their current home when I see their former circumstances. I can't imagine living here. It's almost impossible to believe this is still the United States.

Down the road is the Harris "Butterfly" House, with its jutting, ventilated porch opening to the light like a butterfly's wings. Over the course of the day we see other cunningly designed homes, community centers and churches in the tiny towns of Hale County. Buildings that look like they are about to set sail or catch the wind and fly, a long way from the simple, cheap structures that an organization like Habitat for Humanity would build.

It's a trade-off some of the poorer citizens of Hale County seem to have made. Build us a home, and we'll be your guinea pig. When I asked the students if their designs were the best thing for the people living in them, they didn't know how to answer. "They're just happy to have something," one student retorted.

It's easy to see it that way. They are living in these oddly transplanted structures next to rusting cars parked permanently on front lawns and shacks with no plumbing or electricity. I wonder what children living in the Butterfly House say to the kids living in the Carpet House when visitors aren't around ooohing and aaahing.

But then I think about the windshield chapel, the Mason's Bend Community Center. The open-air pavilion is made of rammed earth walls made from the same red mud that sticks to our shoes. The fish-scale roof is constructed of 80 Chevy Caprice windshields pulled from a junkyard. The sun filters through the blue-tinged glass beaming into the open-air sitting area. It's not anything anyone ever asked for, or even knew they wanted. But, it's hard to wish it away.


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