I received a book recently called Rural Studio (Princeton Architectural Press), which outlines and illustrates the work of the late Samuel Mockbee. The subtitle is ‘An Architecture of Decency’, which is obviously trying to claim the higher moral ground. Ignoring this aspect, both the book and the work are splendid.
Mockbee and his students from Auburn University worked for 10 years on houses and community buildings for the residents of Hale County, Alabama. When I tell you that the materials they used are, among others, salvaged timber and bricks, discarded tyres, concrete rubble and old licence plates, you might think they were a bunch of ageing hippies still thumbing through the Whole Earth Catalogue; which, even if it were true, would not detract from some extraordinary work.
The hippy movement did change things and, in part, re-evaluated the traditional view of lifestyle. Here, in this architecture and education project, we are confronted by direct action which has benefited a community enormously - an endeavour that we do not readily associate with our image of the late 1970s and ’80s, when yuppies closed their eyes to anything else but their own bank account.
We know the ambience of Hale County through Walker Evans’powerful photographs and James Agee’s descriptions of sharecroppers in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men from the 1930s. The Rural Studio deals with poverty and the poor. Not many architects do. This is not a project about housing problems or building systems or industrial processes, it is about producing dignified residences that allow people’s existing lifestyles to be enhanced.
The Bryant (Hale Bay) House of 1994 is a simple rectilinear structure with an enormous porch. It is clear that the family live on the porch, which makes the box simply a retreat for sleeping, cooking and storage. The porch is given shelter, containment and shade by an oversized monopitch of corrugated translucent plastic, which sails high above the enclosure of the house in a surprising and beautiful way. The book illustrates the porch after completion and also six years on, where we see an extraordinary assemblage of interesting detritus which personalises the space. Not a Conran piece of taste in sight.
One of the most intriguing structures is the Yancy Chapel from 1995. The construction is like a passage that sucks the visitor in and leads to a stream inside which is crossed over.
The walls are made of rammed earth in old tyres, primed together with reinforcement rods and rendered. This leaves a surface of extreme lumps and bumps, which, if you didn’t know it was composed of tyres, would appear as a beautiful texture in contrast with the deformed pitched roof. The cost was $15,000.
These are just two of many examples of an architecture that cannot be categorised. It is evolved on the spot. It is architecture dependent on available materials, with decisions being made as you proceed. In this respect it is slightly closer to the processes involved when making a sculpture. The artwork has no drawings, it is fabricated on the hoof, and when work is finished for the day it is what it is. Tomorrow it could change radically.
Architecture is the only art that has to predict the future by any means it can, through approximations of possible form and content.
Some would say this is the nature of the subject, differentiating it from other arts; I would prefer to work closer to the artist’s model through a process of delayed decision making, but that is highly unpopular with project managers.
In the meantime, buy the book.
WA, from the Malmaison Hotel, Leeds