learning architecture


a PhD in live projects and architectural education

Sunday driving: the Rural Studio, Alabama

I’ve been clicking, double-clicking and scrolling my way through some of the back roads of Hale County, Alabama this weekend, having discovered that the Google Maps car has caught on camera some of the sites and buildings of the Rural Studio, the famous outreach of Auburn University….

A handful of famous projects are visible (that’s Newbern’s fire hall on the left of the view above) although the camera car has stuck mainly to highways and the occasional odd detour down a county road, perhaps when lost or trying to double back. Use this interactive map from American Public Media to plot your own journey.

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Reading: Patricio del Real in the JAE

It is the perennial fear of many mid- to late-stage PhD students that as the final submission deadline and viva approaches, one discovers that someone else has just finished a study identical in every form to your own, except better, as it inevitably would be. A slightly different sensation – and a far more positive one – is to discover early on in your work an article that just hits the spot by confirming a suspicion that has seeded some of the thought processes in your own work. I’ve had that experience this week, and I’m delighted.
A  buzzword around much of the contemporary discussion of architectural agency is alternative. This PhD is about things that are alternative and the latest issue (62-4) of the Journal of Architectural Education (JAE) has taken the theme of Alternative Architectures | Alternative Practices (I’ve learnt to realise that the vertical line between the two themes is one of those interchangeable special characters that are obligatory in the names of architecture conferences, urban interventionist co-operatives etc.) This is fertile ground. Eighteen months ago, in November 2007, we were treated to a superb symposium at my alma mater entitled Alternate Currents. I remain unconvinced that the words ‘alternate’ and ‘alternative’ were not accidentally confused during the planning stages, because the symposium’s broad selection of speakers confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are more than two ‘currents’. A few months later, in March 2008 in Houston, the ACSA hosted a ‘focus session’ at their annual meeting that formed the prelude issue 62-4 of the JAE published this month. Even before the current economic storm, their seemed to be healthy debate about what practices might be considered better than those found in the majority of the architectural profession.
So, as a doctoral candidate who is interested in alternative practices in architectural education, there is plentiful activity in the field to allow for open ended discussion. In their introduction to JAE 62-4, Michael Flowers, Judson Moore and Lori Ryker establish immediately that (my emphasis):
The consequence of the [ process of peer reviewing for the journal ] for us was a broadened discussion of what it means to operate in the margin of the Alternative, and how proposed alternatives respond in time to relevant issues identified by those who propose them … Regardless of the forces that drive an alternative, all are tied to evolving value systems and respond, explicitly or implicitly, to the existing center.
Always in flux, alteratives simultaneously operate between global and local conditions, developing universal and specific traits that characterize their identity and form their effective territory. For this reason, attempting a comprehensive definition of Alternative, as it relates to the practice of architecture, seems counter to the idea’s very nature. Instead, we have elected to behin with this simple statement: an alternative is something beyond convention.
Guess that scoffs at my early attempts at defining alternative practices (although nailing down the terminology has helped enormously in this occasionally waffle-tastic field of thought). This refusal to pin down any one definition of alternative practices does support the findings of the IYO Live Project of 2006, when it became apparent that different practices could only be satisfactorily defined by mapping them across a set of parameters. This introduces a much more helpful ‘DNA’ of comparative profiles of different aspects of alternative practices.
But I am interested in the notion that whatever makes a practice ‘alternative’, it must therefore relate to the value systems of the existing centre that is responds to.
About this time last month, I blogged this scan of a cartoon strip page I produced for my design studio during the first year of my M.Arch (RIBA part II). As an explanation to ‘who I was’ and what I was interested in and motivated by in my practice, I discussed the then fresh memories of a visit to Alabama and the internationally acclaimed Rural Studio of Auburn University’s School of Architecture. The second framed panel was a declaration of disappointment in what had (for myself and many Sheffield contemporaries) become a poster-boy for alternative practice in architectural education.
In the sleepy back roads of Alabama, I experienced a realisation of profound disappointment. This famous school of architecture engaged students with the building process, but had largely produced a body of uneconomic and impractical buildings that were still obsessed with being photogenic.
Chief amongst these disappointments were the vegetable stand on Alabama County Road 42 and the Glass Chapel in Mason’s Bend: two iconic structures that had been transmitted around the world as examples of a living, breathing humane pedagogy that brought architecture students out of the ivory tower and into the communities where the gift of architecture could change some of the poorest realities in America. Both were dilapidated and overgrown, disused and irrelevant and not populated, thriving community buildings as so artfully photographed in the books about the Rural Studio we had studied.
In “Ye Shall Receive” – The Rural Studio and the Gift of Architecture Patricio del Real writes about the Rural Studio in the terms of the relational economy of the gift, as described by Marcel Mauss (a new one for my reading list). Indicative of the risk that del Real is taking by criticising such a widely and highly regarded school of architecture is this segment:
Stepping outside the magic circle of the academy and into the community, the Rural Studio engages a collaborative practice that integrates knowledge and service. However, as its remarkable work demonstrates, the Rural Studio steps into the space of “the real” by casting the spell of architecture over the community, grounding its enchantment through ritual negotiations that reproduce elite values aimed at transforming the lives of common people. My intent is not to criticize the humanitarian efforts, the hard work, the generosity, the sincere desire to help the less fortunate, or the commitment to architecture as a social practice, but to expose the networks of values that the Rural Studio has grafted, for better of worse, onto that “place where the possible had nearly been forgotten.”
If the Rural Studio gives the gift of architecture to the people of Hale County, Alabama, what are they obliged to provide in return? Del Real explains that the very act of receiving the gift of architecture is the necessary reciprocation. An “asymmetrical relationship” has been established between students and benefactors, further victimising those who are already members of poor communities.
The impressive work of the Rural Studio develops hand-in-hand with the creation of an over-determined pre-Rural Studio landscape that insists on the narrative of failure, poverty, and historical imbalances, suffered by passive subjects. This process of victimization is easily captured and exemplified in the elderly, as if their lives had not been a constant and successful struggle for survival, but it extends to all who receive gifts. The pulsating demand for reciprocity hidden within any gift guides the incorporation and re-valorization of the fringe practices of the poor, as well as the spatial politics that govern these projects: visitors are always welcome. This is clear when one visits Mason’s Bend, and discovers that the homes of the poor are always open for ‘‘inspection’’ by the curious. But this tenuous property line becomes impenetrable in the Goat House 1998), defended from all incursions by its white, upper-class owners.
This observation certainly rings true with my experiences visiting the buildings constructed by Rural Studio students. A somewhat awkward obligation to welcome in visiting architectural pilgrims collided with the apparently personal contexts of the homes that had been built. Del Real admits this obliged openness with a startling turn of phrase.
The unease with which the furniture of “the poor” inhabit these houses clearly manifests the difficulty of ownership. This is especially poignant in the Lucy (Carpet) House (2002) where the naked concrete clashes with the plush couch in the family room or the baroque wooden dresser/vantiy collides with the jagged geometry of the bedroom tower. One has to roam inside thses houses to understand the limits of representation and see the rebellions against architecture orchestrated by their inhabitants.
The article is brilliantly constructed. As the product of a ‘fellow’ PhD candidate it’s a daunting contribution to an area of study that overlaps with my field. However it proposes a coherent argument that questions the value systems of an outwardly charitable design/build programme, and I anticipate others’ responses to it.

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About the project

learning architecture is an academic blog of James Benedict Brown, previously a doctoral candidate in architectural pedagogy at the School of Planning, Architecture and Civil Engineering at Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland. James passed his viva in September 2012 and graduated the following December.

About the author

James Benedict Brown has worked and studied in England, Northern Ireland, France and Canada. Following the completion of his PhD at QUB, he was appointed Lecturer in Architecture at Norwich University of the Arts. A short bio is here.

About the supervisors

The project is supervised by Prof. Ruth Morrow and Keith McAllister. Prior to his appointment at Qatar University in 2009, Prof. Ashraf Salama also supervised the project.


Click here for the bibliography to date.


Click here for a selection of peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed writing.


Click here for a glossary-in-progress of key terms used in the project.

Conference diary

Conferences and seminars of interest to the project.


All images are used for illustrative purposes only, and the copyright remains with the artist and/or creator. Please contact me if I have misappropriated an image or incorrectly credited it.


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