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Rural Studio in Newbern, Alabama


With one of the largest amounts of Rural Studio alumni in one firm, it was only a matter of time before WJW visited Auburn University’s Rural Studio in Newbern, Alabama. We experienced first-hand how a small yet steadfast group of architecture students, along with their respected professors, have been transforming local communities through their hard work and dedication.

Day 1

Upon arriving in Birmingham one evening in early spring, we were greeted with a sight we had not witnessed in some time: trees with leaves, blooming flowers, and fresh cut grass.  As we embarked on our great southern odyssey, we immediately embraced the lifestyle and found the nearest BBQ joint before heading south to Greensboro, AL. Once there we found the two historic and charming antebellum Bed and Breakfasts we called home for a few days: The Johnston-Torbert House and the Poellnitz-Vick House.

Day 2

We kicked off the day touring around Morrisette House / Rural Studio’s headquarters and saw a handful of student projects around the campus including The Great Hall, the light commercial kitchen addition and vegetable storage building, the student Pods, the Passive Solar Greenhouse, and the newly built Fabrication Pavilion.  The Morrisette campus is also sprinkled with various mock-ups of student projects where the students can test ideas and construction techniques before implementing them in the community.

Our tour continued to the 20k model homes and on to Subrosa, which was the last project Rural Studio founder, Sambo Mockbee, was sketching before he passed away over a decade ago.  As we moved on to the Town Hall and Fire Station, we learned that Rural Studio has had a hand in building many of the municipal buildings currently in Newbern, including the recent conversion of an old bank into a public library.

In order to walk off our lunches of fried catfish sandwiches, hamburger steaks, and salads topped with a surprise serving of bacon, a trip to Perry Lakes Park was in order. There we visited three phenomenologically-inspired bathrooms and enjoyed the pavilion before heading across the cantilevered bridge and on to the bird watching tower. The tower sits adjacent to an Oxbow Lake with countless cypress trees draped in Spanish moss. The tower’s somewhat intimidating staircase winds you up into and through the tree branches, allowing you to slowly emerge above the canopy; offering a unique and beautiful view of the luscious landscape.

Our project tour ended with a visit to the Boys & Girls Club of Greensboro, which is one of the largest projects the studio has built in its history.  This unique facility provides an interactive and inspiring place for children to spend their afternoons.

We finished off the busy day of touring by returning to Morrisette house where we had dinner with the students that featured produce grown in the greenhouse. After eating and socializing with the students and staff, WJW shared insights of our work though an engaging lecture.

Day 3

We spent the morning doing studio reviews with the current 5th year students for a supportive housing facility & a clubhouse courtyard for Project Horseshoe Farm and the 22nd version of the 20k house.

After lunch at the local Mexican restaurant, we went to the Safe House Black History Museum. Theresa Burroughs, who was a foot soldier during the Civil Rights Movement, gave us a powerful tour of the Museum, sharing her remarkable stories about hiding Martin Luther King Jr. in the house.  Following the Safe House tour, we made lots of furry friends at the Hale County Animal Shelter and ventured over to Lions Park where we saw the ten phases of projects completed.

To cap off an amazing day we met up with the Rural Studio faculty at the Faunsdale Bar and Grill where we feasted on all of the crawfish they had to offer!

Day 4

On our last day in Alabama, we met up with architect Dick Hudgens who generously gave us tours of two Antebellum homes in Demopolis, AL called Gaineswood & Bluff Hall. To wrap up our southern odyssey, we traveled back to Birmingham where we stopped by Good People Brewing and explored Railroad Park in the heart of downtown Birmingham.

Chicago welcomed us back home the only way it knows how: with gusting frigid winds and the constant effervescent sounds of city life that we had almost forgotten while in rural Alabama. The crawfish had all been eaten, the t-shirts and shorts had to return to their closets for another few weeks, but the whimsical yet meticulous nature of Rural Studio will continue to inspire and mold our future work for years to come.