In our final guest-hosted episode, researcher and designer Josh Wasserman from episode 44, talks to Andrew Freear, Director of Rural Studio, part of the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture of Auburn University. Freear lives in a small rural community in Hale County, West Alabama, where for twenty years he has directed this unique architecture program where students design and build community buildings, homes, and landscape projects for under-resourced local towns and non-profit organization.
Freear explains how the project has evolved over the years, and is a unique experience where the students live and work in-situ and are responsible for all aspects of the design and build process including liaison with community partners, local authorities, and those who will be using or living in the buildings.
Andrew Freear is the J. Streeter Wiatt Professor and Director of Rural Studio. He was educated at the University of Westminster and the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. He has designed and built exhibits for the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Whitney Biennial, the Museum of Modern Art, the Milan Triennale, and the Venice Biennale. His honours include the Ralph Erskine Award, the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture, and the Architecture Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Freear was a 2018 Loeb Fellow at Harvard University and in 2020 received the President’s Medal from the Architectural League of New York.
Connect with Josh Wasserman on LinkedIn
- We’re here to educate architecture students and help them get a good design education.
- Architecture students get to not only design their projects, but they get to build their projects.
- There’s a responsibility to make sure that you are building something that will be here a long time.
- In the late nineties we built a house out of carpet tiles.
- We asked ourselves could we come up with an affordable home that anyone and everybody could afford.
- We bring young folks into a place like this and they bring energy and it breaks down some boundaries. class boundaries, race boundaries, misconceptions about this place.
- We have ambitious students who want to, save the world and you can’t come to a place like this and tell people how to live their lives.
- I think we should care about the craft of things. We should care about the way things are put together. And from concept to compete completion. It’s a richer world if it’s that way.
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Andrew Freear Transcription
[00:00:00] Sue: , I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to the Access to Inspiration podcast. We are on a social mission to encourage you to reflect on the world differently and be inspired by people who may be un unlike you.
And I’m excited today that we have another of our guest hosted episodes where I get to take a backseat and introduce one of the people we have already featured on the podcast to be the host today. It’s Josh Wasserman, who was our guest on episode 44 when he was talking about the role of observation in design. And today he’s interviewing somebody that inspires him. Welcome back to the podcast, Josh.
[00:00:37] Josh: Thank you, Sue. Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure to be back and I, I’m really excited to be able to interview someone who is part of an organization that has actually inspired me from years and. This is Andrew Freear from the Rural Studio, and I will leave it up to him to explain more about what the Rural Studio is and does. But first of all, I don’t think Andrew actually knows this, I discovered the studio actually over 10 years ago when I was traveling across the us and
[00:01:15] Andrew: Hmm.
[00:01:15] Josh: it was from a tip off from a local artist who I think you’ll know, called Butch Anthony. And after a wonderful stay with Butch, he suggested that I go and visit the Rural Studio. And so off I went and I arrived at the point where he said I would find it and I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for. And I looked around and I asked around, I didn’t get much help, but I persevered in my curiosity and my nosiness finally got me to some structures. And so it wasn’t a formal introduction by any means. I was inspired by what I saw. And since then I’ve, I think I’ve continued to be inspired by the studio’s response to the community in which it was founded. And I’d like to talk to you more to hear about what your philosophies are and what the aim of the studio is. And so maybe start off with Andrew. You could introduce yourself and, and explain what Rural Studio is, where is it, What does it aim to achieve?
[00:02:40] Andrew: Okay. Well thank you both. I’m honored to be here. Talking to y’all. I’m a Yorkshireman born and bred for my sins. And 23 years ago was asked to participate in this program. As you said, it’s called Auburn University Rural Studio.
It’s a program of Auburn University and it’s part of the School of Architecture and it was established 30 years ago next year by a couple of professors. Samuel Mockbee and DK Ruth. And fundamentally, it tries to get students out of the kind of academic ivory tower and get them to engage with real people. We’re here to educate architecture students and help them get a good design education. And the things that we’ve managed to do in Hale County are kind of, I hope, quite lovely byproducts of that work.
So unlike a normal architectural education here, , basically 30 years ago , these two professors decided that they’d take a group of students to a kind of underserved underserviced part of West Alabama and see if it could help with quote unquote real projects. And it started out very much under the kind of welfare radar, helping folks who, who weren’t being helped by the social services and providing housing.
And there’s a number of design build programs around the world, but in this case, architecture students get to not only design their projects, but they get to build their projects. And so, Essentially we’re using the students designs and that energy to support this local community.
I was in London and Chicago before this and so to go from sort of very urban to very rural, I hate the suburbs. So Auburn university itself is actually three hours east of here and very, very suburban. And so to come out here it’s rural we’re on the western edge of the. civil Rights Triangle, as I call it, we’re about 45 minutes west of Selma, so Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham, and 15 minutes to the East is Marion, Alabama, where Coretta Scott King was born. So this place was very much one of the foundation roots of the civil rights movement out here. It’s still there. And we sort of live with that every day, but the rural roots of the movement were very much in a place like this.
And I think this particular program because it’s been here for 30 years we’ve become really embedded. I hope we’ve become trusted as a neighbor. It’s one of those things where there are programs like this, but they tend to sort of helicopter in. So they might go somewhere else in the world and, build a clinic or build some housing, but then they leave.
And then the difference here is that we essentially have gone into the backyard of the university we live here, I live here, my staff live here, the teachers live here, the students live here. And we’ve stayed in one place and I think we’ve got to know. the local municipalities the local politicians, and I think they’ve simply seen us as a resource. We started out doing houses and 10 years in they started to realize that we could do other things. So we started out with parks, small chapels, churches, and have worked with all sorts of organizations from the County Hospital to Boys and Girls clubs, built town halls, fire stations, variety of different things.
And really just been up kind of opportunistic. And never at any point said, no, we can’t do that. And always tried to figure out a way to do it. I think we wouldn’t be doing the work out here if somebody else was doing it. So yeah, I think from an, an educational point of view, it ups the ante for an architecture student. Instead of having a conversation with a professor across the desk, and he suggests you change it to be quote unquote more rigorous. The rigor here is that I’m gonna end up building it. I am gonna end up building it, and I wanna make sure it doesn’t leak and that it’s beautiful, right?
So that’s really the aspiration. And we we’re an undergraduate program, so we have typically about 1250 year architecture students and about and they’re here, they’re basically here to do a project, so they can be here anything from nine months to two or three years. You can’t really build a town hall or a fire station in, in nine months.
And so we spend about nine months. Getting to a point where we can start building. So we rely on those folks volunteering at the end of their time to do the project that is at hand. And we, we kind of voluntarily support ’em to do that. So it’s a kind of a social agreement between us and the students and the community.
And so you engage with a community through a project, like Newbern Library for example. Started the four ladies, five ladies came to me and were kind of bulldogging this idea of a library because there’s little kind of afterschool programs around here and no broadband internet.
And they said, we want to get broadband into the center of town or an offer afterschool programs the kids. And so that was three years in the fermentation process. And then, like 2013, we were able to hand it to a student team who gave the design and the building some legs. So we converted the old bank of Newbern into beautiful little library that I think people are blown away by.
So yeah, it’s the rigor is that, that somebody’s gonna live in this, somebody’s gonna use this. So it ups the ante in terms of the game that is played. It’s not game anymore. It’s real. And the other challenge is that typically the fifth years are working in teams of four.
So what you see on the website is projects that are built by teams of four. And they really grow up cuz they’re, they, they run meetings with clients, they run meetings with consultants. They’re running the project, they’re running the budget, they’re raising money.
Newbern Firehouse, they help the community raise a hundred thousand dollars in materials, donations for the project. So they become very entrepreneurial. But it’s a nice way to engage with the community when you’ve got a joint project to go for. But all the projects come from within the community.
It’s not us saying you need a library. It’s the folks in the community coming to us and saying, how can we work together to make this library happen? So, currently we have four, we have a library board that has four teachers on it, high school teachers. And so they’re the ones that are really tuned into what’s the best way for us to help. So we give legs to ideas basically locally.
[00:09:46] Josh: I thought that was fascinating and brilliant actually. And my work as a designer and design researcher my experiences of design research is that immersion imagining yourself in the setting, in the culture, in the society of the people that I’m designing with is by far the most impactful technique the difference is that you are doing it day in, day out.
[00:10:15] Andrew: well, you’re really never not at work, I suppose. The feedback, it’s amazing. I mean we’ve done over 200 projects in about a 20 mile radius. They’re scattered. It’s not particularly obvious, but maybe some of the designs are obvious when you see them.
But the feedback loop’s remarkable. Of course, if you do great, you don’t hear anything about it. But if you screw up, you definitely hear about it. But from an architect’s point of view as a teacher, to have this kind of catalog of buildings at the beginning here, every year we go choose some and we just walk around them and the gloves come off.
Cuz it’s like, you can tell where you did. Okay. And the building projects are only a very small part of it. Supporting the organizations financially, culturally, emotionally. That’s the biggest challenge in a place like this. It’s not just the initiators of the organizations or the initiators of the project, but it’s sort of second and third generation that are important because the first ones they get worn out by starting it and instigating it, but then who takes it on after that, particularly in voluntary organizations like the Newbern Library.
So we’ve been really lucky with the Newbern Library they were very clever and smart. They started out with a very clear academic and, reading goals and and reading, teaching, bringing resources into the community. And now it’s been successful enough that they’re able to modify the scope of their ambition and say, We really want to be a center of the community, be a community center.
And you can do that over time when you get, start to get buy-in from people as well. But it’s always tricky the transitions from groups that do well. And so it’s a sign curve, it goes up and down. Sometimes it’s doing great. Sometimes it’s not doing not so good. And the, scarcity of resources out here is really tough.
I mean, it just, drives me crazy that co it somebody could drop the $25,000 that it costs to run this little community library. Like, just like that. And all the time these ladies are scuttling around trying to raise grant money and this, that, and another to help the place. and there’s enough wealth in a country like this. That company, somebody could write that check very easily forever, you know? And maybe they will one day. But yeah, the, longevity, the sustainability of organizations is, in lots of respects, much more difficult than the architecture. The architecture and the buildings the easy part, and we don’t want to just kind of build it and they will come. You’ve really gotta try to help make sure those organizations have got their act together and they know what they’re getting themselves into.
[00:12:58] Josh: Resources is an area I definitely wanna talk to you about. I, I hadn’t considered the financial side of it. I suppose I was more thinking the material side of it. Cause that was something that. Witness when I, when I visited was, was this amazing use of perhaps would be waste materials. And I found that fascinating. But maybe before we get to that, it’s quite a big question, I guess, but how has Rural Studio changed from its inception in 93 to, when San and De Ruth co-founded the studio
[00:13:33] Andrew: Well, I think you know, I hope it’s kind of moved with the times. , right at the very beginning, it was very much, it was really a place that scavenged materials. And, it got well known for good or for bad for recycling lots of different and strange looking materials.
And I think the truth of the matter is that between six and 10 years in, when, when I, when I showed up and we started to be asked to do community projects, the truth of the matter is that at that point you can’t really, if you’re looking to help sustain a community organization, you can’t be building things that are built out of materials that you’re not clear of, of what the longevity will be. Right? So there’s a responsibility there to, to make sure that you are building something that will be here a long time and that also, that the locals can maintain and that, I think we started to learn the hard way from that . So we asked ourselves, can we, can we bring the delight and the invention by simply using wood?
I mean, we’re, we’re right. Slap bang in the bread basket of the timber industry of the United States. It’s the most sustainable way to build locally and renewable and screws the plant up the least. And so shouldn’t we be building out of wood instead of kind of strange and wacky looking things? And, if you do that, people can also fix it themselves rather than building it out of something that’s necessarily strange.
So I think in some respects it was responsibility. It was really more, in our view, more sustainable. I we built our in. In the late nineties, we, we built a house out of carpet tiles for amazing house out of carpet tiles for Lucy Harris. That’s remarkable. And, it’s these stacked carpet tiles that has incredible insulation value and really good thermally. But you know, it’s also in an area that gets lots of tornadoes come through there. And, and every time they come through I’m like crossing my fingers cuz , if that thing gets hit, the, they’re not gonna be able to fix that themselves. And so there’s some responsibility for that. We take in, in kind of, you gotta be careful of the thing that you help people with.
Right. And, and so I think we’ve learned the hard way through that. There was lots of invention and creativity, but the restrictions are actually better sometimes, and that’s where it really asks you to be creative and inventive.
So we very much moved towards wood and I think it, it is really honestly just been a responsibility that we, instead of it being what, what can we do? It’s like more today, it’s what should we do? I mean, we’ve been here 30 years, we’ve got a legacy of projects. We can’t be the maintenance man on all of those projects, and we want people to take ownership of a house or a home or a building and be able to fix it themselves.
That’s really it. And there’s lots of other ways to be creative instead of with strange materials. So I would argue is where the studio is gone. . In about 2003 I also, with our house projects, we were doing a single house for a single family, and the house was always about a particular family and frankly, quite idiosyncratic.
And, and at that moment, I, started to get frustrated that there wasn’t a building of knowledge. And right at that time I the landscape was transitioning from shacks into trailer homes and these trailer homes they’re, they’re financed like an automobile and they last about as long as an automobile.
So people are getting ripped off with these things, so I’m not, They’re neither better nor worse than a shack. In some respects, they’re worse than a shack. Cause at least the shack will fall into the ground and disappear. The trailer, they’re built with questionable materials.
They’re dimensions so that they can be taken down the road. And so we said, you know, could we come up with an affordable home that, a home that everyone, any, anyone and everybody could afford? At that time, we put the price tag of $20,000 on it because that was about a hundred dollars a month in rent or in mortgage. And we’ve been working on that ever since. And every year we build one or two of these houses as prototypes. And four years ago we established a thing called the Front Porch Initiative, which is now actually building these houses all across the Southeast and we’ve got 12 different partners that are building these homes.
So for me, it’s incredible that we can test something here. We can give it to one of our neighbors, we can see how well it works. The next year we can change it a little bit. And now we’ve got half a dozen of these models that, that our front Porch initiative is actually working with organizations from Nashville to New Orleans building these things.
So for me it’s like, that’s kind of goosebumps that are a, a little, Tim pot little organization in the middle of nowhere can actually have that kind of impact. And that was cause Fannie Mae who basically manages the mortgages for the United States they have a kind of mortgage product for rural condition, but no prototypical housing.
And we’re like, okay. And it was odd for us that they would come to us, that we’re the only game in town that’s considering rural housing. This seems outrageous. So I think we’ve started, because we’ve been in one place, it’s not only the place, but it’s also kind of rural issues.
Systemic, rural issues. Whether it’s insecurity of food, housing, housing’s, number one, we’ve always been, a, a housing based organization. Cuz it doesn’t matter if you’ve got the rest, I think we believe that good housing is sort of a, a basic human right, frankly.
We’re now, we’re working with an organization trying to figure out how to deal with waste water because the dirt, the ground around here doesn’t perk very well. So you end up with sewage sitting on the surface. Access to housing loans. There’s a myriad of really complicated issues that are out there.
Air property, who owns property? I mean, it is just, it’s so complicated that we’ve had to say, we, I think as, as the Rural studio needs to be a voice for the rural and say what these issues are. And, and I think that’s because we’ve been here for 30 years. That’s, that’s given us legitimacy from that point of view.
My pitch is in some respects that the rural condition in a place like the United States has been really treated like as, as a colony. I mean this is an extraction landscape. Things are taken from here and very little is given back. And that is such a short term attitude towards this place.
It’s the bread basket for the cities. So if you look at, the demographic maps of the United States, the black belt, the colonials, the Mississippi Delta, all extraction, little given back, and guess where all the poverty is, right? In those places, there’s no accident. It’s all been by design, and it’s a shame that it couldn’t be understood as being a little bit more symbiotic. I mean, there’s 70 million people living in the rural condition that’s remained at 70 million for the last 120 years. So rural isn’t dying, it’s just city has gone up through the roof. The urban condition has gone through the roof, but they’re still taking from these places. So, and I think it’s shortsighted. I mean, there’s, many issues with the world. I don’t know that this is the biggest issue, but maybe it leads to the political situation that we’ve got that there’s a lot of people feel that they’re disenfranchised.
So I mean, locally I can tell you that they don’t really think it makes much difference whether the Republicans or the Democrats are in charge in Washington. Cause Washington feels so far away. And that’s tough in a country that is this big. But generally folks here would like decent internet and good healthcare and decent housing, all the things that you want in cities.
It’s not that much of a mystery. My internet, my house, I have this dashboard that the internet provider gives me. And it proudly states that my internet service is 1140% slower than the national average will be due. . Isn’t that great? , I think the pandemic proved that if you have good connectivity, you can live in these places.
And people actually were interested in living in these places. And there’s great creativity and vitality and, I think the other thing that I always wonder is like, why Josh, from, from your point of view, it’s like, I, I was having a conversation with somebody the other day and sort of wondering why the sort of a lack of imagination for the rural condition, and particularly from a design point of view, it’s like, why is design considered like an urban thing?
It can’t be for rural. Like, why is that? And it’s like, is that just a kind of subconscious thing? We like to think that, you know, we bring young folks into a place like this and they bring energy and it, it breaks down some boundaries. class boundaries, race boundaries, misconceptions about this place.
And and that I think it’s a good thing. The world is full of these bubbles at the moment so the news is what I want and what I want to be fed. And it’s all from the people that I agree with. And here I, I don’t agree with most of my neighbors. What we have to get on, we have to communicate. And that, I think that’s a good thing, it feels like I’m not in a bubble, although they’re all studios kind of a liberal bubble, of course. We all want to save the world and do good and all of that. But it is interesting for me to come to be from here. And how sort of little is known about the rural condition? Three or four years ago, I was invited to go to Harvard to do a fellowship. And it seemed like I was invited as the kind of the rural guy. It was like, what’s that?
[00:23:47] Josh: This is great, and I’ve got too many questions , to cover in the time that we’ve got, but everyone’s ideas that I’m trying to get my head around. And one of them is I’m sitting here thinking, do Arch Architectural Studios work like that here? Do they work like that in London? And I don’t know the answers to that and I don’t think I have the right question, but it’s around growth and where you are situated and still got a low population and that belt across the states has maintained, as you said, the same population for a very long period of time. And as a designer. To, to answer a little bit about your question before a lot of my work comes from cities, especially hyper-growth cities and, fast developing countries around the world
[00:24:42] Andrew: Mm
[00:24:43] Josh: because I think this is money grow. There’s more people, money, taxation, if Rural studio’s goal is not to enable first growth, what happens if suddenly your community starts growing rapidly? Can you still. Support it and how does that change? And if not, then what are these core values that you feel that you can bring to a community, whether, whether it sort of grows or not.
[00:25:20] Andrew: Well, I think, we would probably fundamentally say that people in place really matter that that’s what matters most in the world. I think. I one of the things that’s happened with the kind of the industrialization of agriculture and the industrialization of food production is , our little towns are now scattered and dotted with fast food restaurants and so they’ve lost a lot of their identity cuz a lot of identities brought kind of through food and the way that it’s served and presented. When we go to Italy, we like going to Italy because we go to a different town and the food’s different in the town and it’s, cuz it’s grown around the town and that’s incredibly culturally rich.
And I think there was much more of that here a hundred years ago or 50 years ago. And that’s been lost I don’t know that anybody can do anything about that, but I think recognizing it should be, at least is, is important. I don’t think our work would end if people started to come and live here. I do hope that as an organization we can open the eyes of people to the, kind of the richness of a place like this and to respect it. We have ambitious students who want to, save the world and you can’t come to a place like this and. Tell people how to live their lives can’t be patronizing. So I, I think our attitude here, is, is a, it’s a kind of slow burn, small victories. So we are supporting the local institutions and respecting the character and the people of the place. When I go to a lot of community meetings around here, there’s always talk about bringing industry in.
And , I think these places could just, could simply build on the quality of life that they have without necessarily having to have industry come in and change the tax base. I think it’s sort of recognizing that what is inherently good about a particular place. I mean, we have. We have an incredible local hospital here that is totally bucking the trend of rural hospitals, and it’s nothing to do with the Rural studio, it’s nothing to do with that.
It’s got an administrator who cares deeply about the hospital and the services that they can provide, and has really tried to understand what role that they can have in a local community. They’re the second largest employer in the county, so it’s hugely important. And they’ve tailored their offerings, particularly in things like physical therapy to be able to compete with institutions in Tuscaloosa or in Birmingham, where people would drive here to a place 50 miles or 90 miles away and you can say, look, their mantra is neighbors helping neighbors.
You can come here, you know the person that’s gonna help you. Let’s, let’s offer you comfort and help through that. And their messaging is dead on, and they’re more than surviving. I think they’re thriving. So your questions a tough one.
I think we’re trying, trying to support the essence of the place. The implications of growth is good, is kind of growth can be bad. Our capitalist society means that we’re always trying to push the prices down. Well, if I get, if I get a lot of people moving in here, guess what’s gonna happen?
Land prices will go up, house prices will go up, and then we lose the people that we’re trying to work with. And so it changes the community drastically. And it’s an odd thing, and I think I can say this, it’s like our school system has a terrible reputation. and I think that’s stopping a lot of folks coming and living here just cuz it has a bad reputation.
I don’t agree with the reputation whatsoever cuz my daughter was in there and I thought it was fantastic. But it has meant, I think that, that we haven’t had people coming in and changing the demographic drastically. And I actually, I think that’s a good thing, cuz I, I lived in Chicago in the mid nineties and I lived in neighborhoods where it was like a swarm of locusts came through.
The locals who moved out buildings came down, changed very quickly. For me, in a place like this, what’s really valuable and beautiful is a kind of collective memory that you have in local structures we’ve worked really hard on this library to change it from being a much loved little physically white building. That was the old town bank that everybody loved. And I think when they heard Rural Studio was gonna have at it like, woo, I don’t want anything strange going on there. But we respected that and people absolutely adore what we’ve made. But the sense of the original building is there and that’s really important and that you value the institutional, the collective memory, but also the physical manifestation.
The first instinct here. It is not to demolish something and get rid of it, and that’s a big deal at any level. The problem with growth and development is I can just come in and I can, and we teach our architecture school nothing worse than an architecture school that’s like, let’s go to Mumbai.
We’re gonna develop this area and we’re teaching students, it’s okay to just do that and start again. Great message. Right? Talk about colonial. And there’s value in all of this. I think people laugh at, we have a, a building called a red barn that’s our design studio, that’s a rickety old barn.
And we’ve actually just been given that building for us, and we’ve been designing in that building for the last 20 years. And it has an incredible presence in the downtown area. And for me it will be a travesty to knock that thing down. So we’re trying to figure out how to just make it a little bit more comfortable in summer and, and in winter, but that it retains, it’s not from a sentimental point of view, it’s from a philosophical point of view.
This building is important. The resources that we’re putting into this building is important. , why is our gut instinct to just level it and start again? Nah, come on. You can be more inventive than that and creative than that. And sustainable. Honestly, I our throwaway society is just, oh, dear. And that it’s interesting. I see students coming through our program who, haven’t learn from their parents how to fix things. So it’s becoming more and more difficult to have a hands-on experience because folks don’t even know change a light bulb, let alone how to swing a hammer.
And is society happy that we’re going that way? I, I don’t know. I mean, I tend to, I don’t know about that. I want my kid to be curious and, Knock that wall down, I’ll cut a hole in that wall or fix that plug, I’ll fix that light bulb, you know? But the way our societies, and I, you know, I sound like an old fart, but , is that what we want?
You know? And, and I find that a bit frightening, honestly. But it’s not the student’s fault, it’s just culturally, it’s like my colleague says, there’s no pickup trucks here anymore. Like, well, yeah, right. Students used to come out in pickup trucks, .
The architects that are visiting this place this semester are not tooting our own horn, but we’ve got the greatest architects in the US visiting us all the time who are so passionate about their work.
They love this place. And, they like the way that the students are empowered and the students understand how difficult it is to do something well, cuz it’s their problem. They’re not just handing it to a contractor or a developer to do it.
They have to deal with the implications of the design choices. And I think that that also helps them down the road engage with a contractor and a maker. Cuz they’ve, they’ve started to do that the architect today has given, we end up just doing napkin sketches. We draw napkin sketch and we give it to somebody else.
And I think that’s, that’s a bit, again, it’s a bit sad. I think, I think we should care about the craft of things. We should care about the way things are put together. And from concept to compete completion. It’s a richer world if it’s that way. Those cultures that the Danes and the Swedes where there’s this kind of design is inculcated in society. I think it’s really kind of wonderful. I’m always jealous of those places, but, I always say everything’s designed. I mean, I actually decided I was gonna look like this this morning. It’s shocking as it might seem, you know, but design is everything.
[00:33:50] Josh: Following on from that, so one thing that really strikes me about. what you’re doing with Rural Studio and the, power it has is your ability to, to listen and, that’s part of my work as well is to listen and observe and, and, and for the benefit of, of, of other people listening to this podcast I suppose any other organization that, that works with the community how can you, how can you teach people to, to be better listeners?
[00:34:28] Andrew: Maybe ego’s part of that, but there’s this kind of feeling that you have to do something, you have to be evidence of you doing something. My predecessor Mockbee hired me and I I told him, I said, I don’t really know anything about the south and I don’t know anything about this culture.
So all I’m here to do is listen and learn. And a little bit of a, the problem of our program is that it’s called a design build program. And so there’s sometimes I always get concerned that the students feel that they’ve got a God-given, right. To build something and, and building not always the answer,
and so we’ve gotta be really careful. It’s like, you know, build it and they will come. And I think sometimes the toughest decisions we’ve made have been. Not to do that. I mean, I, I’m lucky. Ours is a state institution. It’s a land grant institution at Auburn University. It, it’s a remarkable idea.
It actually has the, the university has an office in every county in the state. So there’s 67 counties, I believe, in the state of Alabama. And everyone has an office in it. And they’re there to help the locals, and that’s their job. And it’s like the sad part of it a little bit as it’s been undermined by the internet, but there’s literally a physical presence of the university in every county.
And what an idea that you can bring the kind of resources of a university to help, whether it’s through health or farming or education. That as a kind of listening model, I think is superb. You embed people in a place, you have local people employed there, you can, you can talk about real issues.
You’re not helicoptering, folks in I think to answer your question, I often the most difficult problems right in front of you, and you don’t have to go somewhere else, look in your own backyard and, and listen. And, I think that’s, that’s honestly all that we’ve done. And in that respect, I think we’ve furthered the, the university mission in, in doing that and kind of up the ante by, by building things.
It’s always really difficult. I mean, I, I look at many programs that go overseas and see and do things and. I have no idea how you decide to help somebody. It’s like, are you doing, are you, are you really helping? Are you really helping? Someone saw you get off the plane and they came up to you and they said, yeah, I want help.
It’s like, well, I, you know, I don’t know whether I’m doing more harm than I’m doing good. And, and we’ve certainly gone through that process here. And we learned from it. We didn’t, we didn’t leave it. And, again, I think very often the most difficult problems are right there in front of you in your own backyard. You don’t need to go somewhere else. The other thing I try to encourage our students, I mean, it’s funny when you see photographs of architecture in the world, there’s so few of the photographs of architects are with people in them. Oh, there certainly used to be. I think there’s much more of a fashion today that, we’ve had a photographer, Timothy Hursley, who’s this most unassuming, humble guy, has actually followed us for 30 years.
And he, right from the beginning, as always photographed people in the homes or, and, and we actually delight in the way that people live in these homes and, and, and, and in these community projects. We’re not sort of offended if they. They do something that like, oh my goodness, I, for me, it’s like they’ve, they’ve taken ownership of it.
And so I, I hope we’re, we’re not sort of snobby about our architecture. It’s okay. In fact, the greatest joy we have is if you own it, paint it pink. It’s great. It’s all right. Don’t worry about it. You know, I think listening, you have to bury, the ego somewhat. It’s like and , you don’t have to fix every problem and, actually not understand what the problem is, but understand what the real question is. Getting to the right question. That’s, that’s the, that’s the deal,
[00:38:26] Josh: I think you’re absolutely right. Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. One of my biggest hangups of being a designer and certainly this is a symptom of design agencies of the past, it felt very much like there’s certainly to be made and there’s gonna be an educated white guy that’s gonna design it and make it and hand it over and say, this is what you need. And to a degree, . I think this is one of the issues with anything that’s mass produced in that there’s a lack of ongoing responsibility, and I don’t think Rural Studio is lacking in that. I think because you live in it, because it’s part of your community. People can design and make things that cost a lot of money going years into production. People buy them and that’s often the end of that relationship. Looking at, from a ecological perspective, that means things aren’t designed to be used for a very long period of time. Things aren’t designed to be fixed, repaired, upgraded, and this is, Very late in the game, but I believe this is a shift that we are gonna see really, really catch on certainly from, from this moment. And it, and it, it appears to me that you’re very progressive in that sense,
[00:39:59] Andrew: yeah, I think the United States is very big and so it, it will be difficult to replicate a program certainly a program of this. in England or in Italy, just because it’s so much denser and the, the kind of administrative oversight for good reasons it’s so much more pointed at, here the kind of, the dirty secret of a place like this is, there’s no money in the local administrations to supervise what building standards that you built to, right.
And, and I think certainly in our early days, I would say the Rural Studio took advantage of that when we started doing public buildings. And really now in everything that we do, we build to the international building code and we’re building better than anybody else out here just because.
We have professional oversight. All of our consultants that are helping us do these projects, they set the bar and we’re like, yeah, we’re a state institution, we’ve gotta do that. This has to be applicable. But the flip side of it is it does allow us to deal with some of those issues more as a social contract. So if there’s a particular circumstance where we don’t need to build a handrail, and, and the mayor and the local administration are on board with that, let’s put the resources not into the handrail, but into the ground surface or something.
I like that kind of common sense opportunity. , that’s not about, oh my goodness, if we don’t do it, we’re going to get sued. It’s more, what’s the best way to use the resources? That yes, can be about beauty, but also can be just simply about appropriateness.
I was in in Norway for a little while and, and in Trondheim they actually had a section of the city where they were deliberately were questioning the building regulations and saying, well, let’s take a, a little piece of our city and make it so that they, these can be questioned cuz they can sometimes be a total waste of resources. And, and not, not that they’re not well-meaning, but that again, can we do this case by pace and, and actually ask the question. So I think we’ve been able to do that at Rural Studio, certainly more recently.
[00:42:20] Sue: Andrew if there was one bit of advice you would give to our listeners who may not be in architecture or design. But there are so important principles for life that I think you’re sharing with us here. I, I’m wondering what would, what would be your one bit of wisdom you’d want them to leave with?
[00:42:37] Andrew: Oh one bit of wisdom. , we we always say to our students, come into this place with your eyes wide open. Try to check the preconceptions at the door cuz you imagine when I tell people I live in Alabama, the immediate conception of this place and its history is so ridiculously stereotypical. It’s nothing to do with the way I live my life every day. And I think if. , if you can go into most meetings every day with, not holding onto preconceptions about how it’s gonna go or even in a conversation like this, you know? Cuz I think it’s definitely helped, helped me kind of maneuver this ship.
There are things that annoy me that my neighbors might do, but I, I always try to think the best of them that they’re doing this for a particular reason and that, that, that their intentions are good, not that their intentions are bad. And I think I, check your preconceptions at the door would be a good message whether, you know, you’re visiting West Alabama or coming to England post Brexit,
[00:43:50] Sue: I think it, it definitely calls on me to say thank you to Josh for the wonderful interview questions, Josh, and for such a stimulating conversation. Andrew, if people want to find out more about Rural Studio on the Internet, how might they go about doing that?
[00:44:06] Andrew: Just Rural studio.org Rural studio, all one word. And we have we have somebody that’s in charge of communicating for us on all of those other horrible platforms. So we live in a food desert here. And so we built ourselves a, a kitchen and then we said, well, can we farm this land? Cuz it, we’re in a place called the Black Belt and a lot of that soil has been over cultivated and washed away. And it was called a black belt because of the beautiful black soil, not because there’s a bunch of black folks living here.
It, it then was had cotton propagated. So it’s been poisoned. But we now we’ve built our own farm infrastructure and every student at the Rural studio works in the farm. And we we produce 7,000 pounds of vegetables every year and we’re super proud of it. And and we have a farmer who’s a biologist just completely showed up by chance.
And he’s made it very clear that it’s a soil project. This is about caring for the soil. This is not just about the stuff that’s coming out of it, but care for the ground, and therefore care for the place and look around you and understand why there’s nothing growing here anymore. But, make the soil, make the foundation, the, the project. So, so check out the farm Rural studio Farm’s really, really amazing. I’m very proud of it.
[00:45:30] Sue: Sounds. Wonderful. Thank you, Andrew. Thank you, Josh. I’m sure you could have asked many more
[00:45:35] Josh: Thank you, Sue. Yeah,
[00:45:37] Andrew: Well, pleasure to meet you both. Thank you.
[00:45:39] Josh: Huge. Thank you, Andrew. That was very inspiring.
Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra (he/him)
Producer: Sue Stockdale (she/her)