If you’re used to relying on the geolocation services of a phone or other mobile device, forget it when traveling in Hale County, AL. I thought I was about thirty minutes north of its county seat, Greensboro, when I got the sinking feeling that both of my digital maps were wrong.
Minutes later after making a wrong turn, I was stuck in a funeral procession headed down a narrow dirt road.
The Journey Becomes The Destination
I would most definitely be late in joining others from the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center Patron Artist Group at our first stop. Over the course of the weekend in learning more about Hale County’s Rural Studio program, I found that I wasn’t the only one with navigation challenges. Addresses on digital maps don’t match up with their real world counterparts. Mobile service is spotty, so even if the location is accurate, turn-by-turn directions are almost always impossible.
Rural Studio was founded in 1993, providing Auburn University architecture students real-world experience designing and actually building in a rural, mostly poor area of Alabama. It’s first leader, a visionary named Samuel Mockbee, shaped a program that was revolutionary both in goal and scope. But, as Andrea Oppenheimer Dean in her foreward to the book Rural Studio at Twenty points out, its success can be partly attributed to the focus on being evolutionary rather than revolutionary. This is evident in the leadership now provided by its current director, Andrew Freear. Without a focus on evolution, most programs of this nature would disappear with the first shifts in management.
Projects take place within a twenty-five mile radius of Newbern, AL. As a result, locations are spread over a broad area – you may drive by a Rural Studio site and not know it. And, in this environment, it’s easy to forget that “right up the road” in the country sense is different than “right up the road” in the city or suburban sense. Time passes differently. Distances lengthen.
These perspectives play a role in how outsiders experience and even how they come to understand the Rural Studio program. In fact, these perspectives play a role in the execution and evolution of the work itself. As Freear writes in Rural Studio at Twenty,“It takes time to understand Hale County.”
I remember at least one reference over the weekend to the concept of Hale County Time.
States of Connectedness
The state of being less connected and without some of the conveniences that so many urbanites and suburbanites now vehemently expect is partly the reason for such a unique way of looking at and addressing community-specific problems. In fact, the Rural Studio methods could be a model for almost any other organization or academic institution. Students learn and experiment as they would in no other environment. The community benefits from improved infrastructure. Businesses benefit from visibility via donations to the project. Families and neighborhoods benefit from new homes as well as new design and construction practices. There is a focus on low-cost, renewable, and sustainable building materials. Therefore, the entire region benefits.
Absent common ideological and political motivations underpinning this kind of undertaking, there is little to disagree with in the program. In fact, there are so many reasons instead to get involved.
The one lingering question for me centers on the long-term. Rural Studio has become a kind of fixture. So many other charity projects out there drop in, “help,” then leave. So, what is a sustainable plan for maintenance and management for this kind of program? How does the community get engaged to “own” these properties? Ultimately, it is the responsibility of no one else but the families and community to be good stewards of these gifts.
The answer could lie within the model itself. How many other academic tracks and corporate partners can play a role in the long-term with such programs? It doesn’t end with landscaping, architecture, and farming. The areas with exposure are endless – non-profit management, entrepreneurship, finance, technology, the culinary arts, the hospitality industry . . .
You can see it at work for yourself. Plan on a couple of nights and staying in nearby Marion perhaps. Hotels (motels) are literally few and far between.
And don’t forget that paper map.