by Collectors Circle member Tina Ruggieri
Located roughly 47 miles South of Tuscaloosa is the small town of Newbern, Alabama, population 180, and the home of Auburn University’s Rural Studio. The visionary Samuel Mockbee founded the undergraduate program in the School of Architecture in 1993. Mockbee’s vision was two-fold: create a program where architecture students could participate in a more hands-on, comprehensive educational environment, while addressing the social responsibility of creating good design in one of Alabama’s poorest counties. Their dedicated students work tirelessly with the local community to determine specific opportunities, fund raise for their projects, and design and build creative, functional, commercial, and residential spaces. Over the last 24 years, approximately 800 Rural Studio students have designed and built around 170 projects throughout Hale County.
On the morning of May 13, 2017, The Collectors Circle group from the Birmingham Museum of Art, loaded up the bus for what was to be a short, yet inspiring, visit. Upon our arrival, Xavier Vendrell, the acting director of the Rural Studio, greeted us. Our first stop was the Rural Studio Farm, home base for faculty and students. We toured the Morrisette House, Dogtrots, Supershed and Pods, the living quarters for the students, their kitchen and food storehouse. It was a perfect example where form met function. Next on our agenda was to visit Rural Studio’s 20K model homes. We were able to tour three floor plans and discuss their materials and goals for developing affordable housing in this rural community.
Next stop was the Newbern Library, located in a historic bank building, redesigned in 2013. The students wanted to create a space that would work as both a resource and social center for the community, providing computer and Internet access. The simple white brick exterior with its metal awning and minimally designed courtyard made the perfect gathering spot in downtown Newbern. Directly behind the Newbern Library a few in our group spotted an important artistic landmark. We had to go explore William Christenberry’s iconic green barn, a must see while visiting Newbern.
We then walked across the street to tour the Newbern Fire Station, a two-story structure made from massive wooden beams, translucent polycarbonate panels and galvanized aluminum. Next-door was the town hall, a location to hold elections and town meetings. Before these two facilities, Newbern had not seen a public space built in over 110 years. An incredible lunch of fried catfish came at just the right time, giving our group energy for the second half of our visit. Next we were off to tour Lions Park and Playscape. It is a park designed for the community and its children, housing the Lions Park Scout Hut, a baseball field, a skateboard area and play area made from recycled metal barrels and rubber.
In the short period we were touring the Rural Studio projects, it was impossible to see all that they had accomplished over the last quarter century, however, we wanted to squeeze in a few more stops. We hopped back on the bus and headed to the Greensboro Boys and Girls Club. Built in 2012, the blue metal clad building provided the community a perfect indoor/outdoor space for after-school programs and events. While in Greensboro, we were tempted to make one last stop at the Pie Lab. After grabbing a few slices of pie and some ice cream cones, we were ready to make the hour and forty-five minute trip back to Birmingham.