“Travelling to see and be influenced by architecture started for me at UW but has now become a life-long passion. As I learned during my experiences in Scandinavia (’07) and at the UW Rome Center (’09), there is nothing better than experiencing architecture and culture first hand. The places that we visited have continued to influence me, and I have recently gained a new influence that is somewhat closer to home. Rural Alabama may not be the next place that would naturally be brought up in the (capital A!) Architectural conversation, but it has deeply affected me after my recent visit. Following is the story of that trip as featured in the Miller Hull blog….”
Recently I was fortunate to be invited by Steve Badanes and Linda Beaumont to travel to the Rural Studio in Hale County Alabama and be part of the review team for the annual Soup Roast. There I got to see a vision of architecture of service, poetry, and hands-on community engagement and creation. I visited past projects, saw the status of current projects, and critiqued several future projects. The student work, and faculty attitude and dedication to explorations of design and community engagement was completely inspiring, refreshing and invigorating.
The Rural Studio has been a program through Auburn University in Hale County Alabama since 1993 to provide students with hands on experience in rural Alabama’s Black Belt region. Students take on the important aspects of becoming a “Citizen Architect”–they meet with clients and consultants, create budgets and fund-raise, design and build these projects, and they interact with the clients and municipalities after the projects are complete.
Finally, working for and with an under-served population, they promote the philosophy and core belief of the program that “everyone, both rich or poor, deserves the benefit of good design.” The good design they practice holds countless examples of being functional (building rugged restrooms for parks and play fields) and soulful (the rest rooms may be 20’ tall, or house a tree within them!)
One of the projects I helped review was the Newbern Public Library. Students presented their analysis and focused their attention towards creating social space for the community through the remodel of a crumbling former bank into the Newbern Public Library.
How will they accomplish their goals? With lots of dust covered hands-on-work, community input, a few missteps that will ultimately become opportunities. Along the way forward they will be challenged to reuse existing materials, meet their budget constraints, and continue to have public critiques of their work. By the time the project is completed, the team will have reached out to consultants, local craftspeople, community leaders, and learned to work well together.
This, like nearly every completed project I saw there, pushed the students to be active participants in an education that goes beyond the usual undergraduate experience, and may even exceed the typical professional experience. The great work they do is more proof that professional designers should value these added experiences−as they help cultivate a vision of architecture that recognizes the strength of civic engagement and collaboration. An architecture that bridges the pragmatic and poetic, and reminds us what good design should do for all.
During my stay, I also had the chance to eat a lot, be part of a sing-a-long, and give a short talk to the students. ”Things I Learned from Building’ is a collection of the learning which carries over from my experiences as a builder in Seattle prior to and during years of graduate school while I made a living building with amazing people, was part of several fantastic projects, and made lifelong friends.
The following lessons are just as important to budding designers to think about as they look to become successful leaders and participants of design projects and teams, as they are for me to remember now in my work at Miller Hull – and as they were when I was pulling tarps over second floor additions in the rain years ago. (click images for links to more information).
‘Things I Learned from Building’
• If you don’t know what to do…. sharpen your pencil or draw though a detail. Don’t stand around with your hands in your pockets.
Clients are important
• Everyone who has been part of a great project has at one point said some version of “Great clients=great projects” One of the most important parts of our job is to learn to talk to our clients and help them give the most to the project.
Have “Court Vision”
• When working on a project, keep your eyes open, and pay attention to what everyone is doing. Try to position yourself to be the most helpful towards the final goal of a great project.
Things can and will go wrong
• This will happen, and it should not let it stop you from making a great project. Find a way to hide it, take a different look at the problem, or do it over. Move forward and if you get lucky –it might even help make for a better solution.
Learn how to carry things
• From a sheet of plywood by yourself, to finished cabinet boxes, from beams, to bags of concrete, carrying things requires that you can work well by yourself and with others, requires that you can set and follow the proper pace, and it requires that you know your limits.
Be able to draw and talk (or listen) at the same time
• Nothing beats a quick sketch on-site to clarify an idea or solution and get everyone on the same page.
Recognize good work
• Point out good work when you see it being done. Compliment the sub that goes the extra mile, or the apprentice that organizes the lumber pile, or the client that bakes cookies.
• Seek out those who do good work, have good ideas, and inspire you, and try to work with them as much as possible.
Written by Jake LaBarre, The Miller Hull Partnership, LLP