The Rural Studio was born out of the design/build movement that was part of an architectural counterculture in the 1970s. Steve Badanes, a former teacher of mine who runs the University of Washington Neighborhood Design/Build Studio, is often referred to as the “godfather of design/build.” He and a group of colleagues from Princeton University, who called themselves the Jersey Devil, were looking for an authentic process that connected the designer and the maker more closely when they did their first project together in 1972. They built single-family homes and lived on site in a nomadic existence that was emblematic of the time.
When Sam Mockbee founded the Rural Studio in 1993, he cited the Jersey Devil as a significant influence on his thinking. But where Jersey Devil was a nomadic practice, the Rural Studio is intensely place-based and is now inseparable from Alabama’s Hale County. The focus is much more outward, in terms of the undergraduate studio’s intention to be a change-driver in its community.
When Andrew Freear took over the Rural Studio after Mockbee’s death in 2001, he elevated the charge to a broader goal. Where Mockbee was focused on creating dignity through design with individual houses and community building projects, Freear is trying to address it systematically with projects such as the 20k house — a multiyear endeavor to create a locally built rural home for less than $20,000 in materials. Badanes, no stranger to activism himself, takes a similar approach with the Neighborhood Design/Build Studio. Founded in 1990, it takes on projects with community clients working toward improving Seattle’s neighborhoods.
As a student of Badanes’ in the early 2000s, I was inspired by these two studios; they formed the nucleus of what would become the Community/Build Studio at Massachusetts College of Art (MassArt). Founded in 2009, it follows Mockbee’s model of architectural activism and incorporates it with Badanes’ emphases on communication and consensus building. We seek out projects in Greater Boston in which we can design and build a new piece of infrastructure for the public or underserved. We make a conscious decision to work locally because there is no shortage of groups that could benefit from the creative energy and enthusiasm inherent in architecture students, particularly those who are embedded within an arts school.
We also keep our projects small enough to ensure that our group of eight to 12 students can work on them, from concept to completion, in the 11-week summer session. This shields us from engaging in the design/build “arms race” that has taken over many schools competing to design larger, more complex projects by stretching the effort out over multiple semesters and student groups. More important, it allows us to illustrate to students the power and impact their projects can have. Coming to the site when it is blank, they experience the “before” condition as the status quo for our clients. By the end, having transformed the space, students understand that they have created something permanent — something that will become the new normal for the client group that they have engaged with every day.
At the Dennis C. Haley school in Boston’s Roslindale neighborhood, the studio transformed an overgrown corner of the yard into an outdoor classroom to support an urban agriculture program. At summer’s end, our students were proud of the beautiful structure that occupied a once-neglected corner of the property, but the most powerful moment came a month later when school was back in session and we celebrated the ribbon cutting. Seeing children run up the ramp they had built, play in and around the bridge, and dig in the raised planting beds showed the students the full impact their work could have.
This understanding of impact is the real legacy of the Rural Studio. Born out of its dna, the name “design/build studio” doesn’t fully capture its most important lesson. By creating even a small thing in a place that otherwise might not have that kind of thoughtfulness, students are given a window into the potential of what architecture can do. There’s both a power and a humility embedded in that.