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Rural Alabama lures students and sightseers

Architecture program aims to benefit the impoverished

The view from the top of the 100-foot birding tower at Perry Lakes Park in Newbern, Ala. It offers the public access to a protected woodland landscape that had been closed for 30 years. The view from the top of the 100-foot birding tower at Perry Lakes Park in Newbern, Ala. It offers the public access to a protected woodland landscape that had been closed for 30 years. (Melissa Denney, Auburn University Rural Studio Architecture Project)
By Bonnie Tsui
Globe Correspondent / August 15, 2010

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NEWBERN, Ala. — I’m standing at the top of a 100-foot birding tower in Perry Lakes Park, the platform at eye level with the tree canopy and overlooking a magnificent topography of oxbow lakes and tupelo and cypress swamp.

What’s extraordinary about this tower is that it was designed and built by four undergraduate architecture students of Auburn University’s Rural Studio. I’ve come here to western Alabama with Andrew Freear, the director of the program, to explore some of the latest design feats by students who have, over the past 17 years, created modest yet innovative homes and community spaces for the residents of Hale County and its surrounds.

It all began in 1993, with a smokehouse made of salvaged concrete and road signs; the following year, it was an elegant home built from hay bales. The program was co-founded by the architect Samuel “Sambo’’ Mockbee, who believed that architecture could be used with creativity and environmental sensitivity to improve the living and working conditions of one of the country’s most impoverished regions.

Hale County was memorably portrayed by photographer Walker Evans and writer James Agee in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,’’ the Depression-era book of text and images. Students move here to live, design, and work on projects with the community, for periods lasting up to a year or more. Mockbee died in 2001 at 57, soon after winning a MacArthur ’’genius grant,’’ but his goal “not to have a warm, dry house, but to have a warm, dry house with a spirit to it’’ continues to be realized year in and year out.

More than 80 projects have followed the smokehouse. Recently, the focus has shifted to ambitious, multi-year projects that benefit larger portions of the community around the tiny town of Newbern, where the Rural Studio is situated, about an hour and 45 minutes from Birmingham. The newer public projects also make it easier for architecture fans to access and appreciate the designs. Travelers can tour the studio, and pick up a map to visit the people and projects that bring a striking kind of beauty and grace to this part of the rural South.

At the birding tower, students used materials from a donated fire tower and, along with the construction of walkways, a bridge, restrooms, and a swooping picnic pavilion, gave unparalleled access to a protected woodland landscape that had been closed to the public for 30 years.

“I hope that a project like this shows what you can do here. It celebrates the natural beauty of the place. If we tried to do this in Central Park, they would have said absolutely not, look at the liability,’’ Freear said, as we stood amid the swaying treetops. “But down here, they say, Why not? And the kids figured out how to do it.’’

We had begun the day by walking around the outdoor live-work “pods’’ of the studio, which were constructed by students in the early years as the precursor to big public projects. The small one-room pods are eclectic and ingenious: One was built out of stacks of wax-impregnated cardboard used in meat and fish packaging, the kind that cannot be recycled.

The pods show off all kinds of bells and whistles: fancy design experiments tried at once on a single structure. “But inside, you’ll find a typical kid’s messy sophomore dorm room,’’ Freear said.

Nearby, there were reminders of other experiments: bits of misprinted white marble tombstones used to reimagine the Hale County Hospital courtyard as a tranquil garden retreat, a large latticed truss for a pedestrian bridge, constructed with forest thinnings from nearby Talladega National Forest.

During my visit, students finished the final concrete pour on the Lions Park skatepark in Greensboro, nine miles north of Newbern; it’s an awesome, multiple-lane monument to play that was funded by the Tony Hawk Foundation. Its grand opening was held in April, with skateboarding teams from all over Alabama trying out tricks; it was also opening day in the park’s ballfields, which, along with the whimsical mouth-shaped concession stand, walking paths, restrooms, and colorful main gate, were created by Rural Studio students.

With Steve Long and John Marusich, former students and current instructors, as my companions, I also visited the recently completed Akron Boys and Girls Club, a soaring curved metal and wood structure that resembles an airplane hangar and houses an outdoor basketball court and recreation center. Inside, we chatted with the mayor, Stanley Holly, who happened to be visiting, while a handful of kids horsed around the foosball tables.

Current projects include a gallery space for the Safe House, a black history museum in Greensboro, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was hidden two weeks before his assassination, and an ambitious new partnership with the national forest.

Lately, there has been renewed attention to the Rural Studio. A new film, “Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio,’’ produced by Sam Wainwright Douglas, Mockbee’s son-in-law, will air Aug. 23 on PBS. An exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in October will showcase some of the studio’s recent work.

One evening, as the sun was setting and golden light shimmered through the trees on my way into town, I spotted people ballroom dancing in a store in Greensboro called PieLab. It is a combination pie shop and experimental graphic design firm that began last summer as a pop-up store. The PieLab staff also trains local students twice a week in hospitality.

The pleasures of a visit to this region are many: forward-thinking design, natural beauty, a friendly, laid-back character. I met a woman visiting from Seattle who told me that she loves talking to people here: “They make the tension drain out of my neck.’’

Jennifer Bonner, 30, a Rural Studio alumna who teaches and runs a small design firm in Los Angeles, said, “The genius of the Rural Studio is that Sambo set it up in a very specific place that cannot be replicated in any other place in the world.’’

Bonnie Tsui can be reached at www.bonnietsui.com.

If You Go

What to do
Rural Studio
Morrisette House
8448 Hwy. 61, Newbern
334-624-4483; www.ruralstudio.com
Call ahead for tours, or pick up a free illustrated map of key projects.
Where to stay
The Muckle House
2005 Main St., Greensboro
334-624-8374
A bed-and-breakfast in a lovely tree-shaded 1906 Victorian. Guest rooms have canopied beds and period furnishings, and proprietor Winnie Cobbs makes a mean eggs Benedict. Rooms from $85.
Where to eat
Places like Pleasant Valley Grocery (29145 Hwy. 25, Greensboro; 334-624-3040) act as one-stop shopping in the region: gas station, general store, restaurant, and social center all rolled into one. And the food at these establishments is the best.
PieLab
1317 Main St., Greensboro
www.pielab.org
A slice of pie $2, lunch special of savory galette plus organic salad and sweet tea $5.99.