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From the PublisherHale County, Alabama, is one of the least likely places on earth to find great architecture. Poor, black, and mostly ignored since Walker Evans and James Agee brought it to world attention in 1939 in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Hale is "a left-behind place," explain Andrea Oppenheimer Dean and Timothy Hursley in the introduction to their remarkable book. But the hardscrabble land and its proud residents "seduced" Samuel Mockbee and has inspired the Auburn University students who operate out of the Rural Studio that Mockbee established there. The result is a legacy of extraordinary buildings - small in scale, miniscule in budget, but great in spirit and design.
Mockbee, who died at the end of last year, had strong convictions about the role of architects in our society and the need to teach students how to serve their communities. A big man who knew how to have a good time, Mockbee anchored his work and his teaching in a fierce sense of place. You can't understand his architecture without knowing about the land and the people for whom it was created.
This book reflects those ideas. A graceful introduction explains Mockbee, his motivations and his methods, then gives way to a series of chapters rooted in the places - Mason's Bend, Newbern, Sawyerville, Greensboro, Thomaston, and Akron - where the Rural Studio has built. Dean who is a contributing editor of Record, typically begins her descriptions of projects with the people who live in or use them, just the way Mockbee and his students began each project. Photographs show the untidy belongings and loving touches residents have added to their houses. Beat-up bicycles, embroidered tablecloths, and plastic furniture feel perfect in here.
The book also includes a short section of "Interviews with Students, a Teacher, and a Client," an essay by Lawrence Chua on "The Rural Mythology of Samuel Mockbee," and an essay by the photographer Cervin Robinson on the different approaches photographers from Evans to Hursley have taken in capturing the character of Hale County. Like Mockbee himself, this book impresses with its clear-eyed view of real life and its sense of conviction. -Architectural Record