Occupying the brick shell of an old grocery store, this club has helped to transform the small town of Akron
First published in AR November 2002, this piece was republished online in August 2015
Huddled by the edge of the Black Warrior River in western Alabama, the little town of Akron was once quite prosperous, buoyed up by the proceeds of rail transportation. (It used to be the only point between New Orleans and Birmingham where a train could be turned around.) With the growth of road-based transport, the town languished and now consists of a fly-blown downtown and a handful of boxy, single-storey buildings clustered around the railway tracks. Nearly all of its 600 residents are African Americans, living in trailers raised on concrete blocks to resist regular river flooding.
Most people work out of town in either distant Tuscaloosa or Greensboro and as Akron has no market, they often take time to shop on the way home. This means that their children tend to be at a loose end from the end of school until early evening, so some kind of place was needed where they could be supervised and take part in various distractions and activities.
Occupying a former grocery store on a triangular site at the town’s busiest intersection, the Boys and Girls Club has helped to revive Akron’s social and economic fortunes.
The original red brick shell of the store was retained and cleaned, forming an evocatively weathered envelope for the building’s new role. An extension clad in corrugated steel panels and containing a small classroom, computer lab, bathroom and utility room wraps around the edge of the brick box.
A new jumbo monopitch supported by heavy steel trusses caps the building and introduces light through clerestory glazing. A mezzanine level set above the main club room volume provides additional space (the inclusion of a mezzanine was the source of much excitement among the town’s children who had up until then only experienced single-storey buildings).
The spirit is robustly and explicitly functional, borne of an inevitable economy of means, but this does not lessen the ennobling effect of the architecture. Within the simple geometry of the facade, the papery eroded brick contrasts with the shiny crinkly steel. The slender sloping roof plane plays off against the mass of the masonry and the muscular latticework of the trusses. A small canopy of translucent polycarbonate sheeting shades an external verandah, connecting with the urban realm. Street furniture made of cardboard bales sprayed with Shotcrete invites passers-by to linger. Inside, planes of colour articulate and enliven the spaces, with yellow and green walls set off against the blue of the trusses. Patched remnants of the raw brick walls are left as evocative reminders of the building’s former life.
The club was designed and built by three fifth-year students who resourcefully begged and scavenged materials. The steel roof frame, for instance, was donated by a former Auburn resident, now a steel manufacturer in Birmingham. The steel was reengineered, its ends rewelded, and it was brought to site through the college’s truck-driving programme where it was slotted together as a kit of parts. The students also helped to set up a board of directors and secure an administrator for the club, so that its future was viable. As with all Rural Studio endeavours, architectural involvement goes well beyond the abstract niceties of design into the more challenging and uncharted realms of hands-on building, sourcing materials, finance, and administration. Taken together, it makes a huge difference, both to the young architects and their clients.
Akron Boys and Girls Club, Alabama, USA
Architect: Rural Studio, Auburn
Project team: Craig Peavy, Patrick Ryan, Brad Shelton, Andrew Freear
Street furniture: Gabe Comstock, Amy Holtz, Andrew Olds
Photographs: Tim Hursley