[ARCHIVE] Demonstrating the effectiveness of community engagement and inventive recycling, this Alabama house is a constant reminder of the transcending power of architecture
First published in the AR in November 2002
Deep in the old Alabama cotton belt, Mason’s Bend is a minuscule hamlet tucked into a backwater of the Black Warrior river. Home to four extended families (the Bryants, the Harrises, the Fields and the Greens), it epitomizes the abject depths of rural impoverishment in the American South. Most of the 100 inhabitants live in either decaying trailers or makeshift houses, skirting an unpaved road that ploughs through dense weeds and briar patches. Community facilities are limited to a modest pavilion-like structure designed and built by Rural Studio (AR March 2001). This remains the hamlet’s sole physical and·social focus. Mockbee’s involvement with Mason’s Bend is long standing, building houses for both the elderly Bryants (the Haybale House in 1994, Rural Studio’s first completed building) and subsequently the Harrises (the Butterfly House of 1997). This most recently completed dwelling is for the second generation of the Harris family, Anderson and his wife Lucy (daughter of the Bryants) and their three children. Gaining the family’s trust and fostering a sense of mutual respect was a crucial aspect of the design process.
Like other Rural Studio projects Lucy’s House, as it came to be known, draws on the typically Southern rural vernacular forms of sheds, barns and trailers inflected by an enlightened, modern sensibility. It is also distinguished by a characteristically ingenious use of salvaged materials, which helps to make the most of an invariably limited budget ($30 000). In this case a philanthropic carpet manufacturer donated stacks of redundant carpet tiles, which have been used to construct the house’s walls. Steel reinforcement rods compress the tiles in position and stabilize the structure. The thin, polychromatic striations of the different coloured tiles add surprising texture and visual animation to the internal and external wall planes. An exaggerated, almost Tyrolean pitched roof oversails the dense carpet walls protecting them against the. elements (the region’s annual rainfall is almost 60in, or 1500mm, so flat roofs are out of the question). The single-storey house is anchored at one end by a quirkily faceted tower, formed from a timber frame encased in plywood which contains the dining room and a tornado shelter below and the master bedroom above. A rakish triangular incision admits light to the bedroom. The main living and kitchen space, with its vitirine-like window, is flanked along its rear side by the children’s bedrooms.
The prismatic plum-coloured tower is separated from the living space by an entrance hall encased in translucent polycarbonate sheeting. Students developed Mockbee’s initial sketches and construction work began just before last Christmas. As always, the students did everything, immersing themselves in sourcing and scavenging materials and in the processes of making and building. The house was completed in July this year. This capacity for community engagement and inventive recycling is a constant reminder of the transcending power of architecture and the human spirit. It must be hoped that Mockbee’s legacy can continue.
Lucy’s House, Alabama, USA
Architect: Rural Studio, Aurburn
Project team: James Michael Tate, Ben Cannard, Philip Crosscup, Floris Keverling Buisman, Kerry Larkin, Marie Richard, Keith Zawistowski, Jay Sanders, Andrew Freear
Photographs: Timothy Hursley