Perhaps one of the most frustrating clichés in the world of architecture is Louis Kahn's famed exhortation, "Ask a brick what it wants to be." It's frustrating because it's the most hackneyed example of architect-ese BS and also because, at the same time, it expresses a subtle and rewarding approach to design — using materials as a guide for form- and space-making.
For the past decade or more, architecture programs at universities across the world have been offering students an opportunity to experience something they can't get while drawing lines on paper in campus studios: a chance to talk to the brick face to face — and to build real buildings for real people.
Auburn University has one such program, the subject of The Rural Studio, an extraordinary documentary directed by Chuck Schultz. The film, screened March 17 at Miami University, shows how Auburn's architecture department has moved out into rural Alabama to create buildings for people in impoverished areas.
Architecture students there have become part of a positive force for change while at the same time getting educational benefits that are hard to come by at other schools. These students form groups to design and construct community buildings, playgrounds and private dwellings, working closely with their clients through every stage of the process.
The students, most of whom are middle-class and white, make these structures for clients who are mostly poor and African-American. The students integrate the clients' needs and desires into their drawings, they procure the materials and they make the buildings. The resulting projects go free of charge to the clients.
The recipients of this program gain brand new, exciting and practical spaces in which to live, do business or worship. The only things they're asked to provide are the land and feedback to the students. The resulting work is theirs to use or alter any way they see fit. Some of the houses, in particular, are strikingly lovely. It's wonderful to see how clients have made them their own.
The benefits to the program's students are incalculable. Not only do they get practice formulating designs using real materials — learning first-hand how construction operates, how to overcome unexpected difficulties and think and adapt on their feet. But perhaps most important, they learn how to communicate with people about what they need and want in a shelter.
This verbal interaction with ordinary folks around ideas of space, home and utility is something that students don't usually learn at architecture school, and as a result many kids graduate not knowing how to talk to people about buildings. A lot of them go on in business and end up hiring someone else to handle clients.
Another crucial gain for the students is the opportunity to do what Kahn asked: to let materials, the building site, economic constraints and changing desires inform the actual look and feel of the place under construction.
Architecture meets social justice
In Over-the-Rhine, a like-minded group from the architecture department at Miami University is working to build and strengthen community ties that are cemented by living spaces. Since 1996 this design studio for third- and fourth-year students has renovated a number of living and commercial spaces. A laundromat, two single-family townhouses and a number of apartments have been transformed from unusable or underused spaces into clean and solid places for low-income residents.
The budgets for these projects are typically in the range of $5,000 to $10,000. Students work in groups like contractors and subcontractors to obtain materials, get permits from the city, design the renovations, effect the construction and walk through inspections afterward. They manage this working three days a week.
Spearheaded by Miami Professor Thomas Dutton, the program works closely with the Over-the-Rhine Housing Network. This organization strives to re-energize the area by developing it in an equitable and affordable way — renovating for the existing populace, instead of razing and gentrifying for higher-income people. Miami's program grew out of Dutton's long-term ties with community activism and integrated development in Over-the-Rhine.
Miami's design-build program is similar to the Auburn University program in many ways, according to Dutton.
"It's issue-driven formal and social learning experience," he says. "The studio takes students out of the environment where lines on the paper tell you everything."
An issue-driven formal and social learning experience, the design-build studio takes students out of the environment where "lines on the paper tell you everything" and moves them more into the real world where physical environment and social justice merge.
Design-build programs move future architects into the real world where physical environment and social justice merge. These students are learning that decisions about the best way to solve a problem can actually influence and shape design. These are some of the most practical and valuable lessons young architects can learn.
The differences in the two programs point up ways Dutton sees Miami's efforts could expand. Right now, students rely on construction managers working for the housing network to provide plumbing and electrical skills. Dutton hopes that when the design-build program develops further, students will be able to do some of this work themselves alongside professionals.
Also, there is no client contact in this system yet; the apartments are renovated first and then rented. Dutton envisions more possibilities for talking to clients and consulting them on their own design needs and wants.
"That would be great," he says.
Participation in Miami's program has continued to grow in the seven years since its inception.
Miami's new Center for Community Engagement was recently inaugurated in an effort to broaden the kinds of achievements the design-build program has managed in more interdisciplinary ways. It aims to provide increased opportunities for students to participate in social development in primarily African-American areas.
At bottom, both Auburn's and Miami's design-build studios are about what Auburn's director, Sam Mockbee, thought of as an "old-fashioned virtue" — giving to others. These design-build programs were founded on the fundamental truth that doing something for other people gives you back something as a result.
For these students, making homes for people who couldn't afford to do it themselves provides instant returns: construction experience, using architectural tools besides a pencil, interaction with non-architects, social involvement and the satisfaction of helping build something real — in this case, a vital community. ©