Hale County, Alabama, is the poorest county in one of the poorest states in America. For 20 years architecture students from Auburn University have come here to build. The Rural Studio, founded by Sambo Mockbee (1944-2001), draws them to Hale County, where they build small houses, boys and girls clubs, softball fields, and a civil rights museum for people who often can’t afford running water. They are what Mockbee called “citizen architects,” crafting with their bare hands what many thought impossible: hope in a broken place.
In Newbern, Alabama, the Rural Studio built the town hall and volunteer fire station to form a town green. On a recent spring day, the American flag outside the firehouse trembled as logging trucks rolled past. Across the street students drew up their next projects in an unheated warehouse.
Mockbee and his successor, Andrew Freear, didn’t come to Newbern to be do-gooders. They came to create good buildings. And perhaps the greatest products of the Rural Studio are not its buildings but the 600 young architects who have lived and worked here, learning to serve others, to build simply, and to overcome fear. Why? Because the world has many broken places.
Thunderstorm over New York
On a clear day, the skyscrapers of lower Manhattan sparkle in the sunlight and the East River is as blue as the sky.
But during a morning thunderstorm in June Manhattan appears very different. The sky hangs over the city like a blood clot, the new World Trade Center disappears into a cloud, and the East River is the color of lead. Instead of sparkling, its towers have the hue of tarnished pots.
One of the remarkable things about New York used to be how easy it was to ignore the weather. No more. In November 2012, the city’s subways filled with seawater during Hurricane Sandy and lower Manhattan was powerless for a week. Not since 9/11 has New York seemed so vulnerable.
Yet in other parts of the country people accept the violent power of nature as normal. Residents in Colorado shrug when homes are lost to wildfires, San Franciscans cross brace their buildings against earthquakes, and in Oklahoma people respond to tornados with courage and resolve.
Perhaps New Yorkers will face sea level rise with equal determination because, like others, they choose to live here for what they love, not what they fear.
Van Gogh’s Chair
Chairs are architecture. Like little buildings, they have a structure to hold people up and a function to make their occupants comfortable. Like buildings, they can tell a story.
For Vincent Van Gogh chairs were people. He associated his friends with places where they sat. When his father left, he burst into tears at the sight of his empty chair. In a painting of his bedroom, two vacant chairs represent the friends he longed for.
Chairs are a self-portrait. Van Gogh kept this chair in his small room at the monastery asylum in St. Remy. It’s as rough and durable as he was. On it rests his leather satchel, which he filled with paint and brushes, venturing out to paint in the monastery garden and beyond.
Today Van Gogh’s paintings command a king’s ransom, yet he scraped by from week to week. It can be said that all art comes from the poor: The rich don’t paint masterpieces, jazz was invented by the dispossessed, Van Gogh painted The Starry Night living in a monk’s cell. His chair reminds us that the greatest explorers are the ones with nothing to lose.
To see Van Gogh’s painting of his chair in Arles, follow this link
The Willet is a solitary shorebird about the size of a pigeon. It has long legs and a beak about the length of your index finger. It forages at the turn of the tide, its legs just long enough to keep its body above the waves, its beak just long enough to probe the water-softened sand for crustaceans to eat. How perfectly the Willet lives at the seashore.
Yet, how vexed we human beings are to live along the coast. Scientific evidence suggests a rising sea level over the coming century, while our political leaders try to balance two long-conflicting constituencies: home and business owners worried about the cost of reinforcing buildings, and geologists who warn of large-scale and preventable casualties from sea level rise.
Over the centuries the sea has risen and fallen, moving the coastline from east to west. The Willet has moved with it.
In her own quiet way, the Willet seems better adjusted to living at the coast than mankind. She does not need geologists advising her, nor is she building permanent structures. She is out at low tide looking for crabs.
The Forgotten Craftsman
For nearly one hundred years this house near Deltaville, Virginia has welcomed the rising sun to the east and warmed itself by the sun setting in the west. It is one of countless houses of its kind built by unknown craftsmen in Tidewater Virginia.
It may be considered among the finest houses in America, not because it is exceptional but because it is ordinary. The great English architect Philip Webb was unhappy with his design until it looked commonplace. An artistic house is made to behold, a common house is made to be held in our hands.
The beauty of this house comes from the fact that we don’t notice it. The brick clay was dug from a hill nearby, the oak and pine boards were cut from local trees, and the same house was made over and over. Like a wildflower in a thicket, it is without consciousness of beauty, style, or fashion. Straightforward, natural, modest and without contrivance, it has the same qualities we admire in a person.
In Zen there is a saying that at the far end of the road lies effortless peace. The beauty of this house lies in its effortless peace.
Wazee Street, Denver, Colorado
The apartment over the shop has been a building block of cities for thousands of years. The Romans sold olive oil, medieval blacksmiths made hinges, and Victorian green grocers sold potatoes beneath the places where they slept.
Today few cities are built this way.
But Wazee Street in Denver Colorado reminds us of the value of older, smaller, brick and wood structures that do not overwhelm us and provide a multitude of uses. The shop fronts make a regular and almost uniform rhythm, with small variations among the curtains, awnings, hanging signs, and levels as the buildings march down the hill. There are no big surprises in this sequence. And that is the particular grace of a place like Wazee Street: It is simply, quietly there.
It supports city life.
The architecture may be purposely understated, but tonight there will be splendid overstatement. Wazee Street will be filled with black dresses, cheetah prints, high heels, Latinos, Chinese, divorce lawyers, and baseball players — the melting pot of America brooded over by quiet, unassertive structures that are as old as the ancient city of Rome and as modern as Facebook.
Thunderstorm in Marseille
It’s remarkable how we can ignore the weather. We go from our air-conditioned homes to air-conditioned offices in air-conditioned cars then watch television to find out what the weather is.
Yet what pleasure awaits us in a storm cloud: We remember ourselves as children running in the rain and getting our feet wet in puddles. But as adults we find the roof of our cars, the ceiling of our offices, and the curtains on our bedroom windows insulating us from a relationship with the sky.
In Marseille a window has opened to the weather. The builders of the new Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilizations (MuCEM) built a football field-sized promenade next to the waterfront, creating an unexpected window to the clouds in the second largest city in France.
As a thunderstorm approaches, made more dramatic by contrast with white plaster buildings and zinc roofs, the gravel surface of the MuCEM promenade soaks up the sun like blotting paper.
Just as the full moon appears bigger on the horizon, where we can judge its size against trees and buildings, the chimney pots and iron railings of Marseille underline the fury of the storm.
A Luncheon Under the Linden Trees
I’ve noticed that many more people park their cars backwards these days. Landscape architects say they’re having to reconfigure parking lots as a result.
Why do people park backwards? Are they thinking of leaving as soon as they get there?
I had lunch recently where no one thought of leaving. We were friends gathered to celebrate a wedding anniversary.
We dined on the terrace of the Auberge des Tilleuls, an old French farmhouse in Grambois, Provence. Linden trees shaded its plaster walls and dappled the linen tablecloth in shadow.
The waiter was invisibly attentive, as is the French custom. We dined for two hours. Some of the wine we drank was made from a nearby vineyard, and as we drank tractors pulling wagons filled with red grapes glided past. School children rode by on scooters and bicycles.
How is it that the French will travel 50 miles to have lunch in a restaurant in a small Provençal village? The French writer Michèle Fitoussi said that her compatriots “have a keen sense of the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure.”
On this afternoon there was a faint smell of smoke from leaves burning somewhere in the distance. It was early fall.
When we left, I noticed there were no cars parked backwards in the parking lot.
Cafe de l’Alcazar, Arles
For two of the last years of his brief life, Vincent van Gogh lived and painted in Arles.
He was drawn to Arles for its provincial charm and the legendary beauty of its women, but found a rapidly industrializing city that housed a major railway works.
After visiting the classical and celebrated medieval sites of Arles, he started painting the ugly parts of the city. One of his most famous paintings, “Bridge at Arles,” is part of a utilitarian irrigation canal. The Cafe de l’Alcazar he painted is located next to a Roman temple, which he chose not to paint, using the cafe instead as his subject of everyday life.
We now look on the cafe as nostalgic, but to Van Gogh the new and brassy cafe of the 1880’s must have seemed as contemporary as a Wal-Mart does to us. He was absorbed by Arles’s modern and less obviously beautiful aspects.
None of van Gogh’s paintings are displayed in Arles. Instead, they hang in the great museums of the world. Here in Arles, though, we can sense that Van Gogh used color to bathe the world in bleakness as well as joyful sensuality.
Here is a link to Van Gogh’s painting of The Café Terrace
In 1901 the artist Paul Cezanne built a small studio on a hill outside his hometown of Aix-en-Provence. He built a stone terrace on the south side looking out over olive groves. His bedroom was on the ground floor. He painted in a high-ceilinged upper story room with blue-grey walls and a tall window, facing north, which bathed the room in light. Around 5 a.m. Cezanne woke and stepped outside to check the weather. On clear days he walked 300 meters up the hill, his easel and colors strapped to his back, to paint Mount Ste. Victoire in the open air.
Today the studio remains much as it did in 1906 when Cezanne died. Pots and glass bottles that appeared in his paintings stand on a shelf, his backpack rests in a corner. A drawer contains a childhood photo, a sketch of a friend, brushes, and a receipt for his paint colors.
Outside the studio, bright cars flit past on the Rue de Paul Cezanne. Inside, we stand in the same light where he painted. Few artists were as connected to their place yet universal in their appeal as Paul Cezanne.
Lourmarin in Provence
The novelist and philosopher Albert Camus lived in Lourmarin for two years before he died in a car crash in 1960. Lourmarin reminded him of the color, light, and sensual pleasure of his native Algeria, where he grew up in poverty but surrounded by beauty.
Ancient places shaped his view of existence. In his teenage years he swam among the Roman ruins in Tipasa, later writing, “In springtime gods dwell in Tipasa, speaking through the sun and wormwood perfume, the sea in its silver armor, and great bubbles of light in piles of rocks.” He sensed the brevity of time and the immediacy of pleasure. In his heart he carried an invincible summer.
When Camus was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1957, his Mediterranean fatalism was noted:
"…the certainty that the sunny splendor of the world is only a fugitive moment bound to be blotted out by the shades."
Camus’s remains are buried in this hillside cemetery in Lourmarin, where old juniper trees grow close together and keep their counsel.
November 7, 2013 is the 100th anniversary of Albert Camus’s birth. Here is a link to his essay, “Return to Tipasa”.
To Fit the Land
When I worked on construction sites as a teenager in Greensboro, North Carolina there were a few old men in overalls who knew things. Gene, Jun and Major knew where to find catfish in Buffalo Creek, when a storm was coming, how to hitch a mule and which plant soaked in water would cure a headache.
Later I found a similar native wisdom in barns.
This barn is placed on a hill where water drains away. It’s main side faces south, where the sun will warm it. Opposite is another door to let the breeze through. The farmer made a porch on the east side because the summer rains came from the west. He made the boards from trees he cut down to clear a field, and burned the shavings from the sawmill to cure his tobacco. He made the barn fit the land.
Few of us can build today with the knowledge this farmer had, but I believe it’s worth trying. And while it’s no longer possible to have the native genius of barns, we can leave the earth as good as we found it. That’s a sentiment the old timers of my teenage years could understand.
Sushi at the Airport
Fifty years ago airports were places of glamour. Today they’re transit sheds. But the lobby at Charlotte Douglas Airport, despite being utilitarian, offers a special place.
On a recent Friday, long lines snaked through the lobby at dusk under a 40-foot ceiling of white steel. Passengers looked through tall windows at the runway, spread out like a sheet of tin, while the high space muffled the sound of their shuffling feet. In a recessed area, Starbucks offered Pumpkin Spice Latte while outside airplanes disappeared like flecks in the sky.
Under the tall ceiling, travelers sat next to each other in white rocking chairs. A grand piano stood beside a sushi bar in an amber pool of light. Here you could eat a California roll next to strangers while someone else played Chopin. It was so unlike the barking televisions and shrink-wrapped sandwiches, the hard furniture and averted eyes of the rest of the airport that is seemed miraculous. For a time in the journey, life was decent.