Interviewed in Zagreb May 9th 2008
Some fifteen years ago, it was probably difficult to imagine that the Rural Studio, as a different architectural educational programme conceived deep in the American South, would one day become one of the major exports of American architectural practice at world biennales, like the Venice one last year. The Rural Studio also has a reputation of being one of the best known schools of architecture in the USA today after Harvard’s GSD programme, and the district in which it operates – the rural community of western Alabama – has become a kind of Mecca and architectural Disneyland.
What makes the Rural Studio exceptional in the architectural educational model is the high level of dedication to transferring the idea of a sustainable and meaningful life standard, the social responsibility of the profession and humanity in thinking among students. Along with the fact that architecture is dominated by superstars, the philosophy of the Rural Studio has replaced architectural ego with cooperation. The method of education is practical experience of building through dialogue and interaction with members of community, whether experimental family houses or more complex public infrastructure are involved.
ORIS: The first time we came across the work of the Rural Studio was at the São Paulo Biennial of Architecture in Brazil in 2005. The boldness of the American choice of national representative, among the world’s well established architectural practices, left us speechless. Do you believe that today’s socially aware architecture is breaking through mainstream thinking?
Coomes: I think that it wants to. The thing is that you get a lot of architects who really speak deeply to the highest aspirations of what they would do or what they could do, but everyone has to make a living. The unique thing about the Rural Studio is that Sambo Mockbee, its founder, was someone who actually put himself out there, took the chance to stand up for what he believed in. And it has paid off; the romantic idea has obviously captured the hearts and imaginations of people, not just in America but also across the world. Yes, I think that it does capture the highest aspirations of architecture in America; at least in the way it is practiced in the South, where I’m from.