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  • Cardboard Houses with Wings:The Architecture of Alabama's Rural Studio
  • Thorsten Botz-Bornstein (bio)


The Rural Studio, which was founded by Samuel Mockbee in 1992 and lead by him until his death in 2001, continues its activities. Its specialty is, now as before, the design of innovative houses for poor people living in Alabama's second-poorest county, Hale County, by relying largely on donated and salvaged materials. The houses are made of car windshields, surplus carpet tiles, baled cardboard, old street signs, license plates, etc. Alexis de Tocqueville has said that democracy lowers the standards of creation,1 and it seems that, for architecture, this has become a sad truth in many cases in industrialized countries. The Rural Studio wants to contradict this tendency by showing that even within the context of civic engagement, elements like style and art are not bound to disappear. "Participatory design" as well as "community design" are common in the United States in the public as well as in the private sector.2 The Rural Studio's aim to offer decent architecture in terms of material quality as well as remain consistent when it comes to aesthetics sticks out of the landscape not only of community design but even the history of modern Western architecture. There is nothing new in reducing rich people's lives to functionalism, but the ambition to enhance poor people's lives through art can still be considered as rather eccentric.

Kitsch Culture and Junk Culture

Negotiating style when being engaged in compassionate projects is certainly a difficult task. Everybody needs food, clothing, and shelter, but who needs [End Page 16] art? The worst outcome that such negotiations can have is, of course, the victory of social pragmatism over art, simply declaring that "they don't need that." However, this is not the only miscarriage to be expected. Another likely disaster is that the suggested artistic activity will be refused by the clients at the onset. Community design architects confirm that "when it comes to houses people are much more conservative."3 The aesthetic standards of the lower middle class especially are often determined by numerous prejudices about "what a house should look like."

The aesthetic standards of the status-seeking middle class, however, are generally more open, as their visions of an ideal house are often determined by a moderately adventurous hedonism striving to conquer new aesthetic models and experiences. The problem is that, sometimes, their projects will run directly into the aesthetic dead end of kitsch, or camp, because their openness is often superficial; instead of being determined by a kind of postmodern self-criticism, it remains rather dependent on thoughtless consumer attitudes. The desire to display and impress at any cost—a strain already put forward by Tocqueville—corrupts the taste of many American middle-class members and makes truly artistic architectural expressions oftentimes impossible. In the worst case, this attitude will be conducive to the desire to "acquire beautiful junk," which is, according to the aesthetician Matei Calinescu, the classical mechanism leading to the creation of kitsch culture.4 The original German definition of "kitsch" is that "which makes use of refuse taken bodily from the rubbish dump."5

The architects of the Rural Studio use predominantly junk, which forces us to consider the question: How do they manage to escape the aesthetics of kitsch? From a historical perspective, kitsch culture is the product of the European middle classes (though it has also constantly been imitated by lower-income classes). It becomes clear that the Rural Studio operates on a completely different anthropological ground. The typical clients of the Rural Studio are not integrated in the spectrum of capitalist societies, as their social habitus eludes most attributes of hedonistic consumer society and comes amazingly close to that of traditional, precapitalist societies. The main characteristics of their economies are frugality and thriftiness. This shows that the success of the Rural Studio depends on the particularity of its place: only within the limited social sphere in which they act can an architecture using junk and waste become a distinct style.

It is well known that elements of waste, once they are employed in an artistic context...


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