...in the bottom drawer
I knew I'd lose it so I put it in a safe place, and now I can't remember where it is.

currently stashed in: Cheshire Street, London
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September 28, 2004 || 4:24 am

Since the hurricane's torrential rain, these beautiful rain lilies have sprung up all over the county. The only colourful things amongst the green trees and yellow grass, they have appeared so quickly as if by magic, scattered on people's lawns, the verges of the roads and as here in the long grass around abandoned houses.


September 27, 2004 || 2:29 am

Apologies for not posting all week. Its been busy. I've moved into Beacon Street (hooray!), we're slowly cleaning up but now have a functioning kitchen (hot water arrives tomorrow) and given my obsession with eating, that makes me feel like it's now home. And not many of you can say that you can drive a truck into your living room.

Today we went via the man who sells animals (chickens, geese, ducks, goats, piglets, puppies, rabbits, donkeys, sheep) at the weekend at the intersection...

to Footwash, a festival held annually near Uniontown (a town famous mostly for having a population of 2000 of whome 200 were recently arrested for dealing cocaine). It was fun. They don't allow any cops onto the site and everything you might expect as a result happens. We saw three other white people there. We danced to a one-man band with funky old black men (here's Cara May in action),

we wandered around, watching men in fatigues and guns and women in not very much get swindled with the 3-card trick, buy drugs and bootleg CDs and DVDs, watch really dodgy strip shows, buy 'lapdances' and eat a lot of food, including Polish sausage which is the Footwash speciality. And we bought t-shirts, of course, including my favorite, the 'official footwash flirt shirt'. It's a unique, bizarre, symbolic and historic event for black Alabama and I thoroughly recommend you follow the link above to find out more about it. There are also a lot of bikers, growling around the undergrowth.

Definitely not good clean fun! but a fantastic and bizarre Sunday afternoon. Following which I went back to studio and did some work...


September 22, 2004 || 4:11 am

This evening I thought it my duty to catch up on the world of blogging, which I have neglected for too long...but continuing with the Southern theme, here's a great article about the origins of real American BBQ found at Butter Pig, a blog which delightfully fulfils my continuing fascination with the weirdnesses of American food combos that the rest of the world would consider totally disgusting.

Not that BBQ is one of them. Or ribs from Mustang Oil, our wonderful American equivalent of the greasy caff, the petrol station diner with the best slaw. So good.


3:48 am

We have several (black) men from the local prison who work for us at the Rural Studio, and in other charitable-type jobs around town. Their profitable sideline is that they have all learnt how to make belts and other leather goods embossed with patterns, people's names, and anything else you might want, which they make to order and sell. They are recognisable by their all-white attire, with a discreet 'Alabama Dept of Public COrrections' stencil on one trouser-leg.

Tyrone, one of these guys who has been working for some time in Newbern as the trusted handyman-gardener of the RS properties, had his parole hearing yesterday and it has been granted. I saw him today and his row of gold teeth shined with a big smile when I congratulated him.

Thirteen years, he told me it had been. He's not an old man, not much over 30 I would have thought. Like Johnny Parker, an older white ex-con who is now one of the RS's greatest staff members, it's very hard to imagine him doing anything violent. But every other person round here seems to have some brush with the law. I was talking outside G.B.'s to another young-ish black man yesterday. He'd been inside five times and had come back to Newbern from Selma to keep out of trouble and look after his ageing, diabetic father.


September 21, 2004 || 5:00 am

In an attempt to get my 6-person team (far too many for the job) into action in time for a crit next Monday, today I morphed into my most bossy-dictatorial self, making 'to do' lists and generally trying to badger everyone into shape. Many friends of mine will read this and sigh, I'm sure. I have even made templates for people to fit their work to in an effort to make it all look vaguely co-ordinated and not like a bunch of people browsed the internet for a week in the name of 'research'.

Getting five non-architects with generally dire drawing skills to design a house plan together is, however, more complicated. So far, intelligent people have drawn rooms with no way to enter them, bathrooms that are bigger than bedrooms, and miraculously thin walls, one pencil line thick. But my usual instincts for basic dimensions also keep going awry. Everything here is so much bigger - standard fridges, cookers and sinks are huge compared to the UK - and having to talk in feet and inches means that my feel for scale is still a bit jet-lagged.

I also realise that I've never before designed a house for a non-urban environment. It feels quite strange to be designing what is effectively a bungalow, yet that is what the brief, the culture and the landscape demand. Here high density is two trailers per acre and makes English suburbia look overcrowded; and the challenge is not just to make something small feel big on the inside, but to make our small dwelling assert more outward dignity than we can afford to give it size.


September 19, 2004 || 2:21 am

We spent all of yesterday clearing up fallen trees and branches around Newbern, which appeared to have suffered much worse than Greensboro due to its more rural setting. Many trees had fallen and although there was little damage to houses, the poorest sections of the community as usual were hit hardest. One family's home - a dilapidated trailer - was crushed by a falling pine tree which also wrote off their car, and another family's home was hit by a falling limb which has destroyed their living-room roof.

The trees that did the most damage were the pecans, of which there are many and which create a lovely shade for many people's yards. Note to self: when siting the $20,000 house, although it would be lovely to use the shade of a tree to keep the house naturally cool, make sure it won't fall on the house, and steer clear of those pecans.


September 16, 2004 || 12:39 pm

Well, I woke up around 6am, after a restless night of listening to the driving rain and the wind shaking my tiny house, to find the power was already out. I'd just taken this picture,
when there was a loud thud above my head and I looked up to find a tree had fallen on top of my apartment! I figured that between braving the 70mph winds outside, and staying in my apartment watching everything get soaked by the torrential rain coming in through the hole in the roof, I preferred to get out! but before the hurried evacuation of myself and my few possessions to a friend's house down the road (who bravely drove down to get me) I took these two snaps of the view from my door and the inside of my apartment for evidence...

But after that adrenaline rush while still in my nightshirt, the rest of the day has been pretty uneventful. The storm abated around lunchtime although a rather English drizzle continues, and it seems that the Brit wanting the 'hurricane experience' has been the only student to suffer any damage to their home. Today mainly consisted of sitting around eating peanut butter sandwiches, listening to the radio, and driving around checking out the damage, including my front yard.

One derelict brick warehouse was rather dramatically blown down in town and a few trees have fallen, but apart from that, the power's been restored and everything's getting back to normal. It seems like the eastern part of the state is being hit much harder, with major floods and high winds.

I'm now staying in my crazy landlady's parrot-themed (down to the bedspread) spare room full of stuffed toys, with the real live parrots squawking at me from next door...


5:23 am

It began to rain gently about 3 hours ago but the winds are still barely above a breeze, and after a good supper (cooked by the second year students under the tutelage of crazy German Frank) outside at the Morrisette house, it is still hard to believe that we are supposed to have 10-15 hours of hurricane force winds tomorrow. It feels like all this emergency planning and refugee-like mentality is a bit of an over-reaction.

But already, Mobile (the port of south Alabama) and surrounding areas have had their power knocked out leaving around 100,000 without power in the Alabama area alone. Two people have been killed by one of five tornados in Florida, 52ft waves have been recorded by buoys and the eye still hasn't made landfall. I'm following it all at this newssite blog.

One thing I still haven't got my head around is how the eye can be moving north at 12 mph yet the surrounding winds are at 135-160mph. Meanwhile, they still haven't cancelled the college football games. In Greensboro, the old cliché of the calm before the storm rings true.


September 15, 2004 || 5:21 am

This hurricane business is getting serious here as the eye path is currently headed exactly for us here in Hale County. The governor of Alabama has declared a state of emergency. All the students on the main campus at Auburn have been evacuated and classes cancelled. But believe it or not, the football game on this weekend is still happening.

They wanted us to evacuate too, but where on earth would we go? Drive around the county chasing tornados for thrills in someone's jeep, I would think. It looks pretty scary on the satellite shots already.

Even this arrogant and powerful country is in panic over this force of nature. And the internet is in full swing with a dedicated blog.


September 14, 2004 || 5:40 am

Meanwhile, I may be in for my first real hurricane experience as Ivan the Terrible is heading my way. People ask me if I've ever experienced a hurricane, and although the famous storm on my birthday in 1987 was pretty terrifying to a 7 year old, I can't really compare it to this 160mph monster.

One of the predictable side-stories of the hurricanes this year that I hadn't previously considered is that those totally un-hurricane-proof trailer homes that we are trying to battle are on the increase.


3:52 am

A lovely weekend, with visits to Perry Lakes forest and park (and RS toilet block which dignifies the act to a sublime degree; see this view from the toilet seat)

(well, they had a $50,000 grant that they had to spend...and given the incredible peace and quiet of this virgin forest, I could certainly imagine happy hours of meditation here!)

...and finally, to pay a long overdue visit to my friend Lucy's wonderful (and prize-winning) porch for Ola Mae - a woman in one of the poorest black parts of Greensboro around Martin Luther King Drive. The porch still looks great, though one of the kids has bust out a bit of the screening, and Ola and her family who live in nearby trailers gave me a great welcome. Actually, they thought I was Lucy until I came up close; when absolutely no white girls ever come to that part of town, two girls with dark hair, headscarves and smiles can easily be mistaken.

But the most exciting bit of the weekend has been that another outreach student and I are going to rent out the Beacon Street Studios space, whose demise was sadly lamented in the Opelika-Auburn news last month. It's pretty awesome that for $150 a month each we can rent 2000 sq ft of space and a large back garden, although after that party it needs a bit of a cleanup...

It's owned by Raymond Stricklin, whose son (born-again drug addict and alcoholic - Dubya, anyone?) is the preacher at a church a few miles out of town. He invited us out there last night for their Sunday evening meeting to finalise arrangements, and who could resist! so we spent an hour in a pew in a huge modern shed of a church listening to the preacher doing karaoke versions of soft-rock hyms and watching a funky black lady and an old, dumpy white woman strut their stuff in the aisles, while various children looked various shades of embarrassed. It was extraordinary to witness first-hand the faith of these people who call upon the Lord and stamp out Satan with as much familiarity as if they were advertising the beneficial effects of ALFA insurance or the dangers of cockroaches. And it was all finished off with hot-dogs, Coke and ice-cream (so our dollars in the collection bucket went to good use!)

I thought taking a photo in church might be inappropriate, so y'all will have to make do with this photo of Stricklin and his four-month old Jack Russell.


September 11, 2004 || 7:35 am

Today after meeting and working in the studio I went with another outreach student for my first lesson in driving on the wrong side of the road, down to Mason's Bend, a small and impoverished community at the end of a dead end road near the Black Warrior river where many of the best-known RS projects are sited. They are weathered and aged already by the climate here, but seem to have become more part of the place and fitting for their purpose. Already some are like relics from another time; the chapel particularly, empty and neglected, an architectural experiment lost in the wilderness.

After dinner we went to the high school football game; Greensboro Raiders vs Jemison Panthers. The largely white Jemison team came with a troupe of glittery-costumed cheerleaders, athletic dancers and well-rehearsed band. Greensboro's band only started this year and has only been able to afford T-shirts to be worn with jeans, or black shorts. The sound they made was thin and their dance routines basic. To start with, we hung out looking over the fence, sitting on top of the car with a bunch of black people cooking tailgate food and similarly watching the game for free. After half time the game is free, so we moved inside.

After the game, all the cars move a few blocks down to the carpark of the strip mall, and everyone hangs out with music blaring, chatting and eyeing each other up for an hour or so, until the cops inevitably come to move them along.


September 10, 2004 || 2:08 am
A post about food

One down side of my little apartment here is that I don't have a table to eat at. Or rather, I would have a small square one, but it's taken up with all this laptop/work crap. So this means that tonight, you get dinner-time blogging (plate on table in front of laptop) on the subject of food.

I think I may be one of the only students here who actually cooks. (Tonight it's japanese-style chicken, with stir-fried vegetables and rice). I can see how this comes about. Cooking requires food shopping, which requires shops selling food and these are in pretty short supply.

We have Piggly Wiggly, whose glamorous name belies its contents; although a superstore about the size of a usual Tesco, it seems to sell virtually nothing I count as food and lots more varieties of crisps (sorry, chips), processed ham and cheese than I thought the market could ever possibly sustain. Then there's Fuller's, which is much the same but a bit cheaper. There's the Greensboro Farmer's Co-op, which I long to visit (apparently they have fresh herbs!), but when does a student who works from 9am to 7pm have time to make their opening hours, when co-ordinating a stop-off at Piggly Wiggly is also beyond organisation sometimes? Pam, an outreach student from last year, has started a vegetable garden with the girls at the local detention centre, but apparently the wardens won't touch its produce; it's freshness must be suspicious.

As I don't yet have my own vehicle, I always go shopping with someone else. Mine is the only shopping basket so far to contain a fresh fruit or vegetable. And the quality is terrible. The only people who complain are the girls from LA who turn their noses up at everything and whine for organic milk, and Frank, the eccentric German 2nd year tutor, who complains loudly and often ('this is disgusting, how can you eat this shit') and has found company in Elena, Andrew Freear's Italian girlfriend. Everyone else seems happy with microwave lasagne or peanut butter sandwiches.

But what is astonishing is how cheap it is to eat out. On 'Taco Tuesday' at the local Mexican, a taco costs $1.25 and a margarita $2.75. For the price of a pint of London Pride you can eat 2 tacos and a fiendishly strong margarita, supplemented by piles of free chips and salsa. When we were in Memphis we ate at the downtown (and only) franchise of Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken (and it was that good) and a full plate of chicken, fries and slaw, with beer, came to around $7.

The sprawling strips lining any major road are packed with signs advertising food at ridiculous prices. It is disturbing to wonder where it all comes from - the milllions of chickens, lobsters and steaks that are being consumed in these fried chicken/grill/steak and seafood houses - and even more so to consider that their staff must be paid next to nothing. A meal's worth of food from a supermarket is expensive in comparison.

I know where all the catfish comes from, however; the miles of catfish ponds, shimmering in the sun, that surround Greensboro, the Catfish Capital, and its factories some call the new plantations.


September 08, 2004 || 4:12 am

Spent the day with the thesis year students doing a blitz on the Thomaston Rural Heritage Centre project, a project by one of last year's thesis teams that's not yet finished. It's a pretty major building - the part refurb and part new build of a 5000 sq ft centre and community kitchen, and it's extraordinary to see what 5 (now reduced to 3) people can build with their bare hands - a really high quality of workmanship and design that is serious and professional. It's quite unlike the aesthetic of many of the well-known projects from the RS - much more polished and 'architectural' with glass, timber and metal - but also imaginative and fits its brief with style. And it's going to have a 100x30 ft long road sign donated by the Highways Authority above the building to signal its presence - so it's not entirely so serious.

We got a great lunch of barbeque and brownies made by the women who run the Heritage Centre - the best barbeque around, people say, and it was damn good, stoking us up for the afternoon's hard work in alternating downpours and sun, the fringes of Hurricane Frances.


September 07, 2004 || 4:02 am

Just back from spending Labor Day weekend in Memphis, an impromptu trip which originated when I called Butch, an artist friend of a friend who lives in Alabama and he told me he was going to be exhibiting at the Memphis Music and Heritage Festival and doing some partying along with it. Our party was completed by John Henry Toney, an extraordinary old black plowboy turned self-taught artist aged 76.

He rediscovered his artistic talents at the same time as Butch, who is also self-taught, around ten years ago and draws these astonishing pictures on board and paper.

He also sings and tells stories of the old times, and silenced the audience during his stage slot with his clear-voiced renditions of old gospel songs, before cracking them up with his stories.

However we tucked him up in bed at the house of Butch's long-suffering friend and music journalist Andrea, before hitting the town, the whisky bottle, and some rocking dancefloors three nights running at Hernando's Hide-Away, an old-time country bar with this in the ladies...

...the Buccaneer with the Royal Pendeltons...

...and Wild Bill's, the most jumping of black blues bars to which this photo does no justice...

...resulting in this happening to Butch around 4 in the morning somewhere along the way...

I also got my first lesson in bluegrass fiddling. Moral of the story, always go to Memphis with a music journalist.


September 03, 2004 || 7:24 am

I guess I should explain at this point that my project with the other Outreach Programme participants is to design and build a prototype house for low income families that can be built for $20,000 including labour. This is to fill the gap in the federal and state housing programmes for families in extreme poverty, of which there are a devastating number in West Alabama.

Housing grants under the Rural Development Programme are allocated in proportion to household income as compared to the median income of the surrounding area. The government classifies 'low-income' families as having under 80% of the median income for the area. 'Very low income' families have less than 50% of the median. They recently introduced a third category, 'extremely low income' for those with less than 30% of the median. Hundreds of families in Hale County fall into these categories, and are classified as high risk. When the median household income is $25,000, so 'extremely low income' families will have less than $7,500 income per year - around £4,000 per household per year.

Whole families here live on $546 (less than £300) a month, which means that although they are eligible to have a house built for them under the Rural Development programme, it has to cost between $20-30,000 in order for them to afford the repayments. Of course, no construction firm builds for this little; and you have to use an approved builder of which the cheapest I think is around twice that price. You can buy a trailer home of terrible quality, that you can take away with you immediately like a car and only costs $20,000, but these do not count for grant aid and with finance packages from local banks sometimes running at an extortionate 27% interest, your cheap home may cost you twice as much and not even be paid for by the time it starts to fall apart around you.

Many of these families are elderly like Juanita, often with disabilities, and often looking after large numbers of grandchildren while their parents seek work in more prosperous areas. Around 50% of the population in neighbouring Perry County has diabetes due to bad diet. This is who we are trying to house.


7:07 am

There is an ongoing programme here of lectures by invited practitioners from a range of disciplines. Yesterday we had our first Wednesday night meal and invited lecture - the weekly opportunity for the whole Rural Studio to get together and catch up. This week we had Chris Krager from KRDB talking about their efforts to build good design for the masses, or what they call affordable architecture for the urban/suburban middle classes who are not served by either the high-end luxury architecture or the social housing programmes. The main interest was that they effectively take a middle-class approach to the Rural Studio's self-build ethos, acting not only as architects but as the contractors, bringing a meaning to 'design and build' that is far from its British connotations.

This evening we had two talks - firstly from two extremely enthusiastic brothers who have been looking into cob construction (similar to adobe) for houses principally in California and Oregon, and who are planning to build themselves a house in Alabama. While they were engaging, the hippy aesthetic of the projects they showed - all curvy walls and 'organic' earth-mother-ish forms - was offputting and I couldn't help thinking of the elegance of the mud and straw buildings of Iran that I saw when I was there in comparison. Also, I feel that there must be a reason that adobe buildings are not indigenously found in climates that are humid as well as hot. However, the rammed earth that the RS has previously used appears to have been successful so maybe there is a use for this technology if designed well.

The second talk this evening was from a Methodist preacher called Darcy Walker who has been building super-cheap houses for the poor in north Alabama for the last 20 years. They have a fixed plan, rigidly oriented to make use of passive solar gain, and are built using volunteer labour and funds raised through churches. They cost $36,000 to build and are then mortaged with no interest to extremely low income families with repayments of between $35-100 a month. A pretty impressive programme, if not for its architecture, which is conventional and depressing for its lack of any consideration other than economy.


4:58 am

Finally I have my own internet connection fixed up with my laptop, which means I can show y'all some pictures! So, to backtrack, welcome to Greensboro! you can click on all the pictures to see a larger sized version if you would like...

This is what I dived straight into when I arrived...many pairs of hands at Juanita's house

and Andrew Freear, the Yorkshire-born director of the Rural Studio since the death of Sambo Mockbee, and his Italian photographer girlfriend Elena fixing up some windows...

Andrew and Elena have got a grant to document a year in the life of the Rural Studio and produce a book next year. The projects this year are going to be exciting and Elena's already doing a lot of amazing photographic work, so it should be good.

And here is Juanita herself with some of her family, talking to Andrew (sorry for the fuzzy photo)

...and her jars of preserves, neatly installed on her new kitchen shelves.

And this is the Red Barn, the RS's studio building, during a spectacular Alabama sunset. I can't imagine a more extraordinary architecture department building than this old barn clad entirely in rusty corrugated steel, in the almost-ghost town of Newbern. Every time I enter it, I find it hard to believe that we study in this place day in, day out. I will try to post some better pictures in due course when I get time to photograph it properly.

The other part of the RS 'campus' is the Morrisette house, where the office is, the student-built accommodation pods and two supersheds used for meetings and dining, and construction. Below is the construction supershed where one of the thesis teams is finishing making trusses for the new fire station opposite the Red Barn.

They have done all the work themselves; building the laminated timber beams, welding the metalwork, and pouring the foundations on site - a phenomenal achievement but one that explains why this project has not been completed within the year that thesis projects are inteneded to take. Most of last year's thesis projects are still under construction due to their ambitious scale as community buildings.

Today we had our first history class, going out to visit a former plantation at Fulsom. Quite extraordinary and moving, especially the plantation store where all the sharecroppers were forced to shop due to the system of credit under which they worked.

But it was strange to me that the main focus of the class was less on the plantation and sharecropping social order and more on the architecture and craft of the buildings on the site and the agricultural processes which they served. The huge poverty and inequality which must have enabled the building and manning of the plantation was not mentioned, despite the presence of a slave register in the shop. Perhaps this was due to the presence of the middle-aged descendant of the plantation family who acts as a tour guide on the historic site. But the sheer physical labour of building even the simplest structure with primitive hand tools was impressed upon us at every turn - the marks of axes and hand drills pointed out - without mention of the fact of whose labour it was that was used.

And while our guide remarked that a huge number of people depended on the plantation owner for their livelihood and land, he did not point out that the opposite was also true; that without the bonded labour of slaves and then sharecroppers, the plantation and the relatively luxurious life of his ancestors would not have been possible.

This weekend is Labor Day and almost everyone is going back either to Auburn for the football game, to visit their girl/boyfriends or to their parents.


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