...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
about me || email me || RSS feed || give me a present || A blog about urban planning, if that interests you

[more photos]

October 31, 2004 || 11:41 pm

Why is Halloween so huge in the States? I heard it is the biggest holiday in terms of commercial gain, themed sales etc after Christmas. Whatever, it was a great excuse for a costume party at Butch's house, complete with Butch dressed as an astonishingly convincing woman in a sequinned red dress, a few ghouls, a Freudian slip (well done, Miss Mockbee), lots of music and dancing and drinking with an eccentric mix of people at his fantastic house in Seale. Unfortunately, the night's grand guignol was a little more extreme than intended, when at around 2am Butch fell down from the ladder to one of the lofts straight onto his side, and had to be taken to hospital with seven broken ribs, moaning 'Get me out of this girly shit before you take me anywhere', a request that we obliged. We visited him today and he was looking pretty rough hooked up to all sorts of drips and monitors. Send your get-well cards to 41 Poorhouse Road, Seale, Alabama.

Another side-effect of the party was that I somehow managed to lose my camera...so you have to take my word for it that Butch's house is one of the most wonderful places to live I have ever entered. He built it himself, on the side of a wooded hill in the most perfect location, and its spaciousness, peace, many porches and decks on which to spend time talking, eating or reading and his fantastic collection of strange objects, books, furniture and art suggest a pretty perfect life. How lucky one would be, to be able to live like that in the middle of the beautiful Alabama landscape, with a garden, woods, land, a peaceful sprawling house, and a thriving practice of art that can sustain you.


October 30, 2004 || 7:53 pm

The next step towards me being a fully fledged American driver has been completed! The Frog has landed...I am now the proud owner at the age of 24 of my first ever vehicle - a 1991 Jeep Cherokee in park ranger green. Too cool. Big thanks to the Gay family for allowing me to buy this fantastic jeep for a ridiculously low sum of money.


2:34 am

Good to know that London's still got some eccentrics.


October 29, 2004 || 7:00 pm

Hooray! I'm the proud owner of my first piece of official paperwork from the State of Alabama - a provisional drivers licence. Yes, only just provisional...but given the tortuous bureaucracy involved, this feels like a major achievement. Next week I can take the real thing.

I've been talking to several people here about studying in Europe/the UK, and getting an email yesterday from a Cambridge friend saying how dying that school seems now, was pretty sad for me. That a small, unique and well-respected school like Cambridge should have to axe its diploma course, and suffer the inevitable decline that follows, seems to me absolutely ridiculous when viewed on a global scale. The name of Cambridge, and the global reputation of the university offers a unique opportunity for the architecture school to lead on the world scale as a proponent of an alternative credo to the obscuratism and formalism of other schools. It is shaming that both within the department and the university as a whole there lacked the leadership and vision to re-establish a confident agenda for the school. Now I have to tell people here that going onto a graduate degree at my alma mater now, one of the most famous names in education worldwide, is not even possible any more due to its minute budget being deemed excessive.

The Rural Studio has managed to build its reputation without a famous university behind it, and also continually faces a battle for its existence and pressure from its mother ship. Auburn also can't understand that the Rural Studio is the university's only export on the global stage, and that its football team is a pretty parochial concern. From what I've heard, they tend to think that its a holiday camp for architects, that we don't really do anything and that our shoestring management budget (which itself was only grudgingly instituted after Mockbee won the MacArthur Prize) is not justified, despite the RS managing to fundraise all the money for the actual projects on the basis of its national and international reputation.

Anyway, rant over. I feel like I haven't posted enough pictures recently, so here's a snap of Lyle's soul food diner for y'all.


12:01 am

My first late-ish night working in studio before our review today. I spent most of the afternoon and evening and night listening to BBC Radio 5 via the internet, due to the great sporting events on offer...Arsenal babies in the Carling Cup and the fabulous, exciting, result-of-the-century Red Sox win. It was pretty strange listening to baseball commentary via the BBC, interrupted with the news and travel updates from 3am Britain (flooding on the A28 etc), and then catching the shipping forecast and the first hour of the Today programme, thinking of all my friends who wake up to it in the morning, before going to bed myself at around 3am.

It's amazing how the slightest stimulus awakens memories; I could hear the precise sounds of London waking around me, the noise of cars along Cheshire Street and my boiler clicking in the morning, the expected background to John Humphrys' voice. Despite not being homesick at all here, the nostalgia and the sense of 'old England' was unexpected. Compared to NPR, the culture of the BBC is pretty extraordinary.

Another football aside: Andrew Freear, our director, used to be a professional goalkeeper for Sunderland FC in his former life...


October 27, 2004 || 5:28 am

I decided it might be time to do a little research and find out who else blogs in Alabama. Oh my gawd. A lot of people are listed here. A lot of guys just like the ones I see around town, except somehow they got into blogging. Guys, if any of you are reading this, let me know how/why you decided to take your lives online.

Its pretty amazing how many people have basically dedicated their blogs to following the election (usually to the purpose of lambasting Kerry). People have put in a lot of work rehashing stuff from better-known right-wing websites. It's basically a big chain of links with no original material (the vastly long blogrolls testify to that) and one wonders what the natural selection of the blogosphere will do to these blogs.

A few Bamablogs that particularly caught my eye are listed now in the sidebars. As I no longer know what's happening in England I've taken off those links.


October 26, 2004 || 5:25 pm

Alas, poor John Peel. I knew him once...we met last year at Ipswich Town Football Club, who were playing Rotherham and lost. He'd been up till 2am the night before playing at Fabric. What a legend.


4:14 am

It's Monday again, and we did a lot of work in studio which I won't bore you with (foundation details and suchlike joys.)

Election fever is definitely hotting up here. Lou's (now open again after their holiday, which I discovered was to a church convention) is the centre of canvassing, not so much for a particular party, but for voter registration. All the students apart from me have been made to register here over the past few weeks, and now we're all being reminded to actually cast our votes. Lou's is a black-owned business with a very (unusually) mixed crowd of customers, and it's always interesting to hear the conversation there. Alabama will certainly go Republican again, but the Black Belt apparently goes Democrat. It's amazing how strongly this shows up on the maps. - a red belt running through the centre of the state. All of which means that the lunch-time scene in Lou's is buzzing with talk, definitely tending towards the radical and with a strong vein of protest, whether towards the hotly disputed recent mayoral election (apparently lots of dead people voted with absentee ballots), statewide or national politics. Mustang Oil is the opposite - displaying a photocopied sheet the other day spreading scaremongering rumours about John Kerry. I pocketed it (the only copy) in the hope that I could at least prevent other less questioning readers from taking its contents seriously - probably a vain hope.


4:14 am

It's Monday again, and we did a lot of work in studio which I won't bore you with (foundation details and suchlike joys.)

Election fever is definitely hotting up here. Lou's (now open again after their holiday, which I discovered was to a church convention) is the centre of canvassing, not so much for a particular party, but for voter registration. All the students apart from me have been made to register here over the past few weeks, and now we're all being reminded to actually cast our votes. Lou's is a black-owned business with a very (unusually) mixed crowd of customers, and it's always interesting to hear the conversation there. Alabama will certainly go Republican again, but the Black Belt apparently goes Democrat. It's amazing how strongly this shows up on the maps. - a red belt running through the centre of the state. All of which means that the lunch-time scene in Lou's is buzzing with talk, definitely tending towards the radical and with a strong vein of protest, whether towards the hotly disputed recent mayoral election (apparently lots of dead people voted with absentee ballots), statewide or national politics. Mustang Oil is the opposite - displaying a photocopied sheet the other day spreading scaremongering rumours about John Kerry. I pocketed it (the only copy) in the hope that I could at least prevent other less questioning readers from taking its contents seriously - probably a vain hope.


October 24, 2004 || 7:11 pm

But now, I'm broken-hearted...and following such things long-distance over ball-by-ball updates on the BBC website isn't a good way to do these things. Is it a fitting way to end the record-breaking run, or the saddest reminder of human fallibility?

The Red Sox victory somehow doesn't make up for the loss I feel...


4:47 pm

Another action-packed Saturday. A catfish fry in Mason's Bend, a small community that is becoming known as the Rural Studio Village due to the number of projects that have been built there. The reason for the get-together was to spend time with some clients for houses this year, the communtiy matriach Willie Bell Harris and her family (her daughter Christine, currently homeless, is also getting a house).

It was really fun, lots of eating and talking to real people which is always refreshing after a week in studio glued to the drawing board. A community group from Uniontown was visiting some RS projects and joined in the lunch, and I spent quite a lot of the lunch talking to three sisters. Further to yesterday's entry, I asked them what they thought of the RS houses and how they might feel about having houses like that. They loved them - 'I want a cardboard house in my back yard so I can escape from my kids' and 'If I ever can redo my roof I want to make it like the Butterfly House' and 'I think if one person in Uniontown got a house like this, everyone would want one' were some comments, also illustrating the point that the attitude of the questioner is definitely reflected in the answers you get!

Then home, and more Cara-Mae breadmaking while I dug in the back yard the start of a garden, working off all that good food. And a great surprise when Ted Whisenhunt, of the Kudzu String Band turned up with friend and we had a little jam of some old-time music...great fun and hopefully lots more to come with these cool musicians.

Then later on it was piling into the back of a truck and off to Club 28, a pool/music bar on Route 28, for lots of beer and bourbon, pool playing, jukebox-djing and dancing with/fending off the owner's one-armed step-father (pictured below in the cowboy hat). Carol Mockbee definitely had the best (or worst of it), being spun around to some lively country music. Eventually when he got too persistent (and the feel of his stump got too weird) I had to resort to 'No', repeated loudly. Phillip won a Mustang Oil t-shirt from one of the over-testosteroned men who dared him to kiss him on the cheek. Such are the crazy Saturday nights in West Alabama...


October 23, 2004 || 3:04 am

For some reason this week has been particularly exhausting. Today we had a review with Dan Wheeler, a Chicago architect who is buzzing with enthusiasm and very much an architect's architect, obsessive about detailing and the small corners that one sometimes feels that no-one else notices. Last night he gave a talk about some of his work which was like a mirage of architectural pornography to us money-starved students, hemmed in by tight budgets, lack of craft skill and our own expectations of what we are meant to be achieving here, which is certainly in my case not million-dollar windowframes and the miraculously unsupported concrete box that he has designed for Penny Pritzker (yes, the Pritzker Prize one)(and the secret is in post-tensioning through two slender walls down 100 feet into the bedrock). I loved it, but it made me feel slightly guilty, a cross between revealing that you are a secret computer geek and coveting absurd dresses in the window of Chanel.

Today reviewing our project he was great, helpful and suggesting highly architectural avenues of exploration in contrast with the concerns that some members of the group hold about making our house 'normal' and inconspicuous. Again, this is one of the hardest and oldest questions in the book, especially given the very particular cultural sensibilities of our diverse client group. I optimistically believe that 'even' (surely 'especially'?) the poverty-stricken of Hale County can and will appreciate worth and beauty in good, stylish contemporary design despite the fact that in all our questioning of the client group, their answers are predictably conservative. I don't believe it is true that anything other than a reductive gabled-roof box won't be acceptable or feel like home; for me that is a catch-all solution that is lowest common denominator in its ambition and the sense of self-worth that it gives its inhabitants.

One may also point to the highly contemporary aesthetic of the other Rural Studio projects, though a rebuttal is that they were the products of a long conversation with an individual client resulting in an education on both sides, of which we don't have the possibility. For me, to carry out Sambo Mockbee's maxim of 'warm, dry and noble', the last adjective is key. If you make something special and with love, then people can feel it and will want to inhabit it. The sure way to make our client group prefer a trailer home to our house is to patronise them with an architecture that we think they will like.

Meanwhile, Lou (of the bakery fame) has gone on her first holiday in 15 years, so this week we've spent far too much time in Mustang Oil.


October 20, 2004 || 12:00 am

Breaking news...the firestation crew (unfinished thesis project from last year) have finally put up their huge trussed columns...just before the most dramatic thunderstorm broke over Newbern. And finally we have wireless networking up in the studio. Joy.

Apart from that, today has been the day of visiting local people and potential clients for the $20,000 house. These spanned the extremes - from 86 year old Elizabeth Phillips, whose house is falling down around her but which she still keeps immaculately clean and tidy, her rag dolls and ornaments arranged on lace doilies, to schizophrenic Dinah, whose house is literally full of rubbish, leaving a 4ft square space in which she can stand, and who makes burial mounds for deceased household objects in her garden, covered in branches, brushwood and tarpaulins. These have a strange beauty and power; as does the entrance-way to her house (which you have to enter by crawling) covered in branches and flowers. She has no bathroom, and as a result of filling her house to the ceiling with trash, now sleeps outside. How we can really help her, it's hard to know, but it's also wonderful that she exists in her eccentricity - making her totemic artworks, and greeting my request for a photo with 'sure, I'm so dirty and ugly and mean, I'm a mean hard bitch, why the hell you take a picture of me.'


October 19, 2004 || 2:52 am

We spent all afternoon today tramping round Lowe's looking at materials, getting more and more weary and depressed at being surrounded by unending dross. It was only relieved by a visit to Dairy Queen on the way back for icecream.


October 18, 2004 || 1:23 am

My lovely sunny weekend:

Early morning bread making with Cara Mae and general cookfest, cooking up all the excess detention centre produce for freezing...

Lunch in the back yard before heading off to the Kentuck arts festival...

...involving my first ride in an American school bus...

...and more eating, before heading off to a free food-and-drink after-party with Butch, Cynthia (an ex-outreacher) and Jessie (another Auburn student), ending up with us collapsing into an oversized bed in the Hampton Inn.

(don't worry, no naughtiness occurred)

Today:more hanging out at Kentuck with various artists of good and bad varieties -some fantastic, some charlatans, as befits the scene. And now, back at home about to cook a Real Sunday Dinner.


October 16, 2004 || 4:54 am

It was my birthday today, and last night we had a party in Beacon Street. It was fun, I had a surprise cake, lots of beer was drunk, and the best present was definitely a mug from a local farmer, Laird Cole, with a small cow in the bottom. You probably have to see it.

In the middle of the party it was somehow decided that we had to go and 'roll' the house of one of the students who wasn't there. Another aspect of that strange American college culture, which involves lots of wasted toilet roll thrown into the trees and around the bushes in someone's yard. It was actually strangely beautiful in effect, if one forgets the college humour aspect.

Its turned chilly over the last few days - jumpers are a necessity, which takes some getting used to after the sweltering heat. But every morning now there is a sharp nip in the air, and at night you need to wrap up. The dark is closing in, too, and the other morning I woke up to thick fog. The last couple of days I've been helping Daniel Boone put in a disabled bathroom at the hay-bale house, the very first Rural Studio project to be built. Alberta Bryant, who lives there, has not had legs for some time now. The house also has aged - it looks small and poverty-stricken despite its attempts at ennoblement, and has not been maintained. Talking with Daniel, we both don't understand how people never feel the need to maintain their dwellings but will let them decay and become filled with junk. It is sad to see, especially in this humid climate where any building material will soak up moisture and rot, given half a chance.


October 14, 2004 || 3:26 am

Another week, another review, this time with the legendary John Forney, a former Outreach Studio professor. He was gratifyingly a bit harder on all of us than our previous critics, though still to my ears pretty gentle. Our group is still somewhat divided between those who think that the prototype house should be made entirely of things that you can buy from Lowes (an American cross between Travis Perkins and B&Q) and those who think it should be made of straw/bamboo/small roundwood/sheeps wool insulation.

Actually, I am probably the only true member of the first group. The other option might well result in a more interesting building, but to satisfy the criteria of being an easily reproducible prototype, for me it needs to be made using absolutely standard materials and technology. Otherwise without our zeal to carry it forward, I can't truly see anyone ever bothering to reproduce it, and if you live in poverty you will still be living in a third-hand trailer home. The question is really one of sustainability; although Lowes is about as ethical as Wal-Mart, is it better to have a lot of well-designed cheap houses for those in need, or to have vastly fewer but for those few to have impeccable ethical credentials? At the end of the day, you're still going to buy hardware and fixtures from Lowes anyway, even for the straw-bale house.

However, we realised today that we need to add 8% sales tax onto all our costings, which means that our materials budget is now around $9000. Which may mean that the Lowes house is not affordable and we're going to have to use super-cheap stuff like straw.

Afterwards, we had a community dinner where all the Newbern folks cooked for the Rural Studio to say thank-you to us for clearing up all the fallen trees and limbs after Ivan. It was held under the big shed, like all RS get-togethers, and there was some really great food. Good Southern cooking - grits, fried chicken, pork and beans, eggs, potato salad, green beans with ham. We made all the Newbern residents say who they were and either what as children they wanted to be when they grew up, or which movie star they last dreamt about. Answers ranged from barrel racer to opera singer, and Mel Gibson to some completely random soap stars who no-one had heard of.


October 12, 2004 || 4:47 am

After another 12 hour day in the studio I'm unwinding in front of the, er, computer screen. It's a pretty intense process and absolutely fantastic how many ideas can be posited, explored, discarded or adopted within one day. Especially when all we're really dealing with is a very small box and a couple of porches. But with only $10,000 to spend on materials, every single decision has huge ramifications.

Today we met with a local contractor, Mike Thomas, who is a long-standing friend and helper to the Rural Studio. He's a pretty interesting guy, having started his own construction firm after working mainly in electrical and mechanical installation and with a great and encouraging interest in exploring unconventional materials and construction techniques. He built a rammed earth house designed by Steve Hoffman, a former Rural Studio tutor, and today was trying to persuade us that staw bale was the way forward. I'm not convinced, mainly because if this is to be a true prototype able to be recreated many times, I'm not sure how many contractors without his enthusiasm would really be willing to go out and find a load of straw bales when they could just build an ordinary stick frame house. But it was enormously helpful to have his input on how best to rationalise and streamline the building for minimum labour cost. However, our dreams of making this a house able to be built by two men took a bit of a knock when he said that he would put six men on for two months in order to build it. Optimistically, I think he's over-estimated, but we should probably take his word for it.

One of the great things about working here is being able to talk to people like Mike, or Johnny Parker, or Whitelaw Bailey in Sledge Hardware about everything from overriding concepts to the minutiae of what plumbing fixture we need to fix our shower. With their huge experience of building, they know far better than most architects how a building really works. And we can walk out onto the street and see how people have built here over the last 200 years, before going back to the computer lab and finding out what the latest high-tech thinking is, and drawing it all on AutoCAD.

Today's shocking discovery about life in Hale County is that 53% of single mothers here live below the poverty line - that is, earn less than $12,000 a year.


October 10, 2004 || 1:03 am

Yesterday I went with Pam Dorr, an outreacher from last year who is staying on this year doing housing work, on her weekly visit to the girls detention centre, where she has been making a vegetable garden for the last year. Great fun pulling sweet potatoes and other produce, the last of the year before it is ploughed up for winter crops. The girls are fun and boisterous, and nicknamed me 'Miss England'. It's a non-secure centre where they are sent for good behaviour but their crimes range from grand theft larceny downwards. One said she had been thrown out of every school in her home county. The day before, three girls had tried to run away, despite one being only a week away from her release, and they had been sent back to the lock-down prison.

We took home masses of sweet potato and aubergine (sorry, eggplant) which made a really good dinner...

Afterwards, we went for beers at the Shack, a redneck bar outside Marion. Very redneck: cans of Budweiser and peanut shells all over the floor, a jukebox of country music and the presidential debate on the TV. No prizes for guessing who they all will vote for.

Today was Saturday, which for me meant getting up super-early to go to all the shops I wanted to before they all close at lunchtime (hardware store, thrift shop, flea market). Then it was a big work day at Beacon Street with lots of noise and dirt: Charles power-washing the floor, me building a kitchen worktop, Phillip building a planter on our front porch, and Cara-Mae making beautiful bread with pomegranate seeds.


October 08, 2004 || 4:38 am

Meanwhile, I've downloaded my Arizona photos...here's one. I felt that seeing the huge empty desert was maybe more extraordinary than the Grand Canyon.


4:22 am

Well, after all the crit went pretty well. The powerpoint got tidied up and the rest of the presentation went fine. It surprises me how easy the crits are here. No-one is devastatingly rude about projects or deliberately provocative as in England. You get clapped at the end of your presentation and then they say nice things, even for projects where there really hasn't been that much progress or where the group has clear problems.

Altogether not as tough and in fact slightly disconcerting; although it is nice that you don't get demolished, in fact it is more useful to have criticism, however harsh, than the gentle words we get. I almost wished that we were told that we hadn't done enough work or were barking up the wrong tree. Another cultural difference, I am told.


October 07, 2004 || 4:55 am

After amazing Arizona it's back to the grindstone. We've got a crit tomorrow so I'm up with my computer tonight. This is again testing my not-exactly-perfect people skills, trying to get the best out of our architecturally inexperienced team without over-directing them to do things as I might do. This means that often the end result is something that I am embarrassed to present, because it's not up to what I consider to be an appropriate standard. It's things like the graphic design of a powerpoint presentation; it makes me wince to see deliberately mixed font sizes in a single sentence and cheesy excel graphs. The regular students' architectural backgrounds stand them in good stead here, with their graphics if not always their ideas - I'm jealous.

I really want to say 'look, I'll do it all' but when I've already over-committed myself to drawing all the other things that no-one else knows how to do, this isn't a good idea. And I don't want the rest of the group to feel redundant and tetchy. Very good training for my patience and diplomacy skills, which are both terrible!


October 05, 2004 || 2:25 am

Apologies to all for not posting all week. We've been on a 4000-mile road trip to Arizona and back, ostensibly as rent-a-mob for the RS's exhibition opening, really to have our minds blown open by that great big desert.

What can I say: huge skies, pink rocks, valleys fifty miles wide, plateaus, endless forests of green pine and golden aspen, no people, a mountain lion, driving all night across Texas seeing radio towers blinking in a hundred-mile array. America's absolutely the most beautiful country on earth. I can't understand why it's inhabitants aren't the most eco-conscious do-no-harm types ever. Why do they keep fucking it all up?

Though there is also a guilty and luxuriant pleasure in the fact that they dare to make cities 70 miles wide, great curving empty freeways and endless abundant sprawl of garish strip-malls full of cheap pleasures, spreading like kudzu. But I also felt a huge sadness seeing the depopulated plains while watching Westerns on the in-car DVD player, the history of the elimination of the people and animals that used to make it alive.


My del.icio.us page

Developing [news]