The Rural Studio #1 - The Perry Lakes Park Restrooms


I've wanted to go to Auburn University's The Rural Studio since the moment I heard of it sometime in the late 1990s. This year I had a hole in my schedule and a hankering to hit the road, so I went. Hale County, southwest of Birmingham, is a surprisingly large place, fairly flat farmland broken up by gentle rises and large rectangular catfish ponds.  

The Studio HQ is in an old Victorian on the main drag in a town called Newbern. Their projects are scattered all over the county, places called Masons Bend, Sawyerville, Marion, Greensboro, Faunsdale, Footwash. Their signature project is the 20K House, an attempt to create a pattern for sustainable living that will displace quickly depreciating mobile and prefab homes. For a variety of reasons I won't go into here, I decided not to focus on the 20K homes, but a less well known grab bag of civic projects including the Newborn Library, the Greensboro Boy's & Girls Club, the Antioch Church, and The Glass Chapel. 

Civic engagement can be a tricky thing in a rural area. For one thing, people are thin on the ground in rural America. There's only about 15,000 people in all of Hale County, and at 657 square miles it's not a small county as they go. It's a poor place, a hard place. You could call it one of the forgotten corners of America. Samuel Mockbee, the Studio’s founder, seemed to think that it was a good place to teach architecture students something about designing and building that they couldn't learn in a classroom.

Just east of Marion, which is itself just east of Newbern, a dirt road leads past a fish hatchery to Perry Lakes Park. The park, hidden away in the swampy woods, isn't much to look at. Small muddy creeks run so diffidently that I can't tell which direction they are flowing. A small branch dropped in the water seems to move first one way, then back so slowly that the eye can barely visualize. There is a birding tower, presumably the catalyst for the park itself, off in the woods nearby. 

But I've come to see the toilets. There's nothing quite like taking care of one's business with a natural view, and airy breezes caressing one's tender bits. An outhouse is rarely a pleasant experience, but give me ample ventilation and a choice view, and I might change my mind. These projects were built in 2003, and they have aged relatively well, constructed mainly from pine beams and boards, and aluminum sheathing, all held together by steel gusset plates. The raw pine still glows warmly inside, while outside it has weathered to a silvery gray. One of the structures had a group of enormous and industrious wasps, big around as my thumb, building a new home in it. Still, each of the three toilets was stocked with toilet paper.

One of the toilets has two wings that reach out to embrace a live tree. Another has a bunker-like horizontal slit window that looks down a small meadow, as if to enfilade that approach. The third resembles a mine shaft extracted from the ground, a giant splinter drawn most of the way out. Inside, the feeling of contained space above the seat of repose is curious, like being at the bottom of a well. A gentle breeze is pulled off the forest floor and through the gaps at the foundation, then up the column, which acts as a giant chimney. I think it had something to do with the top half being in sunshine, and the lower in shade. The effect is quite pleasing, apropos to the utility of the structure, and I wonder if that was the plan all along or just a happy accident.

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