Our emerging national conversation about sustainability has a decidedly “eat your spinach” tone. We’re steeling ourselves to enter the realm of sacrifice, and penance. But in all my conversations of recent years, I’ve been struck by the heightened sense of delight and beauty in lives and communities pursuing a new alignment with the natural world.
Innovation in sustainability often begins, I’ve found, with people defining what they cherish as much as diagnosing what is wrong. I think of Majora Carter. The remarkably ambitious project she founded, Sustainable South Bronx, began when she and the people of that borough started to reclaim their riverfront for refreshment and play.
I think also of Barbara Kingsolver, finding in a year of sustainable eating that when it comes to food, the ethical choice is also the pleasurable choice. I’ve been energized by her insistence that as we all face the grand ecological crises of our time, one of our most important renewable resources is hope. We simply have to put it on with our shoes every morning.
Our visit to the Rural Studio is an immersion in hope. This project is at once an architectural adventure and a social experiment. It offers beauty as an antidote to the ruins of history and the death of imagination. It began with the singular vision of the late legendary architect Samuel Mockbee, who left a lucrative private practice to follow his sense of architecture as a “social art.” He partnered with Alabama’s Auburn University architectural school, joining his vision with the energy and ideas of the students being trained there.
“Everybody wants the same thing, rich or poor,” he taught them, “not only a warm, dry room, but a shelter for the soul.”
These days, the Rural Studio is creating more public spaces than private houses and sometimes recycling entire buildings — preserving history and memory while creating something new. In everything they do, they aspire to “zero maintenance” construction. As the current director Andrew Freear puts it, this is sustainability with a small ‘s’ — focused not on what is cutting-edge, but on what can be maintained by real people with limited resources over time.
And because of the care that goes into this — an application of social as well as professional intelligence — something larger than architectural integrity emerges. In the lives and projects of the Rural Studio one finds real community, a fierce sense of the dignity of human life, and a creative, responsible, ongoing encounter with the natural and material worlds.
The writer Frederich Buechner has said that vocation happens “when our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.” I’m beginning to see the work of sustainability as an unfolding vocation — not merely a response to problems, but an invitation to possibility and a way to strengthen moral resources such as delight, dignity, elegance, and hope.