A South Forty: Architecture And Place In The American South
by Peter MacKeith, Dean and Professor of Architecture
Special thanks to the University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, the Presenting Sponsor of the Oxford American's Summer Fall 2020 Place Issue.
“The truth is, Americans are of two minds as to how we ought to live. Publicly we say harsh things about urban sprawl and suburbia, and we encourage activity in the heart of town. In theory, but only in theory, we want to duplicate the traditional compact European community where everyone takes part in a rich and diversified public life. But at the same time most of us are secretly pining for a secluded hideaway, a piece of land, or a small house in the country where we can lead an intensely private nonurban existence, staying close to home. I am not entirely sure that this is a real contradiction. While we agree that scatteration and the dying central city are both of them unsightly and illogical, we also, I think, feel a deep and persistent need for privacy and independence in our domestic life. That is why the freestanding dwelling on its own well-defined plot of land, whether in a prosperous residential neighborhood or in impoverished urban fringes, is so persistent a feature of our landscape. That is why our downtown areas, however vital they may be economically, are so lacking in what is called a sense of place.”
(A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time, John Brinckerhoff Jackson)
Perhaps it is the sense of place that gives us the belief that passionate things, in some essence, endure.
(Some Notes on River Country, Eudora Welty)
“Places and buildings … buildings and places,” mused Marlon Blackwell, the 2020 AIA Gold Medalist in Architecture and my faculty colleague at the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, in response to my question to him on the purposes of the design education we attempt to provide our students. For Marlon, an Air Force child of the South, educated in architecture initially in Alabama, with his first commissions in North Carolina, and now 28 years in Arkansas as a professor and practitioner, that simple phrase definitively distills his experiences and comprehensions of where he is and what he values in life and work: the place of building, of designing and building well, has been the American South. Importantly, Marlon’s Arkansas predecessor as AIA Gold Medalist and on the School’s faculty, the architect Fay Jones (1921-2003), asserted the same purposes and commitment to place throughout his career, the differences of time and architectural character notwithstanding, initially determining to seek commissions no further than a day’s drive from Fayetteville.
The generation of architects educated and on faculty here in the School over the last nearly thirty years – representative of the “new or next” generation in architecture in the South, perhaps - with the examples of Jones and then Blackwell in front of them, have continued this place-based commitment to practice in the region, and amplified that commitment through the distinctions of their own burgeoning portfolios of projects, commissions and awards. In central Arkansas, building upon a strong tradition of several strong professional practices situated in Little Rock, the design-centered practice of Polk Stanley Wilcox emerged already in the 1980s and has now expanded its reach regionally, while in northwest Arkansas modus studio, dMx Architects, SILO AR+D, and Hufft Architects (initially a Kansas City-based practice), among others, now benefit from the expanding university and corporate prosperity of the region and distinguish themselves through their attention to the character and conditions of this corner of the South.
But this initial and still limited focus on Arkansas is provided only as an initial emblematic example, a perspective by which to evoke a broader and deeper richness to the new and still expanding architecture of the American South. In this context and by this legacy, the Fay Jones School of Architecture, University of Arkansas, is pleased to work with the Oxford American to support an issue of the Oxford American surveying the vibrant, distinctive contemporary architecture and design practices of the American Southeast. This effort takes its cues from the critically successful and popularly appealing annual Oxford American issue highlighting the music of the American South and proposes that architecture and design - the built environment - is as reflective and definitive of the culture and values of society as the forms of music that animate that society. The issue proposes to provide a critical overview of the current vitality of contemporary architecture and design in the American South, through both illustrated profiles of buildings and practices - from Florida to Texas, from Virginia to Louisiana - and written essays and observations by those in practice in the region.
While there is a pre-existing modern architectural history to refer to in this context, one with origins in the post-World War II years - from Paul Rudolph and the Saratoga School in Florida to Chris Risher, Sr. in Mississippi, to Fay Jones and Warren Segraves in the Ozarks and Bruce Goff in Oklahoma, respectively - the focus of the “new story” will be on the development of architecture and design in the American Southeast over the last generation (from 1990 forward) as the region undergoes rapid economic and population growth, withstands and recovers from multiple natural disasters, and discovers a more complex social identity amidst the historical societal traditions and conventions.
The contemporary regional narrative is configured by the work of architects emerging in the 1990s, such as Blackwell here in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the eponymous firm of Eskew Dumez Ripple in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the partnership of Ann Duvall and Roy Decker in Jackson, Mississippi – all of whom have built subsequently ever more accomplished practices; by Samuel Mockbee’s initial leadership of the Rural Studio at Auburn University, Alabama, since succeeded for the last twenty years of work in Hale County by the energetic leadership of Andrew Freear, and the distinctive work of Merrill Elam and Mack Scogin in Atlanta, Georgia, Ray Huff and Mario Gooden in Charleston, South Carolina, and W.G. Clark and Charles Menefee in Charlottesville, Virginia, to name several but by no means all of a cohort coming of age across the Southeastern states just before and just after the millennium.
The broader and deeper “story” is one of place-based design, attentive to the necessities of climate, materials, labor, and purpose in the region, but also attentive to overlooked or undervalued precedents, typologies, locales, and clients. While there is the surge of new urban centers and suburban peripheries as conditions to address in the region, there also is a new appreciation for the smaller communities and rural or even wilderness landscapes as productive sites for distinctive work. Indeed, in many ways, the contemporary narrative is one in which “place” is inseparable from community, and in this regard, the tragic histories of the struggle for civil rights and racial justice, and the elegiac trajectories of socio-economic development, across the Southeastern states are necessary to acknowledge, address and reconcile through architecture and the built environment, as much as in any other form of cultural expression. If a place-based architecture in the American South is fully responsive to its site, then that site understanding is necessarily expanded and inclusive of not just physical characteristics, but by the social, psychological, experiential, remembered and lived qualities of being in place in the South.
In response, we’ve adopted the idea of “A South Forty” as an armature for structuring the conceptual and geographical expanse of the proposition, invoking the agricultural term measuring and locating acreage on a farmstead or homestead, then employing the infrastructural organizer of Interstate 40, which begins in Wilmington, North Carolina and runs west through the American Southeast, intersecting the major north-south interstates of I-95, I-55, I-49 and I-30 along its path, until reaching a delimiting inflection point in Oklahoma City, and ultimately simply as a preliminary limiting number of practices and practitioners for initial inclusion in the survey.
The proposition for a contemporary, place-based, regionally-identified architecture of the American Southeast rests upon a literary and intellectual foundation as much as on a prolific period of constructed design excellence. The argument’s intellectual history can be traced back at least 80 years, with two particular points of reference, the first in 1941, appreciating and then advocating an architecture distinctive to the American South, and the second forty years later, in 1981, advocating for an architecture of “critical regionalism,” in an ever-expanding and seemingly general world culture, and with reference to an identifiable architecture of the new American South, rich on its own terms. The present moment in this fertile region, forty years on and in the middle of a new post-millennial period of architectural production, possesses an immense and still growing vitality, deserving of identification and valuation, but still set against a context of an abstracted assessment of the “countryside” and a “flyover country” perspective by many unfamiliar or distant from the region.
1941: The South in American Architecture
An authentic architecture of the American South has been a mythical concept for the better part of the last one hundred years, with few advocates and little insightful commentary. But two appraisals appeared coincidentally in 1941, each approaching in their own way the possibility of an architectural beauty to be found in the material culture of the region. The wise reader here will know of James Agee’s poetically cadenced Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, based upon his 1936 sojourn in rural Alabama (together with photographer Walker Evans), but not published in book form until 1941. Agee perceived a resilient beauty in the hot and humid agricultural landscape and in the hard-scrabble lives of the tenant farmer families with whom he resided, however briefly, not only in the faces and bodies of the family members, but in their homes, furniture, possessions and clothing. Rather than the plantation mansions and city townhouses of the popular imagination of the South (and all that those architectures implied racially and socially) – bear in mind the 1936 publication of Gone with the Wind had led rapidly to the conversion of Margaret Mitchell’s regressive vision of antebellum Atlanta, Georgia, and “the South” to the silver screen in 1939 - Agee’s evocative passages regarding the homes of his hosts remain compelling to the present day, and foretell a sustaining valuation of the vernacular architecture of the South:
“Here I must say, a little anyhow; what I can hardly hope to bear out in the record: that a house of simple people which stands empty and silent in the vast Southern country morning sunlight, and everything which on this morning in eternal space it by change contains, all thus left open and defenseless to a reverent and cold-laboring spy, shines quietly forth such grandeur, such sorrowful holiness of its exactitudes in existence, as no human consciousness shall ever rightly perceive, far less impart to another: that there can be more beauty and more deep wonder in the standings and spacings of mute furnishings on a bare floor between the squaring bourns of walls than in any music ever made: that this square home, as it stands in unshadowed earth between the winding years of heaven, is, not to me but of itself, one among the serene and final, uncapturable beauties of existence: that this beauty is made between hurt but invincible nature and the plainest cruelties and needs of human existence in this uncured time, and is inextricable among these, and as impossible without them as a saint born in paradise.”
Yet 1941 also saw the publication of The South in Architecture, the more intellectual characterization of the architecture of the American South, by the mid-century historian and cultural critic Lewis Mumford. For architect-educator Robert McCarter, writing in Place Matters, his 2019 profile of the afore-mentioned W. G. Clark, Mumford’s regional focus and assessment sounded an early “call for what would be given the name “critical regionalism” only 40 years later. As McCarter describes it, “Mumford’s definition of regionalism is one that does not result from simply imitating the forms of historic buildings in the region, or employing the local building materials, or engaging the regional climate. Rather, Mumford proposes a regionalism that results from an analysis of historical buildings and an engagement with contemporary social and cultural values, arguing that such an approach has “ … enabled the South, in particular, to leave an imprint on buildings far removed” from that region.””
McCarter continues, “Mumford argues for a deeper understanding of building in the United States, beginning with an understanding of “the gradual adaption of European modes of construction to American climatic and technical conditions,” which recognized that “perhaps the most advanced technical adaption that has so far been made was the old-fashioned shutter, which controlled both the amount of heat and light that entered a room.” Mumford believes that a constructive contemporary architectural regionalism is the result of a local building tradition that is open to universal concepts coming from outside the region, which are in turn assimilated and adapted to local conditions. These concepts, conditions and synthetic responses, he asserts, are visible and palpable in the architecture of the American South.”
Mumford states, “Regionalism is not a matter of using the most available local material, or of copying some simple form of construction that our ancestors used, for want of anything better, a century or two ago. Regional forms are those which most closely meet the actual conditions of life and which most fully succeed in making a people feel at home in their environment: they do not merely utilize the soil but they reflect the current conditions of culture in the region.” The evolution of an appropriate modern architecture, Mumford notes, involves the recognition of the inherent “tension between the regional and the universal … Every culture must both be itself and transcend itself; it must make the most of its limitations and must pass beyond them; it must be open to fresh experiences and yet it must maintain its integrity. In no other art is that process more sharply focused than in architecture.”
And yet: prescient as both observers were, our present-day readings of both leave entire territories of racial, social, material and cultural presence unexplored. Choose the mode of assessment and appreciation, Agee or Mumford, lyrical or historical, and grasp both the explicit, stated strengths and possibilities of such a regional comprehension of architecture … and still the unstated, perhaps even unseen, deficiencies and biases inherent in both approaches to the mid-century South. The wise reader here, too, in these readings should also hear internally the near simultaneous anguished cry of Quentin Compson, portrayed in William Faulkner’s 1936 Absalom, Absalom!, anguished by the contradictions of his family, his inheritance, his homeland: “I don’t hate the South! … I don’t! … I don’t!”
1981: Critical Regionalism and the American South
Via Mumford’s synaptic intellectual situating of the best modern architecture of the American South “between the regional and the universal,” McCarter implicates a more contemporary understanding of architecture framed by a “critical regionalism” – an influential school of thought, appraisal and approach in architectural production that emerged fully in the 1980s, for which the architectural historian Kenneth Frampton has been the most articulate and vocal exponent since first asserting its potential in 1981. Although the foundational ideas were outlined in a series of essays between 1980 and 1984, the chapter “Critical Regionalism, modern architecture and cultural identity,” developed through four editions of Frampton’s magisterial Modern Architecture: A Critical History (a required textbook in architecture education since its publication), is the definitive theoretical text. Here, the elements of an architecture of ‘critical regionalism’ are identified, a “place-form” architecture specific and sensitive to topography, context, climate, light, materials and methods of construction, and fundamentally privileging the tactile experience of the designed place. In this nexus of specifics, resistant to any suggestion of a “style,” an unsentimental appreciation of the vernacular architecture and constructions of a given region is also acknowledged as potential precedent.
Frampton’s provocation identifies specific examples of such place-based architectural thinking and architectural production globally, in Switzerland, Japan, Denmark, Mexico, Chile, among others – and in North America: “No-one has perhaps expressed the idea of a Critical Regionalism more forcefully than (the architect Hamilton Harwell) Harris, in ‘Regionalism and Nationalism,’ an address which he first gave to the Northwest Regional Council of the AIA in Eugene, Oregon, in 1954. This was the occasion when he first advanced his felicitous distinction between restricted and liberated regionalism:
Opposed to the Regionalism of Restriction is another type of regionalism: the Regionalism of Liberation. This is the manifestation of a region that is especially in tune with the emerging thought of the time. We call such a manifestation ‘regional’ only because it has not yet emerged elsewhere. It is the genius of this region to be more than ordinarily aware and more than ordinarily free. Its virtue is that its manifestation has significance for the world outside itself. To express this regionalism architecturally, it is necessary that there be building – preferably a lot of building – at one time. Only so can the expression be sufficiently general, sufficiently varied, sufficiently forceful to capture people’s imaginations and provide a friendly climate long enough for a new school of design to emerge.
Frampton continues, with particular criticism leveled at North America, but with a single ray of hope identified in the American South: “… Despite an apparent freedom of expression, such a level of liberative regionalism is difficult to achieve in North America today. Within the current proliferation of highly individualistic forms of expression (work which is often patronizing and self-indulgent rather than critical) only a few firms today display any profound commitment to the unsentimental cultivation of a rooted American culture. An atypical example of current ‘regional’ work in North America … is the work of the architect Harry Wolf, whose activity has been largely restricted to North Carolina.” Frampton then makes specific reference to Wolf’s 1980 Fort Lauderdale Riverfront Plaza competition entry, characterized as a “metaphorical approach to place-making … (in which) the intention was to inscribe the city’s history into the site through the incidence of light.”
While Frampton’s assertions in the cause of regionalism have been transformative for a generation of architects, and while his circle of exemplary architects and buildings has grown well beyond the predominantly Western radius, to now include Africa, Asia and the Indian sub-continent, in retrospect, the 1981 assessment of North America’s potentials in such singular, almost impoverished terms is puzzling, even misplaced. With all respect to Wolf’s ultimately short-lived career in North Carolina (he would relocate soon enough to New York and then to Los Angeles), in the 1980s the architecture of the American South possessed notable depths already: as the decade began, the Arkansas architect Fay Jones had already brought forward his regional masterpiece, Thorncrown Chapel, in Eureka Springs; in 1983 the Greensboro, North Carolina-born architect Frank Harmon would open his practice in Raleigh, with the professed ambition for a regional, place-specific architecture; in 1984, Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam would begin their Atlanta-based work, in initial partnership with Lloyd Bray; and in 1986 Samuel Mockbee – eventually the founder of Auburn’s Rural Studio, together with D.K. Ruth – would begin his productive Alabama partnership with Coleman Coker. In 1981, a new architecture of the American South – a committed, vigorous architecture of ‘critical regionalist’ character - was discernable, but without focused coherence or advocacy beyond its own practitioners, and of course, seemingly beyond the appraisal of the coastal centers of accepted architectural production and appraisal.
See for instance, the March 29, 1976 cover of The New Yorker, entitled “The View of the World from 9th Avenue,” drawn by architect-turned-cartoonist Saul Steinberg, in which the American South does not register at all, except as indistinct brownlands of the continental interior. The image belies that fact that by 1981, too, the altered character and perception of the American South could hardly be overlooked or unacknowledged in politics, society and culture – certainly not since Brown vs. Board of Education, the Little Rock 9, Medgar Evers, George Wallace, Martin Luther King, Jr., Jimmy Carter, or Bill Clinton; or, in architectural terms - not since a business district in Tulsa, a drugstore in Greensboro, a high school in Little Rock, a bridge in Selma, a motel in Memphis, the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, a church in Charleston, a suburban street in St. Louis.
Present-day: The Countryside: Anew, Again, Still
“In 2020, two blatant tasks stand out. The inevitability of Total Urbanization must be questioned, and the countryside must be rediscovered as a place to resettle, to stay alive; enthusiastic human presence must reanimate it with new imagination.”
(Rem Koolhaas, “Introduction,” Countryside: A Report, published in conjunction with the exhibition Countryside, The Future, held at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, February 20 – August 14, 2020)
Late February, 2020, in the beforetimes – before pandemic, before recession, before anti-racism movement – and the Guggenheim Museum in New York City opened its long-awaited exhibition, “Countryside,” curated by Pritzker Prize winning architect Rem Koolhaas, an extensively researched and densely text-based display of installations purporting to foreground the 98% of the planet not occupied by cities – “the countryside” being the rural, the agricultural, and among other images, the proverbial “farm-living,” of Green Acres/Petticoat Junction/Beverly Hillbillies fame (the trio of interlocking hillbilly CBS situation comedies popular from 1962-1971 , all set in a fictional happy Ozark valley). Koolhaas’ work, intellectually and creatively, is possessed by an ironic, affectless detachment, and “Countryside” came weighted similarly, as he described it, seemingly without any sense of an audience beyond midtown Manhattan: “This has nothing to do with architecture or art,” he told The New Yorker’s Carolyn Korman, “We wanted to put the countryside back on the agenda, and also show that the countryside is a terrain, or domain, where you can have a fulfilling life.”
The “you” of this abstracted understanding of the countryside to whom Koolhaas referred remains an unexplained mystery, but perhaps is even more of a mystery to those architects now working productively, actively, attentively, happily, and with “a fulfilling life” in the countryside, across the American South. In the high heat and high humidity of the South’s countryside, in the river bottomlands of the Mississippi, along the Gulf Coast’s shorelines, in the pine forests that cover much of the South’s terrain, throughout “tornado alley” and on the floodplains, from the high-growth and low density of the Ozarks to the sprawls of Atlanta and Charlotte, architecture practices have thrived in the last thirty years. Arriving into professional practice from schools in regional state universities and coastal elite institutions, working across scales and types, for public benefit and private enterprise, this next generation has distinguished its work with both pragmatism and poetry, seeking a maximum of meaning within an economy of means. Practices ranging from El dorado and Hufft (Kansas City, Missouri), Dake Wells (Springfield, Missouri), Patterhn Ives (St. Louis, Missouri), Alterstudio (Austin, Texas), Trahan and Jonathan Tate (New Orleans, Louisiana), Archimania (Memphis, Tennessee), DeLeon Primmer (Louisville, Kentucky), Sanders Pace (Knoxville, Tennessee), In situ, Vines and Tonic (Raleigh, North Carolina), Architecturefirm (Richmond, Virginia), and onsite (Covington, Virginia),among many others, are all notable for their accomplished work in this revisioning of the architecture of the American South.
Crucially, in this valuation of the architecture of the American South, even as the productivity and excellence of this new generation emerges, the relationship of “place” to community, to social history and political events, as much as to geography, climate, and resources, must be pursued, examined, and addressed. William Gleason’s central claim in Sites Unseen: Architecture, Race and American Literature, “The built environment is always shaped in some way by race whether such shaping is explicitly acknowledged or not,” serves as a general framework for this searching re-appraisal. There is therefore an overlapping story in the American South, a necessary one to be told of historical injustice and racial struggle, in which the regional understanding can be projected onto the greater territory of the nation, in which the conditions of that expanded “South,” of that larger “place,” remain without architectural fulfillment. This is the last, other meaning of “A South Forty,” referring as it does to the federal government’s massive confiscation of private property — some 400,000 acres — formerly owned by Confederate land owners in 1865, and its methodical redistribution in forty acre allotments as a form of reparations to the newly freed slaves of the American South, ultimately an unfulfilled promise.
This, then, is the greater challenge of the present day: to attain that deeper, more difficult understanding of place in the American South, in order to attempt a more authentic architecture for that place. Sociologists Marcus Anthony Hunter and Zandria F. Robinson offer one starting point, beginning their 2018 book, Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life, with the words of Malcolm X’s powerful 1964 speech, “The Ballot or the Bullet”: “As long as you South of the Canadian border, you South.” For the authors, “Malcolm X’s portrait of The South – an idea as much as it is a geographic location – runs contrary to dominant geographies of Black life … Chocolate Cities is built on a simple premise: our current maps of Black life are wrong … the geography of the Black American experience is best understood as existing within and across varying versions of “The South” – regional areas with distinct yet overlapping patterns of racism, White domination, and oppression alongside place-inspired Black strivings, customs, and aspirations for a better and more equal society. Black American social life is best understood as occurring wholly in “The South” – one large territory, governed by historically rooted and politically inscribed set of practices of racial domination.”
Such a mapping of the American South in these terms opens new and essential territories for work in architecture – more positive, empowering, engaged, sensitive and aware work altogether, both in the schools of architecture and design in the region and in the professional practices and organizations of architecture and design in the region. The importance and accomplishments of those architecture, design and planning programs situated in the historically black colleges and universities of Alabama A & M, Florida A & M, Howard, Hampton, Jackson State, Morgan State, North Carolina A & T, Prairie View, Texas Southern, Tuskegee and the University of D.C. must be highlighted, but it is the responsibility for all schools of architecture and design across the South, and very much ours in the Fay Jones School, to be even more proactive than ever in educating the current and the next generation more deeply, so as to shape the built environment of the South towards a more just and equitable society.
The path towards that more authentic architecture necessarily tracks through the more than eighty sites landmarked on the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, which include streets and buildings of everyday life as well as monuments, memorials and museums. Of the latter, in contemporary terms, both the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. (2016, David Adjaye, Philip Freelon/Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup), and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama (2018, EJI/MASS Design/Hank Thomas Willis, Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, Dana King) are powerfully conceived and constructed, and emblematic of the possibility of a more fully authentic place-based architecture in the South.
The path leads through the life and work of Robert Taylor, the first African American architect in the United States, born in Wilmington, NC, in 1868, educated at MIT, and the original campus architect for Tuskegee Institute, recruited to Alabama by Booker T. Washington in 1892. The path leads through the lives and work of J. Max Bond, Phil Freelon and Harvey Gantt, each a leader in architecture and civic life, each either born, educated, or at work in South. That path leads now through the good work being accomplished across the South, in communities and on campuses, through design achievement and design advocacy, by a new generation, among them Jonathan O’Neil Cole of Pendulum in Kansas City, Ngozi Brown of NOB Architects, Little Rock, Bryan Lee of Colloqate Design, New Orleans, Juan Self and Jimmie Tucker in Memphis, Tennessee, Garfield Peart of Syntony Design Collaborative in Atlanta, Edwin Harris and Teri Canada of EVOKE Studio in Durham, North Carolina, and Michael Marshall at Michael Marshall Design, Washington, DC, altogether representative of the richness and vitality now visible across the region in the necessary deeper re-mapping of the geography of place in the American South. Beyond these accomplished professionals, the path leads more generally and recursively to the need for sustained attention to the needs of affordable, accessible housing of superior quality and sustainable communities of effective social equality and equity, needs which are not only architectural in nature, but political, economic, and social. In this cause, too, there is certain hope visible in the streets and buildings of small towns, in the real lives of everyday people, in examples of commonplace architectural excellence, in the work that schools of architecture and design can achieve, of which the civic place formed by Rural Studio’s Newbern, Alabama Fire Station and Town Hall possesses inspirational power and real presence.
The path towards that better “place” leads through both recognition of our common inheritance embedded in the landscape of the American South, and our reconciliation with it and with each other.
A Coda, of sorts
My former faculty colleague, David Buege, retired from his nearly forty-year teaching career last year, after decades as professor of architecture here in Fayetteville, and at Auburn and Mississippi State University’s fine schools of architecture. A son of Wisconsin re-oriented to the South, Buege’s literary talents often focused on evocative descriptions of the places in which he found home and his calling as a teacher. A humanist for whom Herman Melville’s Moby Dick contains all that could be known in life and work, and an ardent debate partner of the legendary Mississippi professor-architect Chris Risher, Jr. (whose father Chris, Sr., was an architect of note himself in Meridien, Mississippi), Buege sought to give voice – a passionate, measured, clear-eyed voice - as well as counsel and challenge to the ambitions of architects who committed themselves to work in the region. He wrote – one could say laboriously, word by word - without sentimentality, but with evident devotion, characterizing his graceful, distilled, bittersweet essays as “rants, of sorts.”
Here, as a coda of sorts, is one such essay from 2016, offered as an open-ending, emblematic of all such places and considerations of places informing the work offered in this issue of the Oxford American. If David Buege’s voice is that representing a particular school, for the moment, hear in that voice a resonance with many voices in architecture across the American South:
Arkansas is often characterized as a poor state of small towns, and many of these have diminishing financial resources and escalating challenges for citizens. Southeast Arkansas’s Mississippi River delta towns are fading and torn, their modest vernacular buildings in slow décollage. Poverty is prevalent and hunger too common, but a spirit of generosity persists amidst the scarcity created as the mechanization of agriculture has taken command.
The karst topography of the Ozark Plateau, the water-soluble northwest Arkansas landscape of thin soil and scruffy forest over limestone and dolomite, was formed by the deposition of remnants of life in an ocean found here before its waters receded more than 300 million years ago. A natural merzbau, the landscape is best understood in profile and section, from the caverns and cavities carved by acidic subsurface water to the geological profile of Hawksbill Crag. Many species endemic today have evolved through a few million years in the splash of fresh water that remains, including the endangered Ozark Hellbender, a remarkable large salamander suffering acutely a more toxic world. One elusive Ivory-billed Woodpecker, assumed to be extinct, may have been spotted recently in the Arkansas Delta and quickly became an Arkansas icon. Both are indicator species for a natural world in decline.
Though approximations of an idyllic setting may still be found in Arkansas, including the largest contiguous wilderness area in the lower forty-eight states, there is much to regret in the rapidly diminishing space between towns and in landscapes increasingly squeezed by more and more highways, streets and roads. The state of nature has been compromised by the self-interest and civic indifference of big boxes, fast food restaurants, strip malls of every possible variety, hotels, motels, expansive automobile dealerships, payday lenders and the predictable things representing almost all possible forms of commercial detritus that have accumulated in the post-war years. This is our milieu. This is where we work through positive acts of resistance.
The definition and health of professions may be estimated by their ability to provide services, create civic dignity and produce public goods: the ennoblement of architecture at its best, certainly, and clean water, waste management, education, public health, infrastructure, and such as well. As a School, we embrace our responsibilities for the ordinary and the everyday things that elevate fundamental qualities of life, for the protection of nature and production of culture. Evidence of our efforts in response is presented here.
Special thanks to the University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, the Presenting Sponsor of the Summer/Fall 2020 Place Issue.