The Theater of the useFULL

Rebiennale second life

Auburn University Rural Studio extends local, long-term architectural approach to installation at 2016 Venice Biennale

Hanging spring-coil beds, insulation panels stacked as benches, and a handful of projected video stories make up “The Theater of the useFULL,” Rural Studio’s installation at the Venice Biennale, where they are the only US representatives invited to the international exhibition by curator Alejandro Aravena. The materials were selected for their usefulness to two Venetian organizations, to whom they’ll be delivered following the exhibition’s six-month run. The installation abides by Rural Studio’s philosophy for exhibitions – throw nothing away once finished – and extends the approach to projects back at their home base of Hale County, Alabama – consider not what can be done, but what should be done.

One of the organizations is Assemblea Sociale per la Casa. In guerrilla fashion, they squat in and renovate vacant social housing that has been neglected by the state. Since 2012 and, ironically, now supported by the local authority, they’ve renovated forty houses that are handed off to families in need. The other organization is Cooperativa Caracol, made up of volunteers who in the cold winter months pick up homeless individuals from the streets of Venice, give them a bed for the night, a shower, and a breakfast at their Center. Each organization provided a list of materials to which Rural studio could allocate its resources from the Biennale, diverting the supplies in the short-term to create the Theater.

Inside, stories of Rural Studio’s battles are told in a handful of short projected videos created by NYC-based filmmakers Claire Dub and Randy Rubin. To the soulful croon of a guitar straight from an Alabamian front porch, and through twenty-three years worth of stunning photography by Timothy Hursley, it’s easy to see that Rural Studio’s buildings are beautiful.  Yet what is ultimately communicated is that they were created to fill desperate holes in the community.

Hale is one of the poorest counties in the United States. The projects Rural Studio students design and build respond to its needs: a fire station responds to high home insurance rates, a Boys and Girls Club targets after-school crime, and a product line of affordable, well-crafted and locally-sourced homes address the region’s reliance on mobile homes that depreciate quickly and profit only an outside economy.

Based in Hale County, Alabama for 23 years, Rural Studio asserts that understanding the needs of the community and the appropriate architectural response is only possible by building relationships and learning from within the place. Their practical designs take cues from the architectural vernacular of Alabama such as barns and the Antebellum house, utilize local materials such as cyprus, embrace the cultural importance of elements such as the front porch, and adopt age-old local strategies of natural heating and cooling to offset operating costs for locals, to whom the buildings are given.

The Rural Studio faculty team who designed and built the installation were admittedly less familiar with Venice, and also weary of participating in an event that can prioritize international over local interests. So they turned to locals who could help, and who Rural Studio could, in turn, help fight the battles for Venice.

by Rural Studio – Auburn University

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