Southern Strategies: An Architectural Rapprochement of Queer Ethics and Rural Space in Alabama’s Black Belt

The Rural Studio is a design and build architectural program at Auburn University in Alabama. The studio was co-founded by Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth in 1992 with the mission of building an “architecture of decency” for families in Alabama’s Black Belt region that lacked access to stable and permanent housing. The studio utilizes found, discarded, and donated materials to craft innovative housing solutions and public spaces in and around Hale County—a region that has played a historic role in the state as the seat of King Cotton in the antebellum south; it has since seen economic disinvestment leave it ruined, and has notoriously claimed the tittle of one the country’s poorest counties. The Rural Studio aspires to confronting this historical legacy head-on by building private and public structures throughout the county at little to no cost to its citizens. This thesis brings the work of the studio into conversation with queer theories of metronormativity and anti-urbanism as developed by theorists including Judith Halberstam and Scott Herring. I develop the architectural practices of the studio and its relationship with its clients as a queer structure of feeling that challenges contemporary architectural values with its insistence on rural, vernacular building solutions—this, I claim, is parallel to self-identified rural queers who live in the country and defy metronormative and urbane conceptions of LGBT identity. By deconstructing modern, metropolitan definitions of queerness, I seek to expand the mantle of queerness to include the clients of the Rural Studio, as well as rural-identified queers who consider the country as an inherent aspect of their queer identity. By dissecting the geographic and temporal characteristics of the urban/rural dialectic, I attempt a rapprochement of rural space and queerness as such, disabusing the notion that to be queer is to be urban. Tracing the intersectional political alliances at the heart of the Rural Studio’s design-build process, I hope to view the studio’s work as a queer organizational model for marginal subjects— one that confronts the twin legacies of Queer and Southern history—through the production of strange and intersectional political and social alliances in rural spaces.

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Geographical Imaginations

To assume that we are entitled to speak only of what we know by virtue of
our own experience is not only to reinstate an empiricism: it is to
institutionalize parochialism. Most of us have not been very good at
listening to others and learning from them, but the present challenge is
surely to find ways of comprehending those other worlds—including our
relations with them and our responsibilities toward them—without being
invasive, colonizing and violent. If we are to free ourselves from
universalizing our own parochialisms, we need to learn how to reach
beyond particularities, to speak of larger questions without diminishing the
significance of the places and the people to which they are accountable. In
doing so, in enlarging and examining our geographical imaginations, we
might come to realize not only that our lives are ‘radically entwined with
the lives of distant strangers’ but also that we bear a continuing and unavoidable responsibility for their needs in times of distress.

– Gregory, D., Geographical Imaginations, 205.

What This Is

This site aspires to create an online space within which we are able to reconsider popular notions of what it means to be country, Southern, rural, small town, backwoods, and queer. The work here seeks to offer an alternative to the irrevocable metronormativity of modern queer consumer culture and the unflinching “pride” of “post-liberation” LGBT identity politics. The discourse of queer liberation has been insistent upon equating a fruitful queer life with the utopia of the city and its cosmopolitanism. Country queers have no role in this narrative, save that of the naive migratory queer that escapes provincialism in a coming-of-age escape from the country into the city…

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