Roy Decker Delivers Commencement Address at Rural Studio’s 30th Anniversary Pig Roast

Roy Decker had the honor of delivering the commencement address at Rural Studio’s 30th Anniversary Pig Roast at Auburn University. You can read his remarks below.

Roy Decker, April 27, 2024
Rural Studio – 30th Anniversary

I am honored to be here with you all today and grateful for the opportunity to share in this celebration of the Rural Studio’s 30th year.

It is also a special honor to be part of the special recognition of the Rural Studio founders, Sambo Mockbee and D.K. Ruth.

To the Mockbee and Ruth families, Sambo’s and D.K.’s gift lives on here in Hale County and also across the country – first through the more than 1200 students that have walked these grounds, behind their footsteps and through the spread of the ideas and values that built this program. Evidence can be seen in the alumni presentations last night. Each with impressive accomplishments after graduation, and all carry with them the values learned here. The Front Porch Initiative expands the lessons learned, far beyond Hale County, to provide healthy economical housing to those in need. Sambo’s and D.K.’s influence can be felt in many faraway places by all of those who work for a future that is better than the past.

We are also here to honor the students who are graduating, a milestone accomplishment in their architectural education. Congratulations to all!

I want to begin by acknowledging Provost Nathan and Dean Rogers who I know are both great supporters of the Rural Studio. No program like this is possible without the ongoing support of the University and College administration. I want to recognize the full Rural Studio faculty and staff led by your crazy, inspired, and ever-energetic leaders, Andrew Freear and Emily McGlohn. They form the world that opens the opportunity for the students to explore, learn, and grow.

To the Students, I am here to tell you what you already know.

This program, which was started by Sambo and D.K., and which has grown under the leadership of Andrew, Emily, and many others, is a very special place.

But I want to tell you from my perspective what I see, and why I believe it is so special.

My partner, Anne Marie, and I have a practice in the South, in Jackson, Mississippi. You might say, like the Rural Studio, we are not in the center of where the profession thinks valuable work comes from. We, of course, like you, think just the opposite. Your work here in Hale County is more than a design-build program, it’s more than a think tank for better housing, it is also an exploration of a different way of being an architect. You, like us, believe if you want to make a change, you work where the problems and challenges are hardest. If we can find success in communities of need, they can serve as examples for others anywhere.

I have also been a teacher. I am often in schools around the country to lecture and sit in on project reviews. I worry about the education of young architects. I worry a lot about the state of practice.

On Practice
It’s no secret that much of our constructed environment is designed to elicit consumption. Housing for needy families is often seen as a product with developers taking much of the value out of the transactions, leaving little quality for residents. Often commercial and public buildings offer way too much instruction and carry, for my taste, too much authority. I often ask, where is the invitation to inquiry? Where is the promotion of civic debate? After all, we have some pretty serious social and environmental problems to work on and tackle together. Why can’t architects and buildings be an educational voice for a healthier society and environment?

On Education
Often architectural studios focus too much energy and put too much emphasis on precedents and spectacle. This can lead students to the conclusion that successful architecture is about expressions of ego or satisfying a market image or taste. Too often formal solutions are praised which are devoid of the responsibilities we share for people, communities, and the environment.

What I see in both practice and education is a race to the bottom, a race to define and reinforce a value proposition that is based more on the promotion of profit than community, environmental health, and growth.

Why can’t we achieve both economic feasibility and social and environmental health? This is the question I believe is raised every day in Hale County at the Rural Studio.

Rural Studio
What is special about the Rural Studio is that you burrow in here, in Hale County, and ask yourselves every day, “what is the value of the work in the lives of the residents and the community at large? What are the larger loyalties that we owe to the environment and our species? How can we build a larger idea of value where we balance individual achievement with public good? “

I believe being responsible as an architect is to ask these questions, or as what Sambo and D.K. meant when they called for the education of “citizen architects.”

This is the work of a servant leader, which for us has come to mean a teacher. A teacher reveals the public good when others cannot see it. A teacher explains the value of durability when the prevailing interest is in superficiality. A teacher strives for seriousness in a time of triviality. A teacher promotes diversity, equity, and social and environmental health even in the face of division and exploitation.

For us, and I know for all of you at the Rural Studio, this is the art of the work: this is a search for meaningful and healthy consequences in the community where the practice of architecture can be both critical and educational.

At its best, architecture is both a reflection of life and a teacher of a way of living. People are not spectators viewing their world, they are embodied artists and scientists making and exploring their way. As we encounter events, we reflect, compare, analyze, learn, and, in turn, build. Beliefs evolve and are embodied into form. The form of our constructed world is witness to our well-being. Architects and buildings can be teachers.

At our best, architects bear witness to the beauty in humanity, in natural wonders, the structures of settlements, the arts, and all that celebrates humanity’s best achievements. But architects also must work to see the unsafe, discriminatory, inhumane, cruel, unjust practices, and unhealthy environments. This is where the work is.

What is special about the Rural Studio are its values. Infused here is a way of seeing life and architecture – to practice and live well is to be honest, humble, responsible, skeptical, curious, and critical – to act with respect and care for clients, the public, and the environment.

Architects, when we aspire to act as servant leaders and teachers as “citizen architects”, bear witness to our time and work to create architecture and landscapes that support the pursuit of a future that is better than the past. We fail only when we stop being open to each other with empathy or deny the responsibility we carry to all others.

What is special about the Rural Studio is that it is a place with integrity searching for a better tomorrow. A search that is guided by our hearts.