Urban Studio

Masters Thesis Project


Employing the principles of community-based design, this thesis project is an urban interpretation of the renowned Rural Studio model. The New Kensington Arts Center program includes an art gallery, coffee shop, community theater, and arts classrooms with adaptive reuse components such as a brick rubble gabion wall, repurposed slate counters, and armchairs made from discarded plywood.

  • Graduate Thesis Award

  • Furniture design featured in Interior Design Magazine


“Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul.” – Samuel Mockbee, founder of the Rural Studio

Situated in the deep interior of rural Alabama and along the banks of the sleepy Black Warrior River, Hale County seems perfectly suited to its surroundings. Far removed from the pace of the outside world, the people of the area even have a characteristically easy-going demeanor. Relaxing on front porches, they ease into the evening after a hard day’s work, content to welcome guests into their homes for long dinners and casual conversation. Over time, the population has come to cultivate a deep sense of community, helping them through times both good and bad. Unfortunately for Hale County, a history of difficulties is woven into their genial way of life.

Officially founded in mid-19th century, the county originally grew from the support of its industries: agriculture in the form of humble plantations for cotton and cattle, and later, light industry for the processing of poultry and catfish (an area specialty). In the intervening years between the Civil and First World Wars, however, Hale County experienced a slow decline in both population and vitality. For reasons ranging from the boom in the West to over-farming of the land, the people soon found themselves isolated, impoverished, and in despair. As testament to their condition, Hale County would eventually become the subject of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a poignant look at the difficulties faced by sharecroppers during the Great Depression.

As with other small towns across the nation, those in Hale County experienced a downturn following World War II. Seeking brighter futures in the big city, communities in and around the area emptied dramatically. Discouragingly, the 1960’s and 1970’s saw no recovery for Hale County. Without new industries that would offer employment, the few residents who remained continued their financial regression. Similar to their ancestors, contemporary residents have little access to resources that could improve their daily living conditions. Located in Alabama’s “Black Belt” (originally named for the color of its soil), Hale County typifies characteristics of the region:

  • Primary industry remains agriculture with little industrial or commercial development

  • Proportionately large African American population

  • High unemployment rate

  • Low rates of educational attainment

  • Isolated from major transportation infrastructure

  • Limited access to health care

  • Substandard housing stock

Currently one of the poorest communities in the nation, Hale’s town of Newbern regretfully boasts a per capita income of just $9,476 and poverty rate toppling 40%.As these figures demonstrate, the area’s historically troubling conditions largely remain. While local government agencies struggled to provide basic support to Hale’s citizens in the form of food stamps and Welfare, other issues were more difficult to resolve. Economy, infrastructure and even the buildings themselves lay bare from more than a century of neglect. In a county comprised of just 6400 households, at one point there existed over 1400 substandard dwellings. This physical inadequacy is compounded when one considers other issues such as cost burdens and overcrowding. Though seemingly hopeless, the towns in and around Hale County have found relief from an innovative source: the university/community design partnership.