Jack Sanders talks about his muse Sam Mockbee, the Rural Studio, El Cosmico, and his commitment to slow architecture, storytelling and dreaming. See below a full transcript of this conversation.
Sound Editor: Leo Madriz | Photos: Jack Sanders, except where noted | Music: Ross Cashiola, “Trains in the Grass”
Related Images: Fresh VUE: Austin
CATHY BYRD: Today I’m in Austin, Texas, with artist Jack Sanders. Jack is the founder of Design Build Adventure, a company offering services including design, construction, and project management, but also he includes in his list of services “public art, adventure planning, storytelling, and dreaming.” I love that description. I noticed that you studied with Sam Mockbee, and everything you do from what I have learned about you so far seems to be profoundly influenced by the time you spent with him and the Rural Studio. You have even co-produced a documentary film about him.
JACK SANDERS: Well, I am just one of those people that wasn’t real clear on what I was going to do and ended up at Auburn University, without a lot of direction. I think a guidance counselor who I had told I wanted to study art suggested architecture. So I ended up in an architecture program and was asking a lot of questions about whether I should be there and contemplating film school. It ended up, that without knowing it, I had landed at Auburn University at a really amazing time, not many years after Samuel Mockbee had started the Rural Studio. I get to leave campus and go to this small town in Alabama, in one of the poorest counties in Alabama, and work with Sambo Mockbee and with Hale County, Alabama, and the residents there. Just immediately it was like, I don’t care what degree is going to come of this. This is what I want to be doing for sure, and I was hooked. I went back and did my thesis work out there. I spent a good portion of my architectural education at Auburn in Hale County, Alabama. And for the most part, Design Build Adventure, and all the work that we have been doing since then, has been trying to maintain the spirit, the excitement, and the enthusiasm that we all had at that time. It was kind of a running joke in our program that it was all downhill from there. Even Sambo would joke with us about that because he knew how much fun we were having. It just was a joy to work.
Maintaining that sense of wonder that he had created for us as 18, 19, 20 year-olds has kind of been a challenge for me personally. I think the “adventure” part of Design Build Adventure, that’s 100% what it’s related to. My particular story was leaving the main campus as a second year architecture student, leaving the bars and the football games and the Greek life, and moving to a town that really had the type of poverty that probably most of us didn’t know existed. And we moved directly into that community and started to interact with people and use the energy that we had to design and build. On the weekends, the building would slow down and you would just try to find things to do—get invited to church with somebody or go to somebody’s house for dinner or go to a local club —whatever you could do to become a part of the community.
After being there for several months, I stayed there for the weekend, and on a Sunday, I met a guy at the Piggly Wiggly, the local grocery store, and he said, ‘would you like to go to a baseball game?’ I went to the baseball game with this guy, and with two other classmates of mine. You know, we were only second year architecture students and we get taken down a dirt road that ends up being maybe two miles from where we were working and living at the university program. Just back through the trees and down this dirt road was an all African American sandlot baseball club that had been operating on this piece of land for 75 or 80 years, and they played a high level of competitive baseball with teams from neighboring towns. Four hundred people would be there, in this town of two hundred people.I went in and basically knew that I was going to come back to this ball field and do my thesis project, and we didn’t tell anybody about it, either. The backstop was chicken wire and cedar logs that had been cut down right there. Some of the posts were probably trees coming out of the ground. People kind of built their own benches and seats where they sat every week. It was a really interesting experience because it was designed, a design that grew over 75 years and we were really timid about pulling some of that apart to build something new. When it finally came down to it, they [the community members] are like, oh, that old thing, let’s go! I tore it down in four hours and then there we were; we had a project to rebuild over the next couple of months.
CB: And that project ended up in the Whitney Biennial.
JS: Again. I was just there at such a great time. Sambo had been sick with leukemia and was in recovery. But with the paintings that were coming out of him and the projects that he was willing to take on, he won a MacArthur grant. All this great energy was out there, and every weekend it was another film crew or a magazine or Oprah. We knew what we were doing was being appreciated and it was exciting, and at one point the curator from the Whitney had called and wanted to talk to Sambo. We didn’t know if it was Sambo’s artwork or the Rural Studio. What was it? And they ended up saying they wanted to show three projects that represent the Rural Studio’s work and one of them was the Newbern Baseball Club’s backstop. So we all got to go to the Biennial and it was quite a moment in our young art careers, for sure [laughs]!
CB: I know you are collaborative and you had that experience with Sam. On your website you mention that you have a rule about working with clients —“we have to get to know each other”—is what you write. What’s behind that philosophy?
JS: It’s rooted in the Rural Studio philosophy for sure, but the real joy in it for me is getting to know the client and their aspiration for what they need to do in their life. And I think sometimes we hope that it just kind of comes out and that we can design it real quickly and just nail it on the first try. But, what we learn is that it just tends to take a lot longer than that, and comes out much more through the development of the relationship between, not just a client and the designer, but also the client, the designer, and the site that they are going to be working on. I think the most direct story from Rural Studio that comes to mind was that, while my teammates and I were at the Newbern Baseball Club, we were cranking out designs for the first several weeks of the project: paper, paper, paper… model, model, model. Over and over, and just not really getting anywhere. We were trying to hold meetings with the team and ask questions and they would give us pretty general answers about what would be this and what would be good for that.
I don’t think the real breakthrough came until the day that I was sitting in the bleachers and one of the teams was short a player, and they called out to me to come play right field. And, then I remember having a moment, seeing my partner Marnie who was braiding hair in the bleachers, and my friend James had made a friend who he was drinking beer with, and I’m out playing right field. Then suddenly there was a breakthrough in our confidence as designers as okay, we can do this. They trust us to do this and they trust us to find what the right answer is, and it’s not going to happen overnight and it’s not going to happen with one sketch. You can look back at the sketches and might find some of the roots or important stuff in there. But the solution comes out with a little bit of time and getting to know each other.
CB: Really, it’s like slow architecture.
CB: Design Build Adventure was deeply involved in the creation of El Cosmico, this very interesting lodging opportunity in Marfa, Texas, which involves vintage trailers, yurts, tepees, and an outdoor bath house.
JS: At some point during my graduate school education, I had the opportunity to meet Liz [Lambert] and she had told us about the work she was doing in Marfa with this El Cosmico project, and I think I had just started to talk about Design Build Adventure. Kind of as a tryout, I was one of the producers of the first party out there which was called “See it before it is there.” And the same weekend of the El Cosmico festival, we all went out there and set up a little camp and had a party. For the most part, that was what began the relationship with me and Liz and Bunkhouse and El Cosmico. It was a good opportunity to exercise a lot of the Rural Studio beliefs out there. And, one of those is what we at Rural Studio would call design, build, design, build, design, build, which means even though we think we are going to design and then build, about halfway through the build, we realize there is some more designing to do.
I think at El Cosmico particularly, because of the pace and the way that things go out there and the situation that the project was getting started in, that worked really well. We weren’t just going to go out there and just pave it and build a hotel. It actually had to be much more organic than that, to be an alternative lodging concept. While we were building El Cosmico, I would end up taking a lot of interns or young people with me. We would pack up the van, the trailer, the welder, lay all the tools out, and pack our bags. We’d make a real trip, a pilgrimage out to Marfa and work for two weeks. And every day at noon we would go to the Food Shark. We would be dirty— bandanas, dust, sweat— and everybody said “what the hell are y’all doing,” and we would tell people we are here building. And a lot of people would say, “I want to come work with y’all, this sounds fun.” I think that really led to a bigger discussion of the things that were going to happen at El Cosmico and happen more organically. There was always a concept of events and workshops. But this workshop grew very organically out of that. It’s really a learning vacation. Camp Design Build Adventure is anybody who wants to sign up, no matter what background. We go and stay at El Cosmico, and over four or five days work really closely with an organization called the Dersu Collective.
So they came to me and said, we got this project called the East Side Play that we want to do, taking this piece of land and turning it into a little pocket park for this group of kids that was playing football in the street, and the land was kind of donated for that purpose. We knew we needed to build a shade structure and so last year we built one, with eighteen participants. We designed and built a shade structure in this park, and amenities: some benches and some landscaping and a tetherball. This truly is a Design Build Adventure where we are given the opportunity to design the next stage of this park. So we might determine that it is another shade structure, or that it’s a basketball court, that it’s more furniture, that it’s a fence. The discussion of what’s next is a conversation that the participants in the camp will have really intensely with the group of people, the Dersu members, and people that maintain the park, and the kids that play at the park. Then we’ll design, come up with some real quick intervention that we think is the right idea and then execute it.
CB: And that’s all in five days?
JS: All in five days. So it’s pretty quick. I have a pretty good idea of what’s available in terms of materials around there. So I am able to take them one day and show them the kind of materials, and that’s a big conversation again about what materials are available in this area and why. There is not a lot of wood in that area and I think that’s probably because there is not lot of trees growing.
CB: I was going to say, there is no shade either. I vote for another shade structure.
JS: That’s right. Yeah. All the hardware stores sell this oil pipe that is recycled from the oil drilling industry, which is near Midland and Odessa, Texas. They bring that pipe down to West Texas and that pipe is used in everything from corrals to sheds to fencing, and in the ranching industry, so that material is abundant. And adobe. We go and visit adobe structures and talk about adobe. We probably are not going to stack adobe while we are there, but we can talk about it and be inside it. So the whole workshop is basic construction techniques, but we also acknowledge at the very beginning that we are not here to save the world. We are here to work, but we want to learn a little bit about construction techniques, basics, layouts. I teach everybody how to use the transit, and really try to read the site and interpret the site. It’s just a real basic introduction to design/build, and the adventure aspect is just all the great things that there are in Marfa to do. We have this wonderful access to Chinati, a great bookstore, Ballroom Marfa, and also to just tremendous, tremendous artists and talent.