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Community Center, Mason's Bend, Alabama, from the series "Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America"

A work made of chromogenic print.

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  • A work made of chromogenic print.


April 2005


Joel Sternfeld
American, born 1944

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Photography and Media


Joel Sternfeld


Community Center, Mason's Bend, Alabama, from the series "Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America"


United States (Artist's nationality:)

Date  Dates are not always precisely known, but the Art Institute strives to present this information as consistently and legibly as possible. Dates may be represented as a range that spans decades, centuries, dynasties, or periods and may include qualifiers such as c. (circa) or BCE.

Made 2005


Chromogenic print


No markings recto or verso In 1991, Samuel Mockbee set aside his successful architectural practice and moved to Alabama to join the faculty of Auburn University. In the course of his work, Mockbee, a fifth generation Mississippian, had observed the deep social and economic inconsistencies of life in the South, and he was anxious to do something in response. With this sense of mission, he and D.K. Rath, an architecture professor and long-time friend, founded the Rural Studio—essentially an architectural practice for the impoverished, in which students and teachers live in the rural South and build for, and with, their clients. Homes, churches and community centers are constructed to meet real needs and, at the same time, the highest standards of architectural theory and aesthetics. To make this feasible, most building materials are donated or found. Hale County, Alabama, the place chosen for this experiment, has its own symbolic meaning: Walker Evans and James Agee documented it in the 1930s, in what would become the American classic, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The Rural Studio has built more than nine residences and twenty community projects. Typical of them is the Mason’s Bend Community Center, whose glazed wall is made from the windows of Chevy Caprice Classics—purchased from a junkyard in Chicago on an “all you can carry out for a buck” day. Other notable projects include the Lucy House, made from seventy-two thousand recycled carpet tiles; the Shiles House, built in a wet and flood-prone landscape on top of telephone poles, with exterior stairs supported by recycled automobile tires, and an exterior clad in oak shingles cut from wooden shipping platforms; the Sanders-Dudley “Rammed Earth” House, constructed from a cement-soil mixture that hardens into a kind of man-made rock; and the Bryant “Hay Bale” House, whose twenty-four-inch-thick walls are formed by bales of hay covered with concrete. The “Hay Bale House” also has a separate smokehouse, built for a total cost of $40 out of broken concrete provided by the Hale County Highway Department, and a roof of salvaged road signs. Samuel Mockbee died of complications from leukemia in December 2001. Winner of a MacArthur “genius grant,” he was also posthumously awarded a gold medal from the American Institute of Architects, joining previous recipients Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Le Corbusier and Louis I. Kahn. He believed that “everybody wants the same thing, rich or poor…not only a warm, dry room, but a shelter for the soul.” From the portfolio, Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America, 1982–2005


Image: 26.4 × 33.1 cm (10 7/16 × 13 1/16 in.); Paper: 27.9 × 35.4 cm (11 × 13 15/16 in.)

Credit Line

Gift of Ralph and Nancy Segall

Reference Number


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