Tuskegee University is a historically black university located in Macon County, Alabama.
The county is part of the Black Belt, a region stretching across the southern United States characterized by its rich, organic, black soil. The Black Belt was home to much of the antebellum South’s plantation system, dependent upon the work of African-American slaves. It was thus home to much of the country’s original black population.
The University was founded as the Tuskegee Normal School in 1881. Because the State of Alabama was unwilling to provide any funds for campus construction, its founding principal, Booker T. Washington, was faced with the daunting challenge of constructing a campus with no state funding and limited private funding. All this in one of the most racially troubled parts of the country at that time, less than an hour’s ride from the original capitol of the Confederate States of America, in Montgomery.
“Cast down your bucket where you are.”
Washington’s famous words capture the ethos of self-reliance which guided Tuskegee’s program of campus construction. This program was inspired by at-hand materials and labor:
- earth materials lying under the campus’s ground
- labor provided by students as payment for tuition and room and board
In the early 1880s Washington and faculty created a system of campus construction based on these resources. Building materials – bricks, lumber and metal work – would be manufactured on campus, largely from raw materials present on the campus – clay and timber. Based on this inventory of materials, campus buildings would be designed and constructed by students and faculty.
The building’s forms were influenced by their materials – based on the various brick-based high and industrial styles found in the country at that time, including styles uncommon to the region such as arts and crafts.
The first brick yards were established on the campus in 1883. The clay used for the brick was mined on the campus, by students. In the brick yards, students tempered clay, formed green bricks and fired them in kilns. Bricks not used for campus buildings were sold locally.
Millions of bricks were produced and the institution completed its first major construction phase. This resulted in what today is the historic core of the campus, the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site. Other buildings outside the core were also built of student-made brick.
Washington died in 1915. The program appears to have ended by the 1930s. One of the last buildings to be constructed of student-made brick stands today as part of the Willcox complex housing the Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science. This brought an end to the first phase of masonry self-manufacturing on the campus.
CONCRETE BLOCK MAKING
Washington’s ethos of self-reliance as a means of achieving economic equality for blacks wasn’t limited to the needs of the campus. Early in his tenure he began an outreach program aimed at improving the conditions for impoverished blacks in the Alabama Black Belt.
This program flourished under Washington’s successors. Its focus by the 1940s was the region’s large population of sharecroppers. These farmers and their families lived on and farmed land owned by white farmers. Sharecroppers, were paid by being given a “share” of the crops they cultivated and harvested. This typically was insufficient to live on, leaving the sharecropper dependent upon their white employer.
During the Jim Crow era, generation after generation of blacks were locked into this system with no way out.
At Tuskegee, President Frederick D. Patterson sought a way to help these families break out of the sharecropping cycle. Drawing on Washington’s strategy of self-build, Patterson initiated a program called the Low Cash-Cost House (LCCH).
“Casting down his bucket where he stood,” Patterson observed a local famer making concrete blocks using sand and gravel from local stream beds. By the 1940s, because it cost less, concrete block had begun to replace brick as a building material, especially for low-cost construction.
Just as Washington had 50 years earlier, Patterson developed a self-build technique in which masonry units could be mass-produced for relatively low cost. The owner, under guidance of Tuskegee faculty and students, would excavate sand and aggregates from local streams, mix it with cement and water, and form it in hand-made wooden forms.
The blocks were more like bricks than the conventional hollow blocks used today. Solid, they were used to build loadbearing walls two-wythes thick with insulating air space in between. Bricks were sometimes used with the blocks, to create richly patterned surfaces.
Many local sharecroppers were able to move their families out this system with the help of the LCCH program. It made home ownership possible for the first time for many of these families. It allowed them to feel the sense of pride and self-sufficiency sapped by the sharecropping system.
The LCCH program completed many buildings in Macon County. It collaborated with affordable construction programs in Africa and Southeast Asia. It continued through the 1950s.
Tuskegee Masonry Making as Bricolage
Two aspects of Washington’s brick making approach qualify it as bricolage:
- Use of an “inventory” of at-hand resources – clay soils and student labor – which influenced the campus’s building types (form follows material)
- Use of inexpert labor and modest technologies – hybrid hand/machine techniques
The concrete block making program shared these attributes:
- Inventory of native sandy soils and owner’s labor
- Self-taught skills and manual techniques to make the block
Washington’s “cast down your bucket where you are” ethos can be interpreted as “use the resources immediately at-hand.” This was a brilliant strategy for getting around the economic barriers the black institution faced, while showing exemplary self-reliance and imagination.
Tuskegee Masonry Making as Techne
Viewed as techne, both of the masonry making processes may be seen as hybrid approaches which combined aspects of both:
- Pre-modern technique: handicraft
- Modern technique: machines
In both cases, natural resources and processes were exploited, but fairly gently.
The Tuskegee brick index their origins. Their heterogeneous colorations and textures derive from the matching variegated properties of the local clays used. These surfaces were transformed further during the rough-hewn manufacturing process including marks left by the hands and tools of the brick makers.
Similarly, the properties of the Tuskegee concrete blocks express the varied colors and textures of the native sands and aggregates used.
Today, these materials index their past with rich patinas and weathering effects.
In both cases, the material unit indexes the racial conditions of the post-reconstruction South. It bears traces of this past and tells the story of the Tuskegee Institute’s role in overcoming economic injustice against black Americans.
Tuskegee Masonry and Protogeometricality
The Tuskegee masonry units have protogeometrical properties. Appreciating their rich character requires going outside the modernist aesthetics for building construction and building materials, which privilege exactness, homogeneity of surface and form, and consistency (every material unit is the same).
The Tuskegee masonry units are inexact and inconsistent. Color and texture vary within a single unit, and from unit to unit. Edges are often crooked. Corners are sometimes slumped or rounded.
Most importantly, the Tuskegee masonry units show how the design process for a building begins with the making of its constituent materials.
These programs show how self-build strategies can include making a building’s construction materials. Materials can be mass-produced in order to serve entire communities in need.
They show how hybrid hand-machine techniques, in addition to being affordable, can produce materials which are:
- perceptually rich
- rooted in regional native materials
The Tuskegee masonry programs provide a model for fusing social responsibility, sustainability and place.
© Donald E. Armstrong and Material Practices, 2013