Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Mobile Home

By Cory Dugan

JANUARY 12, 1998:  Joe Harris lives in a bus.

Harris is not a traveling man. His old school bus is simply his home, stationary, permanently (more or less) parked on a tract of land in rural Mississippi, rigged with the few rudimentary amenities he can afford.

Next spring, Harris’ unconventional home will be fitted with a new addition. His future annex is presently housed in a downtown Memphis loft studio. Next week, it will be disassembled, packed into a truck and driven to Columbus, Ohio, where it will spend a few months before making its way to its final destination at Harris’ Mississippi home.

It somehow seems appropriate that a supplement to a school bus should have a few miles put on it before being adjoined.

It also seems fitting that so many schools should be involved in its odyssey. The initial design and construction took place here at the Memphis Center for Architecture, a cooperative studio venture between the University of Tennessee and the University of Arkansas; the time spent in Columbus will be in an exhibition at the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University; and the addition’s final incarnation will be installed by students from Auburn University.

“I think of this as the project’s first life,” Coleman Coker says of the structure that consumes a large portion of the available space in the Memphis Center for Architecture’s downtown studio. Coker is the Center’s director; he is also a sculptor and a partner with Samuel Mockbee in Mockbee Coker, a loose-knit gypsy band of non-officed architects and designers and students that has garnered international acclaim and awards for its designs and progressive social agenda.

Samuel Mockbee teaches at Auburn University, where he spearheads the Rural Studio, an acclaimed and experimental program headquartered in Greensboro, wherein students are thrown into the trenches, designing and physically building projects to benefit low-income families in rural Mississippi and Alabama. The idea for the Harris project germinated within Mockbee’s Rural Studio and will return there for its final resolution – its actual incorporation into Joe Harris’ school-bus home.

The Harris project’s “first life” is an extraordinary sculptural presence, a narrow sprawl of lumber and steel and corrugated sheet metal and wire screen, stretching more than 50 feet in an ordered and logical approximation of the ramshackle. Designed and constructed by Coker and Auburn students Jon Tate, Chris Robinson, Brad Smith, and Dan Osborne, the Harris addition is an architectural abstraction, a conceptual construction that fits nicely into the oft-experimental ouevre of Mockbee Coker. The firm’s trademark reference to the architectural vernacular of this region is manifest in the materials and the forms of the Harris project: Its most obvious architectural reference is the rural front porch, reinforced by its elongated scale and its use of pyramidal concrete supports, plank steps, and screens.

From one end, the structure reads as a long corridor, enclosed on one side by an arrangement of screened panels and nearly enveloped on the other by a folded bird’s wing of wooden lath. This skeletal wing form – composed as a jagged, latent grid (a recurring element in Mockbee Coker designs and Coker’s sculpture) – recalls the collapsing eaves of rundown wood-frame housing. Above it, a matching section of “roof” angles down in the measured sag of an imaginary broken rafter. These structures, for all their adapted accidental fluidity, are hardly precipitous; they are rigidly supported by a framework of steel bracketing.

Photo by Coleman Coker
Likewise, for all the appearance of construction-site haphazardness, there is a certain beauty to the unfinished mien of the Harris project. In direct opposition to the calculated untidiness along the edges is a foundation of strict order, an almost Japanese modularity.

The other end of the structure is to be capped by a small, trapezoidal room. Enclosed in corrugated metal (painted to a crusty finish with mobile-home paint) and translucent fiberglass, the nearly claustrophobic space will be accessible from either the porch or the ground level. Inside, it will be a sculptural spirit tree designed by Mockbee. Spirit trees (or bottle trees, as they are sometimes called – “I call mine ‘kissing trees,’” Mockbee says) are usually small trees, dead or defoliated, with their limbs cut back and various empty glass bottles fitted over the ends. According to Delta folklore, evil spirits become trapped inside the bottles and the inhabitants of the home are thereby protected. Mockbee’s “kissing tree” will be constructed of beaver sticks, bottles, and gourds. The small interior will also be decorated with a clock, constructed from matchsticks by a member of Joe Harris’ family.

“This could be used as a kitchen,” says Coker of the trapezoidal space. (Mockbee refers to it as “the living room.”) The flooring of the tiny room is a thin, pressed-cedar sheathing, rather fragrant and surprisingly soft.

“It could be trouble at the opening,” Coker chuckles, digging the toe of his shoe into the surface. “Not advisable for women in stiletto heels.”

The opening Coker speaks of will be the reception at the Wexner Center for the Arts for “Fabrications,” a collaborative exhibition between the Wexner, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “Fabrications” is an ambitious project, involving 12 architects or architectural teams – four at each museum – in an exploration of architecture as actual, constructed projects rather than drawings, plans, or models. The projects are expected to address not only their own purposes, but also the process of construction and – being exhibited as structures within structures – a relationship to the museums’ own particular architectures.

Which means the addition to Joe Harris’ home must relate not only to a school bus, but also to one of the most widely acknowledged architectural masterpieces of the past decade – architect Peter Eisenman’s quirky but definitive Wexner Center. And sure enough, lest we forget we’re dealing with architects here, Coker and his students have constructed a model of the pertinent wing of the Wexner; inside the model, of course, is a model of the actual Harris project.

Looking at the small model, it becomes a bit disorienting, almost Escher-esque, all of these buildings within buildings, nesting and melding. If the Harris project relates to the Wexner – and it does, rather poetically, its narrow framework of common lumber following the subtle angles and lines of Eisenman’s off-kilter grid – it also relates to the rough loft space of the Memphis Center for Architecture, with its heavy timber beams and exposed brick and unfinished Sheetrock.

“Almost everything you see here was purchased at Home Depot,” Coker explains, pointing out the screws and bolts and aluminum fenceposts and 2x4s that constitute the Harris addition. “The idea is that this could be constructed off the shelf of a hardware store, with only the most rudimentary skills and tools. It exhibits a minimum of craftsmanship.”

“It’s been a teaching tool,” Coker continues. “In this first life, it’s been about pushing the abstraction, about architecture without parameters. After it leaves the Wexner, when it goes to Mockbee and his students, it will enter its second life. It could become something totally different down there. What we’ve done here is a stage set; we’re sending them a kit. They will take what we’ve done and make it practical, turn it into what Joe needs.”

“I didn’t want us to make something that was just another disposable piece of the art world,” Mockbee says. “The Wexner exhibit is great, don’t get me wrong. But I’m more interested in Joe’s bus than the Wexner Center.”

Standing back from the Harris project in its current form, the eye following its gracefully jagged lines and contours, it isn’t difficult to imagine. The cheddar-yellow school bus alongside it; a few brightly painted tulip chairs, maybe a lounging dog or two, scattered along the redwood decking. A clematis or morning-glory vine tangled into the grid of the low-hanging roof, providing a little dappled shade.

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