Striking the Epicenter in Rural America

The Epicenter staff at home in Green River, Utah

Every piece of architecture should express some moral. If it has moral merit, it deserves the title of ‘architecture.’ For me, the professional challenge, whether I am an architect in the rural American South or the American West, is how to avoid becoming so stunned by the power of modern technology and economic affluence that I lose focus on the fact that people and place matter… Everyone’s too busy trying to make a living. We have to be more than a house pet to the rich; we need to get out of that role.
      – Samuel Mockbee, quoted on the Epicenter site
Folks, I’m still getting on track from a few days of writing deadlines; today I’d like to share an introduction to a project that should be exciting to a number of our readers: Epicenter.

They are group comprised of members with training across the arts and humanities, and, for the last two years, they have lived in the small town of Green River, Utah, (population 953) located “at the trifecta of the Green River, Interstate 70, and the railroad.” Many of the Epicenter staff were influenced by The Rural Studio and the vision of Samuel Mockbee, and their early work in Green River already demonstrates this sensitivity to rural place and local culture Mr. Mockbee found so lacking in the field of architecture.

A visit to their dense and visually-striking site will reveal the extent of their current and future projects. I’d like to offer this brief article as an introduction — I expect to share the particulars of this work across a series of posts. 

Until then, I’d also recommend giving their own detailed introduction a read – what excites me about the work of Epicenter is how its serious aesthetic focus is integrated within a respect for local place, and also how these folks are considering art and architecture as engines for local economic growth. 

Below is an excerpt from Epicenter’s introduction, followed by a few images of their work and their proposed projects:

The Epicenter is a community-based housing and business resource center, instigating economic progress and creating decent shelter in the town of Green River in the desert of southeast Utah. It is a part of a larger umbrella non-profit organization, which serves the town with a myriad of unduplicated social services including affordable rental housing, a Boys & Girls Club, a soup kitchen, and a thrift store. Epicenter is a comprehensive creative studio. We are young, enthusiastic designers.

From the Project Green River festival, 2010

The Epicenter Crew is a studio-of-sorts currently made up of graduates of architecture, graphic design, industrial design, sociology, and theology. Expertise is valued in any allied design field, or in anyone simply willing to sweat and wanting to build something with their hands. In this rural town, the Epicenter has an opportunity to engage, collaborate with, and learn from a community that the profession has chosen not to serve. Current projects include the renovation of a 104-year-old building on Broadway, developing affordable housing through Habitat for Humanity and USDA, Rural Development, holding a music, art, and film festival, acting as a liaison for the design and construction of a new community center (designed by Marlon Blackwell Architects), provoking the idea of a river walk as an aesthetic and functional asset for the town, applying for grants and involving the community in the construction of a skate park, collaborating to build volunteer housing, and partnering with the University of Utah’s College of Architecture + Planning to infuse expertise and student-led enthusiasm to the town.

We see ourselves as part of a change of tone occurring in the design professions, led by students and emerging professionals who want more than what the professions have settled for: working unapologetically for the socio-economic elite. We are crafting an alternative model of practice, one that can accommodate our fervent desire to collaborate, to provided “shelter for the soul,” and to emphasize place and circumstance. Our insistence for these ideals has led us to a radical mission taken on by “citizen architects” (and citizen designers, more broadly).