Rural Studio’s Andrew Freear named recipient of 2023 Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medalist in Architecture

Published: March 01, 2023

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Teacher, designer, builder and advocate Andrew Freear, Wiatt Professor and director of the Auburn University Rural Studio has been named the 2023 recipient of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medals — sponsored jointly by the University of Virginia and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the nonprofit organization that owns and operates Monticello — are awarded each year. They recognize the achievements of those who embrace endeavors in which Jefferson — author of the Declaration of Independence, third U.S. president and founder of the University of Virginia — excelled and held in high regard. The architecture medal and its counterparts in law, citizen leadership and global innovation are UVA’s highest external honors.

Freear and Rural Studio join a distinguished list of past recipients of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture, including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, I.M. Pei, Frank Gehry, Toyo Ito, Zaha Hadid, Sir David Adjaye and Kenneth Frampton.

“It is an honor to recognize Andrew Freear and Rural Studio’s hands-on architectural pedagogy that has significantly improved the living conditions for residents in rural Hale County, Alabama, and continues to support long-term well-being and regional sustainability in the area,” UVA School of Architecture Dean Malo A. Hutson said. “We are inspired by Rural Studio’s commitment to cultivating students who are both local architects and citizens of the world — and its ability to help aspiring young architects address the ethical responsibility for the social, political and environmental consequences of what they design and build.”

Freear will give a public talk to mark the occasion at 4 p.m. on April 13 in Old Cabell Hall’s auditorium. This event is not ticketed, and it is free and open to all.

For more than two decades, Andrew Freear has lived in rural Newbern, Alabama, a town with a population of 187, where he runs Rural Studio, a hands-on, place-based program that questions the conventional education and role of architects. His students have designed and built more than 220 community buildings, homes and parks in their under-resourced community, rooted in Hale County. He is a teacher, designer, builder, advocate and liaison between local authorities, community partners and students.

Rural Studio was founded 30 years ago by Samuel Mockbee (1944-2001) and D.K. Ruth (1944-2009) and is regarded as one of the oldest, most influential and well-respected design-build programs in the world. It is part of the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture in Auburn’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction and maintains a core mission to educate architecture students who live on site and design and build structures for residents and communities in the under-resourced persistently impoverished rural region known as the Black Belt.

More than 1,200 students have been educated through Rural Studio’s context-based service-learning curriculum, where students live and work alongside neighbors, finding solutions together. In particular, the program develops research and projects that support long-term well-being and sustainable rural living, focused on home access and affordability, effective and efficient use of timber, small-scale farming and access to resources such as clean water.

“It’s quite extraordinary that a modest undergraduate program in West Alabama can be mentioned alongside giants in our field such as Jane Jacobs, Glenn Murcutt, Billie Tsien, Tod Williams and Frances Kéré,” Freear said. “We are deeply humbled to have been selected for this distinction not just for the honor, but for the light that it shines on rural America and society’s role in ensuring equitable, dignified communities.”

A native of Yorkshire, England, and educated at the Polytechnic of Central London and the Architectural Association in London, Freear joined Rural Studio in 2000 and has provided leadership for the program for more than 20 years. Freear’s work has been published extensively, and he regularly lectures around the world.

He has been involved in the writing of three books about Rural Studio and was the co-author of the third, titled “Rural Studio at Twenty: Designing and Building in Hale County Alabama.” He has designed and built exhibits at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, the Whitney Biennial and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, as well as the Milan Triennale and the Venice Biennale.

His honors include the Ruth and Ralph Erskine Nordic Foundation Award, the Global Award for Sustainable Architecture and the Architecture Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Freear was a 2018 Loeb Fellow at Harvard University and in 2020 received the President’s Medal from the Architectural League of New York, the League’s highest honor. In 2021, he was inducted as a National Academician into the National Academy of Design, and in 2022, Rural Studio received the National Design Award in Architecture/Interior Design from Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

The Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal in Architecture is one of three medals to be presented. This year’s medal winners will be celebrated at an April 13 luncheon in the Dome Room of UVA’s Rotunda, marking the 280th anniversary of Jefferson’s birth in 1743.

Read more about the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medals.

Rural Studio Director Andrew Freear has been selected as the recipient of the 2023 Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medalist in Architecture. (Photos by Timothy Hursley)