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By most conventional measures, Hale County, Ala., is a desperate place. Yet Hale County and its buildings have played a surprisingly central role in the history of American art: Walker Evans and William Christenberry photographed extensively there, and the architect Samuel Mockbee ditched a successful practice in 1991 to settle there and build a slew of strikingly creative structures on behalf of poor clients. For the final 10 years of his life (he died of leukemia in 2001), Mockbee and his students at Auburn University’s Rural Studio built such architectural gems as the Bryant House, with its long, slope-roofed porch and hay-bale construction, a community center with a roof built of aluminum and an array of automobile windshields that call to mind a giant insect’s eye, and a chapel constructed from stucco-coated tires. It’s easy to understand how Mockbee put his motto into practice: “Everybody wants the same thing, rich or poor…Not only a warm dry room, but a shelter for the soul.” “Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio: Community Architecture” is on view from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (to Sept. 6) at the National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW. $5 (suggested donation). (202) 272-2448. (Louis Jacobson)