When longtime Auburn University architecture professor Dennis K. "D.K." Ruth, 65, passed away last Wednesday, August 26, his death was mourned well beyond the campus. Friends, colleagues, and former students all over the country noted his important contributions to teaching and to the architectural profession, as well as his vibrant personality.
Ruth hailed from Cleveland, Tenn., and earned architecture degrees from Auburn and Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. He taught at several schools around the South, including Louisiana State University, Mississippi State University, and the University of Tennessee before returning to Auburn in 1989. A few years later, he and his friend and colleague Samuel "Sambo" Mockbee, FAIA, started Auburn's internationally admired Rural Studio, a community design/build program in Hale County, Ala.
"D.K. and Sambo shared a vision of what the Rural Studio could be," says Lori Ryker, a Montana-based designer, educator, and author who taught at Auburn then. "D.K. was the department head at the time, and he was instrumental in taking down the roadblocks in starting something off-campus—and there [were] a lot" of them, Ryker continues. "He was just amazing."
According to Dan Bennett, FAIA, dean of Auburn's College of Architecture, Design and Construction, Ruth ran the Rural Studio for six months after Mockbee's death in 2001.
Then he started a highly regarded graduate-level design/build program back on Auburn's campus that also focused on architecture for underserved communities. "He grew up in a rural area that didn't have a lot of economic means," Bennett says. "It shaped who he was. His whole life, he was devoted to helping his fellow man through architecture, and to teaching students [to do the same]."
Ruth won many awards for his teaching and public service, commanding the respect of his academic colleagues from coast to coast. "I've never seen an individual who had a way with students the way he did," says Bennett, whose friendship with Ruth went back to their undergraduate days at Auburn in the 1960s. "He was rigorous in his demands but had a concern for and love of these kids." Rather than solely teach, Ruth also ran a small firm whose portfolio includes houses and light commercial projects. "He was a practicing architect, as well as a professor," says Christopher Calott, AIA, of Albuquerque, N.M., who taught at Auburn from 1992 to 1996. "For him it was very important to bring the real world into his teaching and to bring the influence of teaching into his practice. It was a wonderful model for me."
Contextualism was extremely important to Ruth, from both a practical and an intellectual standpoint. His and Mockbee's "was a type of approach to architecture that was vernacular in the practice of the craft, but the philosophy was imbued with a sense of understanding the place where the structure was built," says David Wilson, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin Colleges and the University of Wisconsin-Extension. (Wilson, a Hale County native, became a vice president at Auburn soon after the Rural Studio began and helped it garner much-needed funding and support.) "For D.K., that meant challenging his students to learn about the culture and people of a place. He had a listening skill that was remarkable."
Ruth's inclusive attitude and desire to immerse his students in real-life situations resonated among his peers. "It was the realism that would be a major part of D.K.'s legacy," Wilson opines. "Also, his legacy has to do with decency. The individuals who are poor and don't necessarily have the services of an architect deserve to live in structures that are aesthetically pleasing, that are not cookie-cutter, that are examples of community ... this whole notion of decency is wrapped around his approach." Adds Calott: "He had a fatherly, gentle presence. D.K. was a big-hearted gentleman—he was the person everybody liked."
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