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Rooted in Place: Citizen Architect Documentary Chronicles Samuel Mockbee, FAIA, and the Rural Studio

His life recalled architecture’s greatest ambitions and presaged its call for socially engaged design

by Zach Mortice
Associate Editor


Of all the accumulated, Deep South homespun wisdom Samuel Mockbee, FAIA, ever taught his students or contemporaries, perhaps the most important was this: “If it has moral merit, it deserves the title ‘architecture.’”

These words, spoken to Architectural Record in 2001, could be misconstrued as a toothless, idealized cliché until one truly examines the plain reality of most building done every day. Then it’s understood as a declaration (which could have been Mockbee’s epitaph—he died in 2001) that defines the window in time he and his Rural Studio at Auburn University re-established a moral agenda for architecture, looking both backward and forward to past ambitions and future aspirations for design. This window in time will be opened wide on August 23, when the documentary film Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio premieres on PBS.

Mockbee and his students at the Rural Studio designed and built homes and community buildings for the poorest parts of the Deep South, and thus the poorest parts of the entire nation. He took his skills and compassion to Hale County in west Alabama, a rural brownfield of poor soil and poor people, marked by levels of privation and historic segregation Americans aren’t used to seeing. There, he built chapels out of recycled refuse and homes for $20,000. He moved people into them that had never had the opportunity to take running water and electricity for granted.

He did all this before design activism was a buzz word in architectural circles, before Cameron Sinclair, Assoc. AIA, and Architecture for Humanity jetted across the globe, organizing armies of design talent and capital to greet each disaster of the built environment. At the time of his death, the architecture world was still in the thrall of Gehry at Bilbao, thirsting for wild new expressions of form, and willing to mortgage the future to pay for it all. Still, Mockbee’s words look back to another short-lived and supremely influential school—the Bauhaus. In its 14-year lifespan it propagated Modernism and created a class of apostles that carried its message of aesthetic refinement and progressive social change around the globe. Rural Studio has only existed for 17 years, and its founder never saw it enter its 10th year, but its influence is also profound, and similarly based on combing social concern with a specific design language. As SCI-ARC co-founder Michael Rotondi, FAIA, wrote in an AIA Gold Medal recommendation letter, Mockbee “re-established a basic tenet of Modern architecture; it is both an aesthetic and social art.” Mockbee was posthumously honored with this award 2004.

The sheer relevance of Mockbee’s work today begs the question: Did he miss his moment? Sam Douglas, the Austin-based documentary’s director and producer, has no doubt that Great Recession America would have been a good place for him. The design audience for work that demonstrates his essential qualities of humility, restraint, and compassion have never been larger, making Mockbee an elemental force like the wind, rain, and sun that shaped his quintessentially Southern buildings without exception. “He would have been,” Douglas says,” a force of nature.”

Learning by doing

Born in 1944 in Meridian, Miss., Mockbee (known as “Sambo” to most everyone) came to prominence in private practice with Coleman Coker, developing a Modernist design language drawn from Southern vernacular forms. It was a long-simmering realization for Mockbee that architecture could be a tool to improve the lives of those most in need, but it was so rarely used as such. To this end, he founded the Rural Studio at Auburn in 1993. For the students he taught, the studio became a wholly immersive experience and way of life, comparable to a semester or year abroad. They lived with Mockbee and his instructors in an old, rambling mansion in Newbern, Ala., talking about art, life, and the limits of architecture. They designed houses, public buildings, and park spaces, gathering donated materials when they could get them, an asking impoverished African-Americas who would likely have lived their entire lives without ever being touched by the work of an architect what kind of places they wanted to live in.

The Rural Studio was founded on the Aristotelian ideal of learning by doing, and Mockbee worked against academic abstraction all his professional life. Before he founded the studio, according to Architectural Record, he painted portraits of poor clients to drum up funding so he could build them houses. Instead of addressing the social problem of poverty as an abstract demographic of victims, Mockbee’s actions joined the designer and the needy directly, listening to their desires and preferences, making them an active participant in his designs. “The Rural Studio is real in and of itself,” Mockbee says in the film’s trailer. “It’s not a representation of reality. It is reality.”

In 1998, Mockbee was diagnosed with leukemia. His work seldom slowed, though, until 2001. On Dec. 30, he sketched a memorial for the World Trade Center site; an underground worship space and cultural center dug 911 feet deep that looked up to two sky-piercing towers, darkly meditating on the physical sensation of falling from the heavens down into the earth. A few hours later he died. At his funeral, Douglas, a long-time family friend and filmmaker, met Jay Sanders (an instructor at Rural Studio) for the first time. They decided to make a movie about Sambo.

Douglas married into Mockbee’s family and by extension, into the film. He had been fascinated with Mockbee’s work as long as he’d known him, and began collecting initial interviews with him in 1999, but he found another level of involvement when he married Mockbee’s daughter Sarah Ann in 2004. This situation made the documentary both easier and more difficult to make. “It’s two sides of the same coin,” Douglas says. On one hand, it made it easier for Douglas to capitalize on the trust and goodwill everyone had for Mockbee. But it also made the project intensely personal, and it meant balancing his own artistic vision with the need to make his family proud of the project.

Humility with hope

The Rural Studio seems to stand alone in its ability to bring finely-crafted Modernist architecture to unlikely clients. Architects don’t often ask poor Southerners with assumed traditional tastes what kind of architecture they want to live in, but it’s assumed they’re not interested in Modernism. Mockbee found a way to bridge this gap, using his deep connection to the people and his ability to relate to all walks of humanity. His clients recognized that his work was based on familiar building traditions specific to their home. All Rural Studio’s projects contain deeply embedded, vernacular bones: overhanging pitched roofs for shade, large front porches, shotgun house profiles that encourage interior breezes, and struts to elevate houses in case of flooding. There are Modernist, contemporary elements too: asymmetrically slanted roof planes, formal abstraction, and a sharp geometric focus. The Rural Studio’s material choices can be wily and resourceful to deal with non-existent budgets. Mockbee made walls out of hay bales and tires covered in stucco. He scavenged old buildings for materials. He made windows out of salvaged car windshields. Rural Studio’s Lucy House frames a window wall between two multi-colored volumes of carpeting tiles stacked into a wall in a typical shotgun house massing, but the house’s master bedroom volume is a maroon, Cubist composition that’s strongly sculptural.

These vernacular touchstones are what have united the Rural Studio’s design aesthetic. Students come and go, but the design identity of the program remains the same. The litany of building references Rusty Smith, associate director of the Rural Studio, talks about are mythic emblems of the Old South: antebellum mansions, sharecropper shacks, catfish processing plants, and tobacco barns. “There’s a long history of how you build in rural landscapes in this part of the world,” he says. “We’ve been looking at the same stuff for 17 years.”

And it’s about all they’ve been looking at. Rural Studio doesn’t stray far from home. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Smith was inundated with calls and e-mails. What was the Rural Studio going to do? “The only answer we could think of was ‘nothing,’” he says. The Brad Pitts of the world and their transplanted on-demand rescue architecture are “great, but it’s very different from the ethos of the Rural Studio.” Rural Studio can offer Hale County solutions that work only because its ways of building are so connected to a place.

The Rural Studio’s design philosophy and influence has extended beyond Hale County. Academic programs like the University of Kansas’s Studio 804 and the Artemis Institute’s Remote Studio have sprung up and embraced Rural Studio’s commitment to immersive design-build experiences and socially-minded architecture. The central question all these torch-bearers (and the film) asks is: How much can architecture really do to address social issues like race, class, and poverty? “Sambo never talking about solving social ills,” Smith says. “It’s just more humble than that. [It’s] a family at a time, or a community at a time, or an organization at a time.”

For Mockbee, architecture was a gradual, day-by-day way to uplift people in need. It was a flashlight in the dark, not a power grid to light up a city. But it can make a difference. “I don’t think it’s disconnected that when we put our clients in a house that’s warm, dry, and safe, that their kids will do better in school and they’ll wind up getting a scholarship to go to college.”

In the right place

Today, as architecture has been asked to intervene with a wider and wider range of social issues, it’s also increased the scale of design in parallel. Multinational architects and their firms are building larger and taller buildings, but more importantly they’re designing entire neighborhoods and cities in the developing world. That’s a very different way to practice than Mockbee. But Douglas says that Mockbee might have found a way to make this kind of design globalism work, “if you can take the time and have the right attitude about engaging the place you’re going to build something in. Maybe it’s just a matter of [asking], ‘Is your heart in the right place?’”

Samuel Mockbee’s heart never left Hale County, and thus his commitment to use architecture to improve the lives of those with the least stayed rooted in place with him.


Citizen Architect.
All images courtesy of Dutch Rall

The Butterfly House, designed by The Rural Studio.

Samuel Mockbee, FAIA.

Yancey Chapel, designed by The Rural Studio.


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