Samuel Mockbee, 55
Professor of architecture
Around Greensboro, Alabama, everybody knows Samuel Mockbee. They know him down at the Southern Camera store on Main Street, where he sometimes pops in to use the telephone; they know him over at Crispy Chick, where he likes to go for breakfast; and they know him at Mustang Oil Barbecue, where you can get both gasoline and ribs at reasonable prices. Both the postmaster and the district judge know Mockbee, and so does 9-year-old A.J. Harris, who comes running out to the road when he sees Mockbee’s truck approach. Even the local prisoners know Mockbee. “If we need something, he helps us out,” says inmate Robert Steele.
An architect and a professor of architecture at Auburn University, Mockbee, 55, is known around town partly because, well, he’s Mockbee — or, as everyone here calls him, “Sambo.” He’s big and bearded, he’s funny and generous, and he appears to be comfortable with just about anyone. But people also know him because he is changing their community. Despite his playful manner, Mockbee has a serious mission: He uses his art to improve lives. “Architecture has to be greater than just architecture,” Mockbee says. “It has to address social values, as well as technical and aesthetic values.”
Mockbee’s vehicle for addressing social values is the Rural Studio, a small program with big goals. The studio, which is run through Auburn University, addresses problems of racial inequality and of substandard housing in and around Greensboro — and takes a radical approach to undergraduate education at Auburn. Its boldness has attracted some well-known supporters, including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and, most recently, the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded Mockbee one of its “genius” fellowships in June. Mockbee has been invited to teach at Harvard, UC Berkeley, and Yale, among other schools.
Every fall since 1993, when he and an Auburn colleague named D.K. Ruth founded the studio, Mockbee and two-dozen architecture students from Auburn have uprooted from the university’s eastern-Alabama campus and headed west to the studio. A farmhouse located two and a half hours from Auburn, the studio is a few miles outside Greensboro in Hale County, in the middle of the fertile Black Belt region. Hale County proudly identifies itself as the catfish capital of Alabama, but it is perhaps better known as the setting for James Agee and Walker Evans’s eye-opening chronicle of 1930s sharecroppers, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Houghton Mifflin, 1941) . Today, nearly 60 years after that book was published, Hale County remains one of the poorest areas in the country: Of its 16,870 residents, about 30% live in poverty — 1,400 of them in houses that are considered substandard.
To some people, such circumstances might represent tragedy. To Mockbee, they represent opportunity — to help needy families while giving students practical, hands-on architectural experience, and, perhaps even more importantly, to bring together people from drastically different backgrounds. Auburn students are primarily young, white, and affluent; Rural Studio clients are primarily black and poor. But “it’s economic poverty, not moral poverty,” Mockbee stresses.
“I realized that if I could get students to come and meet these families and help build houses, the students’ attitudes about poverty would change,” Mockbee says. “This is a community that is black and white, in a literal as well as a metaphorical sense. But when students have an educational experience that exposes them to the realities, rather than the abstractness, of social and political and environmental injustices, they can form their own opinions about it. They can see conditions for themselves — and can try to address them in a positive way.”
Each year, second-year architecture students, who spend a semester at the studio, interview several families and then choose one for whom they will build a house. Meanwhile, fifth-year students, who stay at the studio for an entire year while working on their theses, pursue such community-based projects as building a chapel or constructing a playground. Most recently, the Rural Studio created an Outreach Studio program for non-architecture, non-Auburn students.
That entire houses are given away with no strings attached is noteworthy. But those houses, as well as other community facilities, are noteworthy themselves: They are dazzling feats of design. They are made primarily with natural materials, such as hay or rammed earth, or with found materials, such as telephone poles, tires, or windshields. Using such materials keeps the cost of the houses low — most run between $25,000 and $30,000 — and gives them a look that is strange, beautiful, and distinctly Mockbee-esque. “My bottom line is, Would I want to live in these houses?” Mockbee says. “And my wife and I would live happily ever after in any of the houses that the students have designed and built.”
Justice By Design
To look at the dates and the places of Mockbee’s upbringing, you would not necessarily assume that he would be such a tireless fighter for racial equality — which is partly why, in Mockbee’s world, assumptions are wrong more often than they are right. A fifth-generation Mississippian, born in the town of Meridian in 1944, Mockbee grew up on the white side of a segregated society. His father contracted tuberculosis during Mockbee’s youth; Mockbee, his sister, and his mother were supported primarily by his paternal grandmother, Sweet Tee, whose flair in both her manner and her wardrobe influenced Mockbee at a young age.
Mockbee did not do particularly well in school. “I was an athlete and a daydreamer,” he says. Mockbee’s school was academically excellent — and all white. “You couldn’t buy my education in Meridian from 1950 to 1963,” he says. “That faculty was as good as any college faculty today, and it was because money was being spent on white children and not on black children.”
Mockbee knew black people, but never as equals. “They came in the back door, and they were maids, or they were caddies at the country club,” he says.
It was not until 1966, when Mockbee was drafted by the U.S. Army during his junior year at Auburn, that he was forced to confront his own conflicted feelings about race. For the first several weeks of training camp in Fort Benning, Georgia, he remembers, “Whenever I was standing in line, I’d be sure a white person was in front of me and behind me. When I sat down to eat, I’d have a white person on either side of me and across from me. Then one day I fell asleep in a rifle-range class. When I woke up, I was in the middle of all these black trainees who were also from Mississippi. I was fine, in a nest of equals. I thought, Why have I been worried? I went back to sleep, and the race thing ceased to exist for me.”
Since then, Mockbee’s liberal viewpoint has not wavered. In conversation, he regularly rails against various forms of hypocrisy and injustice and against those who perpetuate them, whom he calls “Bubbas.” Mockbee says, “When my daughters went off to school, I told them, ‘You can do anything you want to. Do drugs, raise hell — as long as your grades are good. But don’t you come back as a goddamned conservative.’ ” So far, his daughters, one of whom is in law school at the University of Mississippi and two of whom are undergraduates at Auburn, have complied. “They’re all good, liberal Democrats,” he says. “All three of them are going to be president of the United States.” As for his son, who is 15 years old, Mockbee is less certain. “My wife, Jackie, says that he’s a chip off the old butt,” Mockbee says, laughing. “I don’t know what he’s going to be.”
Mockbee first combined his social concerns with his love of architecture in 1982. In the town of Canton, Mississippi — where Mockbee and his family still live, though Mockbee himself is away much of the time — Mockbee heard about a Catholic nun named Sister Grace Mary, who was trying to move some houses away from a flood district. Mockbee called the nun (though he’s quick to mention that he’s not Catholic but “Christian by birth, Buddhist by philosophy, and heathen by nature”) and helped her with the project. She then told him about a family that was living — precariously, she felt — in a shack where all seven of the children had been born.
“I said, ‘Why don’t we build a house using donated labor and materials?’ ” Mockbee recalls. “And we did: We built a house that was a little more than a thousand square feet for about $7,000. It had three bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, and a loft space.” At that point, Mockbee was working at an architecture firm that he had founded in 1977, and he and several colleagues worked on the house for eight months during the weekends. “Having had that experience, I knew that small projects like that were doable by ordinary people,” Mockbee says. “It wasn’t so complicated that a person of average intelligence couldn’t build something. Just because you haven’t done something before doesn’t mean that you can’t get it done. The main thing is, you’ve got to want to do it.”
By then, Mockbee very much wanted to do it. He applied for a grant to build three more houses for needy families in Canton, but his proposal was turned down. Professionally, his life was full — he was working on an acoustics lab and on an observatory on the Ole Miss campus — but his desire to make his work more socially relevant was unfulfilled. In 1990, Mockbee visited an architecture program for American students in Genoa, Italy that was sponsored by Clemson University. He was taken with the camaraderie of the students, and he found himself wondering whether such a program could exist in the South — a place whose rich history and whose sense of architecture, Mockbee felt, certainly rivaled Italy’s. The following year, in 1991, Mockbee began teaching at Auburn. In 1993, he obtained a $250,000 grant from the Alabama Power Foundation and headed to Greensboro with 12 students in tow.
At first, Mockbee planned to stay only a year, in large part because of his family. “But once we did the first year, I realized that I had to stay the second,” he says. “And then I realized that I had to see the thing through. The only way to be successful is to make sure you’re successful, and you have to stay out on the fringes for that. You’ve got to leave your family and your home and go to war. You can’t do it from your den at home.” Along with being apart from his family, Mockbee has also made financial sacrifices. Until receiving the MacArthur fellowship, Mockbee says that he had “lived hand-to-mouth my entire professional life.”
Once they were in place in Hale County, Mockbee and his students started small. They repaired trailer homes — particularly for families with children, for the elderly, and for the disabled — while they earned the trust of the locals and while they familiarized themselves with the community. “You can’t just blow in,” Mockbee says. “You don’t have to be from here, but you do have to understand the community in which you’re going to build. I’m not saying that I couldn’t build a house in Spokane, Washington. I would love to do one there. But I probably could do a better one here, because I understand the people and the place.”
From the Department of Human Resources in Hale County, Mockbee obtained names of families who were appropriate candidates for both smaller repairs and entire houses. “That office not only introduced us but also vouched for the legitimacy of what we were doing,” Mockbee says. “There is a distrust that has to do with the culture of the South. You got a white man from Mississippi named Sambo walking in and saying, ‘I want to build you a house. It’s not going to cost you anything, and we’re not trying to change you. We just want to help you out.’ Well, you’d be apprehensive too!”
These days, the Rural Studio is established enough that some people actually come to Mockbee to request houses. (Many of those people, however, do not truly need the Rural Studio’s help and are simply hoping for a freebie — though Mockbee generously observes, “I understand that. Hell, I want to build me something.”) But persuading community members to work with the studio wasn’t always as easy as it is now. One family that needed help was familiar to Mockbee by reputation — for rough behavior and for squalid living conditions. “I didn’t want to deal with them,” Mockbee says. “But the students wanted to meet everybody so they could pick the family they would work for. We drove down there in a couple of cars. I said, ‘Y’all stay right here. I better go knock on this door myself.’ So I did, and the man in the family was sitting on the porch. I told him who I was, and I said the social workers were worried about them and thought they’d benefit from us building them a house. He said, ‘No, I don’t think I’ll take one of those today’ — as if I was selling Amway.”
Mockbee was challenged, rather than discouraged, by the man’s lack of interest. “I said, ‘Wait a minute, it won’t cost you anything.’ I wanted him to understand what he was turning down.” The man didn’t relent right then, but Mockbee had planted the idea, and he planned to return. Mockbee went back to the car, where the students were waiting. “We started driving and got about 100 yards down the road,” he says. “Then I got out of the car and got all the students out and said, ‘I’m going to tell you something. There is not an architecture agency on the planet that would build a house for that family. They’re almost untouchables. If y’all pick them, you would really be doing something wonderful.’ “
The students did pick that family, and, with just a bit more persuasion, the man agreed to let them build the house. “We started doing some designs, and we’d show them to him and his wife,” Mockbee says. “He started coming around, and then it was like night and day. When we began building, he enjoyed it, she enjoyed it; he enjoyed watching the students and helping them. The chemistry between the students and the family all happened the way that I always hope it will and know it will.”
Indeed, the relationships that develop between students and community members are perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Rural Studio. The students, whom Mockbee has referred to as “my little baby chicks,” are often quite sheltered. “They’re bright, but they’re young,” Mockbee says. “They’re right out of the mall, and all of a sudden they find themselves in Hale County, Alabama.” That can mean, as it did one day last summer, that those students are laying concrete in 105-degree heat. Yet the students invariably rise to the challenge. “These affluent students are working their butts off in order to impress and win the respect of the poorest people in America,” Mockbee says. “And the reason they want to win that respect is that there is a certain integrity, a certain honesty these families have. They’re wonderful families.”
The affection that the students develop for the families is reciprocal. Carlissia Bryant, 16, was in fourth grade when the students built a house for her grandparents, Alberta and Shepard Bryant, who are now in their 70s. At the time, the Bryants — including Carlissia and two of her siblings — were living in a shack with a leaky roof, no indoor plumbing, and no insulation. Alberta, whose legs had been amputated due to poor circulation, had difficulty getting around the dwelling in her wheelchair. Now the Bryants live in an 850-square-foot house with yellow columns, a long front porch, and easy wheelchair accessibility for Alberta.
When it was time for the students who had built the house to leave, Carlissia remembers, “We stood in the middle of the road to keep them from going. My grandmother cried. They told us they were going to come back and visit, and we said, ‘Come back all the time.’ “
Mockbee, too, finds that his life becomes pleasantly entangled with the lives of studio clients, including the Bryants. Besides his work as an architect, Mockbee is an artist who uses collage, watercolor, and oil paint. (An exhibit was on display at a gallery in New York this fall.) One haunting, somewhat abstract oil painting features Alberta Bryant in her wheelchair, as well as some pet turtles that she keeps in plastic tubs on her front porch. On a more prosaic level, Carlissia reports that Mockbee is fond of napping in a particular chair in the Bryants’ living room. When he brings visitors by to see the house, Carlissia says, “he loves to get a little snooze in.”
Jeff Johnston and Bruce Lanier, members of a five-person team of students that spent last year building a farmer’s market in the nearby town of Thomaston, also became attached to the people they encountered. “Several members of the community came by and helped us out when we needed trailers or trucks,” says Johnston, 23. “And they fed us. A guy named Packer was the first person to cook for us. He and his friend Pud brought a fish cooker out, fired it up, and fried catfish for us. We were sitting on the back of a truck, drinking beer and frying catfish.”
Community members also opened up their homes to students — to a truly extraordinary degree. The night that Thomaston’s mayor, Patsy Summeral, invited the students for dinner after a long, hot day of work, she offered them the chance to take showers before they ate. When he emerged from the bathroom, the 25-year-old Lanier remembers, “she had three sets of clothes laid out — three pairs of shorts here, three T-shirts here, and three pairs of tightie whities here. The tightie whities had come out of her husband’s underwear drawer.” Though Lanier appreciatively donned a T-shirt and a pair of shorts, he found himself unable to accept the full extent of Summeral’s generosity. “I just can’t wear someone else’s underwear,” he explains. “I had to go without that night.”
When the market’s construction was completed, Johnston and Lanier’s work culminated with an opening celebration — including a parade and fireworks — on the Fourth of July. Hundreds of people turned out, and Johnston and Lanier found themselves leading the parade. “All the kids in town were there,” Lanier says. “We had a bullhorn and were waving around the flag, and there was some guy driving a four-wheeler with three kids on it waving flags all over. There’s only one block to the town, so we started at one end and went to the other end.” The brevity of the experience did not detract from its thrill, according to Johnston. “They blocked off the street for us, and it was Alabama highway, so that was pretty cool,” he says.
Steve Hoffman, 25, who finished his undergraduate work in the spring of 1997 and who now works at the studio as an instructor, was personally inspired by the work that he and his teammates did with community member Robert Wilson. Hoffman’s team, with the help of Wilson himself, built a public pavilion on Wilson’s land in the town of Akron, Alabama. “I’ve never met anyone like him,” Hoffman says of Wilson, who is in his late sixties. “He left Akron to work on the railroad when he was 14 years old, and he went all over the United States following work. When he left, Akron had three hotels, the train was coming through and stopping, and there was commerce from the river. Now it’s nothing. And his family’s land, which was an active farm, is completely overgrown. Robert has had a real broad experience, he’s worked hard, and now he’s back — devoting himself to reclaiming his family’s land. Every day, he’s out there at five in the morning, clearing timber, making roads.”
Working on the pavilion with Wilson, Hoffman says, “opened up for me the story of this place. And, on a personal level, I look up to him — his sense of hard work taught me a lot. And to see what he’s accomplished with his own two hands is amazing. A person from my background is taught how to use your head, so my approach to things was completely different from his. For example, my thinking about concrete was, Where do we get the money to pay for the concrete that we’re going to order and that will come in a truck? His thinking was, I know so-and-so who’s got some sand, we can buy the cement at such-and-such amount per bag, we can get some gravel from this guy, and we’ll just mix the whole thing ourselves.”
Along with learning from the locals, students also learn from one another — and that learning occurs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The turn-of-the-century farmhouse that is the studio’s headquarters functions as a dorm, a lecture hall, and a cafeteria. “The kitchen is our classroom,” Hoffman says. Behind the main building sit four additional housing structures nicknamed — in a nod to the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers— “pods”; the pods are pure Mockbee, with one pod’s exterior entirely composed of license plates arranged silver side out, like shingles. The yard is littered with basketballs, soccer balls, bikes, and, for trips on the nearby Black Warrior River, canoes.
“You eat, sleep, and breathe the studio,” Hoffman says. “When you get a design critique, it may be over the breakfast table or it may be at 11 o’clock at night when we’re teaching class. The schedule is hectic and flexible. We’re lucky if we standardize the time for a class and stick to that time every week, because, with the process of construction, when it’s not raining, you’ve got to be building. Or materials might not be available, so you switch things around.”
The flexibility of the studio means that many of the best moments occur spontaneously. “If a friend of Sambo’s visits, everybody pitches in to help cook dinner,” Hoffman says. “We’ll go outside, hang a sheet, and the visitor will give a slide show. Then we all will sit around the table, talk architecture, and have a nice meal. That’s a social gathering, but it’s also a classroom right there.”
That such events occur on the fly does not mean Mockbee hasn’t laid the groundwork for them. “The closer you can get students together, the healthier I think that is — knowing, of course, there are moments when you have to pull them apart and deal with each individual student,” Mockbee says. “In academic settings in America today, you’ve got a classroom where you go in three times a week and teach for an hour. Then the students are gone, and most of them don’t see each other again until they come back to class. That distance doesn’t lend itself to discussions and feedback among them. Plus, the students’ social development is important. It’s important for them to live and eat with a professor so they can see what kind of disposition the professor has and how he handles situations, not just in the classroom but in a social environment as well. In the past, when we’ve been dealing with a bigot, for example, how to deal with that has become a discussion that everybody wants to participate in and wants to see how it resolves itself. We could talk about something like that in the classroom all day long, but when it really happens, it’s a whole different experience.”
The same line of thinking is at the heart of Mockbee’s approach to teaching architecture. The academic treatment of architecture is notoriously theoretical — so much so that a student can earn a degree yet hardly know how to nail two boards together. To Mockbee, that method of study is absurdly impractical. “Out here, the students have to make decisions and have to live with them,” Mockbee says. “It takes a few weeks before they realize that if it’s going to happen, they’ve got to get up and make it happen.”
The task of deciding which families to build for — and of building the actual houses — belongs to the students, Mockbee says. “If they dig a foundation ditch for a wall, they do a detail showing how much steel will go in there. Then they have to decide what kind of steel they’re going to throw in there, what size steel rebars. They look at us, and we look back at them. I’m not going to tell them; they’ve got to figure it out for themselves. You put them into responsible positions, and all of a sudden they realize that they have the authority to make those decisions. That’s what the program is about. Once they start dealing with practical issues, they take ownership of the project.” Though Mockbee always intervenes when he believes that students are doing something truly wrong, he acknowledges that they will make mistakes nonetheless — and he isn’t worried. “Every architect makes mistakes,” he says. “Frank Lloyd Wright made them. Michelangelo made them. Rural Studio students are going to make them, and they will be in good company.”
As for the houses themselves, Mockbee is aware that there are those who might accuse him of a subtle kind of exploitation. The families, one could argue, aren’t exactly in a position to turn down the studio’s offer of a house — even if the design seems bizarre or unappealing to them. Mockbee rejects this notion. “Some people might say we’re aestheticizing poverty,” Mockbee says. “I say, Come on down here and spend a week with us — and then say that. The clients are not guinea pigs. We do the preliminaries, we show them a model and drawings, we talk about the materials we’ll use. We make sure that they understand everything we’re planning, so that if they’re uncomfortable with something, they can tell us.”
Indeed, for the Bryants’ house, students initially wanted to make it two stories, but Shepard Bryant nixed the idea, saying that he was too old to be walking up and down a staircase. Similarly, last summer’s students had planned to build a bus stop — but then, after talking to people and learning that the children waited inside for the bus and didn’t need a bus stop, they decided instead to make a basketball court. Once the client and the students reach an agreement, however, Mockbee will not apologize for innovation. “We are architects, and we’re going to push the envelope,” he says. “We’re not going to be sentimental or conventional. We’re moving ahead.”
Nor will Mockbee apologize for the pace at which the houses are built — currently, about one per year. The Rural Studio does not aspire to be Habitat for Humanity, which has built tens of thousands of basic, affordable houses. By contrast, the studio is focused on building houses that have, as Mockbee calls it, a soul. Along with a house for the Bryants, students also built a smokehouse where Shepard Bryant could keep fish and game. The exterior is made of broken-up concrete curbing, with multicolored glass bottles embedded in the walls. The bottles are not there because they are necessary, or even remotely practical, but because they look lovely when the light shines through them.
Mockbee is teaching his students about the things that matter to him. After all, he is a teacher and the Rural Studio is, at its essence, an academic program. “All those houses are homework assignments,” Mockbee says. “The students turn in their homework, and I’ll be damned, it’s a damn house — and a good one too.”
Curtis Sittenfeld (email@example.com) , a former Fast Company staff writer, is a graduate student in the Iowa Writers’ Worskshop at the University of Iowa. Learn more about the Rural Studio on the Web (www.auburn.edu/academic/architecture/arch/rural) .
Sidebar: What’s Fast
Samuel Mockbee, an architect and a professor of architecture, cares a lot about design. But that’s not all he cares about. At the Rural Studio in Hale County, Alabama, where his students from Auburn University build innovative, inexpensive houses and community facilities for needy local families, Mockbee encourages his students to focus on both the big picture and the small details.
“We’re looking at the totality of where architecture exists and what it exists in: the environmental, the social, and the political. In a community, you have to look at education, law enforcement, recreation, and health — and address all of it equally. You have to understand the community in which you live.
“Architecture as a profession is pretty conventional, and we often play court jester to neurotic politicians and egotistical developers. We acquiesce to their decision making when architects really should be in a position to make decisions, whether those decisions are about environmental or social injustices. Here at the Rural Studio, we are in that position. We play the real role that an architect should play: dealing with individuals and communities and doing what’s appropriate for both. What’s good for the individual should be good for the community and vice versa.
“On top of that, the one true gift that an architect has is his or her imagination. We take something ordinary and elevate it to something extraordinary.”