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Samuel Mockbee: A Design for Life

More than a year after profiling Samuel Mockbee for our Who’s Fast 2001 issue, former Fast Company writer Curtis Sittenfeld reflects on the legacy of an architecture professor who taught both compassion and craft.

Of the many things that impressed me about Samuel Mockbee, two in particular stood out. The first was that his work truly made a difference.

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An architect and professor of architecture at Auburn University, Mockbee, who died of leukemia-related complications on December 30 at the age of 57, disregarded the traditional, theoretical means of teaching architecture and charged his students with the task of creating real buildings. Better yet, he arranged for students to build those structures — often houses but also community centers, such as a playground or a farmer’s market — for people who badly needed them.

In 1993, Mockbee, known to nearly everyone as “Sambo,” established the Rural Studio, a workshop-plus-dorm-plus-classroom two and a half hours west of the Auburn campus, in famously impoverished Hale County, Alabama (the same region chronicled in James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men [Houghton Mifflin, 1941]). There, he and his students, who stayed for at least a semester at a time, immersed themselves in the community in order to find out what the residents needed. Then — using natural or recycled materials, proceeding one building at a time, paying as much attention to artistry as to function — the students gave it to them.

In the summer of 2000, I visited the Rural Studio to interview Mockbee for a Fast Company profile. It was close to 100 degrees during the afternoon and subsequent morning when Mockbee drove me around, over dirt roads and past kudzu-covered trees, to visit the Rural Studio project sites. I initially had trouble figuring out how to open the passenger-side door of Mockbee’s pickup, and he explained that the truck could tell I was a northerner and was suspicious of me. Later on, when I was able to open the door successfully, Mockbee said it was because the truck had decided I was all right. At the sites, Mockbee chatted with the students working there or the families living there, and at one house, he actually took a nap in the living room while I interviewed a resident. In between, we ran errands at the courthouse and the convenience store and ate, variously, ribs, grits, and biscuits. It quickly became clear that, without regard to race, age, or gender, everyone in Hale County was crazy about Mockbee.

As I learned more about the Rural Studio — both about the serious work of building houses and about the canoe trips the students took on the Black Warrior River, or the annual all-night pig roast they hosted — I had a feeling that I sometimes get when watching ER or The West Wing but rarely experience in real life: I wanted to climb inside the Rural Studio and live there. (As it turned out, perhaps not surprisingly, I did not move to Hale County and become one of Mockbee’s students, but I did the next best thing: I have convinced my sister Josephine, now a college senior, to apply to the Studio’s program for non-Auburn students.)

In creating the Rural Studio, Mockbee accomplished something great. But it wasn’t just his professional achievements that distinguished him; he was also, on a personal level, remarkable. He had a quiet, self-aware intelligence. He was realistic about the challenges of Hale County — especially about its extreme poverty and racial prejudice — but he did not, as others might have, see such problems as insurmountable. He was well read and well spoken, and he was not especially pleased by some earlier articles about the Rural Studio that had depicted him as a kind of hillbilly genius when, he said, he was neither.

To call Mockbee a “character” would be reductive. But still, there was something larger than life about him. He was a big man who seemed to have a lot of energy (and I met him after his first episode of leukemia in 1998), and that is part of what makes the fact of his death so hard to grasp.

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Mockbee had a mischievous manner. At one point, he introduced me to some prison inmates who were helping to renovate a building. (So steeped am I in the northeastern culture of irony that when I saw their prison garb, I thought they were wearing it as a fashion statement, like peers of mine who wear gas station-attendant shirts.) After we got back in the truck, Mockbee challenged me to mention the inmates in my article, and several months later, when I sent him the magazine, I proudly pointed out that I had not only worked in a mention of the inmates but had done so in the first paragraph.

Finally — and this is the other thing about Mockbee that most impressed me, though I realize it’s not a quality often celebrated in the business world or perhaps, after elementary school, anywhere — he was incredibly nice. Not in a saccharine, cloying way, not even really in anything he said, but in his small gestures and the questions he asked me, in the fact that he even asked me questions at all. An interview is, by its nature, a one-sided conversation — subjects are supposed to talk endlessly about themselves. But I have met a few individuals, and Mockbee was one, who ask you questions anyway because, even though you are the reporter and they are the subject, you are both people.

When I interviewed Mockbee, I was in the middle of an MFA program in creative writing, having left my full-time job at Fast Company the year before. After learning that I was interested in fiction — this was over the phone, before we met in person — Mockbee announced that all great writers were from his native Mississippi. Despite that apparent bias, he tried to set up a meeting for me when I was in Hale County with Mary Ward Brown, a local writer in her eighties; when he couldn’t track her down, he gave me a book of her short stories.

I also was struck by Mockbee’s kindness following our dinner with his students. It was after 10 PM, and I was about to set off for my bed-and-breakfast, which was 15 minutes away. Mockbee offered to drive me there in his truck. I declined, not wanting to trouble him. I was relieved when he insisted and even more relieved when we actually began the drive, which was along curving, pitch-black roads; without him, surely I would never have found the way.

In our culture, and especially in the media, superlatives are used so frequently that they have come to mean little. But I am not, as Mockbee was, a visual artist; the only medium I have in which to express myself is language. And Samuel Mockbee, I believe, deserves superlatives. More than anyone else I have ever interviewed, he inspired me. His death represents a terrible loss. He was an extraordinary person.

Curtis Sittenfeld (csitten@soli.inav.net), a former Fast Company staff writer, lives in Iowa. Learn more about the Rural Studio on the Web.

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The Mockbee family has established the following memorial fund to support the education of Samuel Mockbee’s son:

The Julius Mockbee Education Fund
c/o Ken Barton
P.O. Box 22567
Jackson, MS 39225-2567

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