“Shelter for the soul” was the phrase architect and teacher Samuel Mockbee used to describe the functional and strikingly beautiful houses built by his students for impoverished residents of Hale County, Alabama. In 1993 Mockbee and colleague D. K. Ruth founded the Rural Studio, an innovative teaching and community service program for undergraduate architecture students at Auburn University. Using salvaged, often curious materials such as hay, rammed earth, telephone polls, and even tires and windshields, the Rural Studio builds houses and community buildings for residents of one of the poorest communities in America. More than 30 percent of Hale County residents live in poverty, many in substandard housing. The Rural Studio combines social responsibility, experimental design, and cues from the regional vernacular to create what author Andrea Oppenheimer Dean has called the “architecture of decency.”
A fifth-generation Mississippian, Mockbee was born on 23 December 1944 in Meridian. As a youth he enjoyed drawing and developed an interest in architecture. Growing up in Mississippi on the eve of the civil rights revolution made him keenly aware of the social injustices that permeated southern society. He earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Auburn University in 1974 and in 1977 formed a partnership with Thomas Goodman, an Auburn classmate. Mockbee left the firm in 1983 to establish a practice with Coleman Coker. In later years the original, unusual work of Mockbee Coker Architects gained a strong following.
Mockbee began teaching architecture at Auburn University in 1991 and launched the Rural Studio after obtaining a $250,000 grant from the Alabama Power Foundation. The program is predicated on the belief that architecture as a discipline is rooted in community. Students live in Hale County and participate in the local community as they learn the critical skills of planning, designing, and building. Whereas architectural training at most universities is largely theoretical, the Rural Studio gives students hands-on experience in every step of the building process. Working alongside the local residents who will be living in the houses, students learn firsthand about the influence of social and cultural values on architecture. Today, more than two decades after its founding, the Rural Studio continues to craft houses and other buildings from unlikely materials, each serving as a powerful statement about the social relevancy of architecture.
Mockbee routinely cited the “hay bale house” as one of the Rural Studio’s most satisfying projects. Built for the Bryants, an elderly couple who had lived for decades in what Mockbee described as an “old shack,” the house is made of stacked and stuccoed hay bales. The forty-two-inch-thick walls are strong, and their natural insulating characteristics allow the Bryants to heat the entire three-room house with only a wood-burning stove. Acrylic panels cover the long front porch, which provides outdoor living space. Warm, light, and dry, the house is but one example of the Rural Studio’s innovative, human-centered approach to design.
Known to almost everyone as “Sambo,” Mockbee possessed a humble, soft-spoken demeanor that made him an unlikely candidate for international acclaim, but widespread interest in the Rural Studio led to visiting professorships at Harvard University, Yale University, and the University of California at Berkeley. Mockbee also won several major awards, including a five-hundred-thousand dollar John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2000. He received the Mississippi Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Artistic Excellence the same year.
Since Mockbee’s death from complications of leukemia on 30 December 2001, the Rural Studio has continued its work under Andrew Freear and to date has built more than 150 projects and educated more than six hundred “citizen-architects.” In 2004, the American Institute of Architects posthumously awarded Mockbee its Gold Medal. By refocusing attention on the human dimension of the built environment, Mockbee’s approach to design and work with the Rural Studio provided a powerful counterpoint to the increasingly impersonal architecture of late twentieth-century America.
- Andrea Oppenheimer Dean, Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency (2002)
- Christopher Hawthorne, New York Times (19 September 2002)
- Julie V. Iovine, New York Times (6 January 2002)
- Rural Studio website, www.ruralstudio.org
- Curtis Sittenfeld, Fast Company (November 2000)