This is the eighth year that Samuel Mockbee and his architecture students at Auburn University have been designing and building striking houses and community buildings for impoverished residents of Alabama’s Hale County. In some ways, the place has changed little since James Agee and Walker Evans went there in 1936 to document the lives of poor white sharecroppers. The 1990 Census shows per capita income still averaging no more than $8,164, and 1,700 families still living in substandard houses. Most of the Rural Studio’s clients are African-Americans, “left behind by Reconstruction,” as Mockbee says. Many live in unheated, leaky shacks without plumbing in Masons Bend, a little settlement of about 150 people tucked into a bend of the Black Warrior River at the end of a winding dirt road about 10 miles from Greensboro, the county seat.

In addition to being a social welfare venture, the Rural Studio—Taliesin South, it’s been called—is also an educational experiment and a prod to the architectural profession to act on its finest instincts. In June, Mockbee learned he had been awarded a MacArthur “genius grant.” Not long afterward, speaking in the deep drawl of his region, the burly, bearded sixth-generation Mississippian had the following conversation with contributing editor Andrea Oppenheimer Dean.

Architectural Record: What will you do with $500,000?

Sam Mockbee: It’ll allow me to take care of my family and get way out on the edge in my work and maybe do something that most people would think I was crazy to do, follow my instincts, let a project evolve, and concentrate on it. More than likely it’ll be for the Rural Studio.

Any ideas what the project might be?

You know the profession’s IDP internship development program? It is a well-intended program, but most interns dread it. I would like to offer architecture graduates an opportunity to come down to the Rural Studio as intern architects, under my stamp.

One idea is to also ask something of the premier architects in America, the Frank Gehrys, the I.M. Peis, the Richard Meiers, and Michael Rotondis. I’d like to ask each to design a cottage for a family that’s living down here in a cardboard shack. I’d take their sketch and get four intern architects to build the house. Masons Bend, Alabama, would become like Seaside, Florida, but I’d be doing this for the poorest one percent of Americans.

I’d find the money to build these houses—we build them for $30,000—and make sure the workmanship is up to par. That’s the sort of thing I’m thinking about.

You’ve stayed close to your Southern roots. Can you get an appropriate design from an architect who isn’t rooted in place?

SM: I’m not going to say that someone like Frank Gehry can’t build something beautiful in a culture and place he doesn’t know well. For the rest of us mere mortals, the best way to make real architecture is by letting a building evolve out of the culture and place.

I don’t want to be pidgeonholed as a regionalist, yet I am, and I certainly don’t want to get marked as a local colorist. I pay attention to my region; I keep my eyes open. Then I see how I can take that and, using modern technology, reinterpret certain principles that are going to be true 200 years from now. I want the work to be looked at as contemporary American architecture, and, in that sense, it has to have a certain honesty to it. That’s what’s wonderful about the really great American architecture, its honesty.

You say you’ve been cursed and blessed to be a Southerner. How so?

I grew up in a segregated South, in a very humanly warm environment, and had a wonderful education. But looking back on it, I know it was probably at the expense of the black community. I realize some of the things I’d been taught are wrong. The blessed part is that as an artist or an architect I have the opportunity to address wrongs and try to
correct them.

So the Rural Studio is your way to redress wrongs?

We’re excluding a whole army of people who’ve been excluded forever. These people down here are left over from Reconstruction; we need to reinstitute Reconstruction. W.E.B. Dubois said it 100 years ago: Reconstruction was prematurely stopped. He said that would be the big challenge of the 20th century; now we’re in the 21st and we still have the problem and we’re still ignoring it and they’re still invisible.

What about the profession? What’s happened to its social conscience?

Everyone’s too busy trying to make a living. We have to be more than a house pet to the rich; we need to get out of that role.

Have your students had any problems learning to work with poor clients?

No. However, most of our students come from affluent families. For the most part, they haven’t experienced this sort of poverty. They’ve seen it, but they haven’t crossed over into that world, smelled it, felt it, experienced it. They come with abstract opinions that are fairly quickly reconsidered once they meet the families and realize that they’re really no different from other American families. It’s good to see these white middle-class students working hard all day trying to win the respect of people they wouldn’t even acknowledge on the street before.

How important is the building process as an educational tool?

It’s valuable but not totally necessary. What’s important is that students understand the process. It’s the same regardless of whether they’re building a little bitty studio for a basket weaver or a large building. We do preliminary sketches, schematic designs, and foundation designs and then we go out and start digging the foundations. Everything then happens on-site. It’s how architects worked 100 years ago.

What’s important is that for young architects this experience takes it out of the theoretical and makes it real. They start to understand the power that architecture has and the responsibility they have to the creative process and how that manifests itself in something physical. That’s what architecture is. It’s not paper architecture. No one loves to draw and paint more than I do. But it’s important that students learn that drawing on paper and building models is not architecture.

This is the Rural Studio’s eighth year, and it has built more than 13 projects. Why haven’t other schools adapted the model for their own use?

I don’t think the 100-plus architecture schools across the country realize how alike each program is, how interchangeable their curricula and faculty are. I’ve spoken at most of them. The faculty are usually all dressed in black. They all seem to say the same things. It’s all become redundant and very stale, unimaginative. What’s ironic is that you hear professors talk about how out of the box we need to be, how risk-taking is part of being an architect, yet the faculty is often guilty of sitting on their hands. If architecture is going to nudge, cajole, and inspire a community or to challenge the status quo into making responsible environmental and social-structural changes now and in the future, it will take the “subversive leadership” of academics and practitioners to keep reminding the students of architecture that theory and practice are not only interwoven with one’s culture but have a responsibility for shaping the environment, breaking up social complacency, and challenging the power of the status quo.

The Rural Studio is not an easy curriculum to run. It’s a 24/7 obligation. During the week, I’m in Newbern living with students in a house built in 1890. If you’re going to do this you gotta pack your bags, kiss your wife good-bye, and go to war. If you’re not willing to do that, at least get out of the way and let the rest of us march on through.

It’s unusual to really integrate teaching with practice as you’ve done.

I’m not an academician, but I am an educator. I’m an architect and I’m also a painter. It’s all part of the creative act. That is my passion—to be responsible to the creative process. I enjoy certain technical ability, natural ability, and I get to use it. It’s what all architects have and want to use. We’re living the myth. I was willing to take that jump in the dark, as I like to say, and it’s not going to be fatal.