Interview with Rural Studios' Sam Mockbee
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.