Auburn University (AU) architect and professor Samuel Mockbee (1944-2001) was the driving force behind the Rural Studio, a hands-on architectural field school established in 1992 in Hale County. Mockbee conceived the project while driving between his home in Canton, Mississippi, to his job at AU, a commute that took him through the economically depressed Black Belt region of west-central Alabama. Working with colleague, friend, and architecture chair D. K. Ruth, Mockbee established what has become a signature design-build training program in one of the poorest areas in the nation.
Samuel Mockbee Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee was born in Meridian, Mississippi, on December 23, 1944, to Margaret Sale Berry Mockbee and Samuel Norman Mockbee. He had one older sibling, a sister, Martha Ann, with whom he was raised in a traditional southern Christian home. He often recalled that as a boy he sat with his mother at the kitchen table drawing fanciful house plans and, from an early age, knew he wanted to be an architect. After a stint in the U.S. Army, Mockbee met and in 1970 married Jacquelyn Lee Johnson, with whom he would have four children. Mockbee graduated from Auburn’s School of Architecture in 1974 and entered into a professional partnership with classmate and friend Thomas Goodman and then later with Coleman Coker in Mississippi. In both associations, his reputation grew as a remarkable and unconventional innovator who employed local materials and regional, culturally specific designs while underscoring the architecture profession’s moral imperative to serve all citizens, not just the upper class.
Goat House, 1998 In 1990, the partnership Mockbee/Coker Architects was chosen by the Architectural League of New York to be a part of their Emerging Voices series and, in 1995, Princeton Architectural Press published Mockbee Coker: Thought and Process in recognition of their important body of work. The structures they built in the Deep South drew on traditional, local, rural themes and included elements such as brick piers, shed roofs, masonry chimneys, glass walls, wide awnings, and expansive porches. The designs, materials, and structures were at the same time thoroughly modern and innovative and practical and utilitarian. Several also featured whimsical and even urban elements. The Barton House in Madison County, Mississippi, and the Cook House in Oxford, Mississippi, both completed in 1991, are the best examples of the Mockbee Coker collaboration. Already emerging in his early work is Mockbee’s use of recycled or salvaged materials and his philosophy of social justice.
A warm, burly, bearlike man, Mockbee was greatly loved by his clients, associates, students, and family. In his Canton home and neighborhood, he was known by all the children as “Papa,” and he delighted in playing with them, whatever their age. He was self-effacing, optimistic, and enthusiastic and made friends easily of every rank of person.
All his life, Mockbee relaxed by drawing and painting, and he was enthusiastic about all artists, no matter their level of education or expertise or the medium of their craft. Award-winning Alabama author Mary Ward Brown noted that Mockbee often brought Rural Studio students to her Perry County home to experience both the work of Black Belt artists and artisans and books by the world’s great writers.
When he joined the architecture faculty of AU in 1991 at the request of Ruth, he brought with him a plan that incorporated all the various elements of his work and philosophy. As conceived by Mockbee, the Rural Studio would pair the needs of families and communities having limited financial resources with the ingenuity and fervor of students seeking practical experience. In the exchange, both parties would educate the other and both would benefit. With a small grant from the Alabama Power Foundation, Yancey Chapel Mockbee and Ruth launched the bold experiment in 1992, eventually settling on the hamlet of Newbern as their base of operations. From there each semester, teams of second-year and fifth-year AU architecture students (and outreach students from other disciplines and universities) continue to work on projects located in the region. As of 2008, more than 100 projects have been completed by the program.
In the 10 years following its founding, the Rural Studio and Mockbee were recognized nationally and internationally. They were featured on television on the Oprah Winfrey Show, CBS’s Sunday Morning, and ABC’s Nightline, as well as in Time and People magazines. In 1998, Mockbee was diagnosed with leukemia just as the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., mounted an exhibit on the Rural Studio and gave its first Apgar Award for Excellence to the program. In June 2000, Mockbee was awarded a $500,000 Genius Grant by the MacArthur Foundation. On December 30, 2001, Mockbee succumbed to cancer at age 57.
The accolades continued and his ideals and innovations lived on after his death. In 2002, the Rural Studio was part of the Biennial Celebration at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and the NeoCon World’s Trade Fair, the annual design exhibition in Chicago. Mockbee was honored posthumously with Auburn University’s Lifetime Achievement Award. His students paid a memorial tribute to their leader with a Birmingham Museum of Art exhibit entitled “Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio: Community Architecture,” curated by David Moos in 2003. That same year, the cities of Vienna, Austria, and Barcelona, Spain, hosted exhibits on the Rural Studio and lectures by Andrew Freear, Mockbee’s AU colleague who assumed leadership after his death. On March 3, 2004, Mockbee was posthumously awarded the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal, joining such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen, and I. M. Pei.
Dean, Andrea Oppenheimer, and Timothy Hursley. Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.
———. Proceed and Be Bold: Rural Studio after Samuel Mockbee. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005.
Moos, David, and Gail Treschel, eds. Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio. Birmingham, Ala.: Birmingham Museum of Art, 2003.
Ryker, Lori, ed. Mockbee Coker: Thought and Process. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1995.