Samuel Mockbee: Inspiring Architecture Students

Education, Home & Family, Hometown Heroes, People
on August 27, 2000

Shepard and Alberta Bryant live in the Hay Bale House. Its a lot sturdier than it sounds.

Its a fine house, says Shep Bryant, who leads tours of the house on a regular basis. Youre always welcome to come see what these children did.

The children in this case were students of Samuel Sambo Mockbee, an architecture professor at Auburn University, and the Bryants Hay Bale house was the first of many built by students enrolled in Mockbees Rural Studio program in Newbern, Ala.a unique, highly successful program to provide housing for the areas poor using salvaged and inexpensive materials.

Stacked and stuccoed, the 24-inch-wide bales of hay provide strong, naturally insulated walls requiring only a wood-burning stove to heat the three-room house in winter (see sidebar). Acrylic panels cover the long front porch and, for about $40, the students also built a stone storage house in the front yard with a roof made of discarded road signs and mini windows fashioned from bottles.

Mockbee founded the Rural Studio in 1993 to provide houses for residents of Hale County, in west Alabama about 150 miles from the Auburn University campus. He wanted to teach his students in the School of Architectures Design and Construction department that designing buildings is more than drawing lines on paper.

Architecture should be about giving people places to live, instead of creating monuments to yourself, Mockbee says. Kids who want to be architects should be out there learning about the people theyll be working for.

In the five-year architecture program, second-year students spend a term in the non-traditional classroom constructing and repairing homes and community buildings. Fifth-year students spend the entire academic year implementing their own designs. All live on location, foregoing the comforts of college life.

The road to Newbern, a crazy quilt of patchwork asphalt, is a ramshackle preview of the houses many in the area call home. Among them are disheveled pre-Civil War houses, rusty trailers, and simple structures.

Mockbee was first attracted to the region as a student traveling from his home in Meridian, Miss., to Auburn University in the 1960s.

Mockbee commutes weekly between Auburn and his home in Canton, Miss., where he is still a partner of Mockbee/Coker Architects, a firm that also operates a branch in Memphis, Tenn. It was during one of these drives that the Rural Studio idea formed.

Working with D.K. Ruth, formerly head of the department, he created the hands-on classroom with funding from the Alabama Power Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the states largest electric utility. The program requires students to seek clients, design for their needs, and locate affordable building materials.

In the hands of Rural Studio students, beams from a railroad trestle, scraps of tin and corrugated metal, car windows, salvaged lumber, fragments of concrete, curbstones, tiles, used tires, cases of beer bottles, and sometimes entire houses become valuable building materials.

You always answer when opportunity knocks, says Mockbee, explaining why donations are never refused, but cataloged and stored for later use.

The students have repaired several existing homes and structures, and built six new homes as well as a chapel, community pavilion, childrens center, and playground. All are approved by the Hale County Department of Human Resources in nearby Greensboro.

They also build housing podssmall, two-person houses in which they liveon the grounds of the Morrisette House, the Rural Studio headquarters.

Steve Hoffman, a program graduate, serves as Mockbees on-site assistant. He found the program allowed him to see reality, meeting and learning from the people who benefit from it. He says money isnt the driving force in his career.

Whatever I do as an architect will have to have social responsibility, Hoffman says. The Rural Studio has taught me that.

Ever the humble teacher, Mockbee credits his students with the Rural Studios success. Its the kids who make this work, he says, though hes quick to roll up his sleeves and join students wielding hammers.

But he couldnt escape anonymity when he recently was awarded one of 25 national $500,000 grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which awards unsolicited genius grants to scholars, artists, activists, and scientists who are pioneers in their fields. Shrouded in secrecy, nominations are made anonymously and grants are distributed over a five-year period. Mockbee plans to use most of his to take the Rural Studio farther into Hale County.

Im no genius, Mockbee says, but Im smart enough to take the money.