Samuel Mockbee by Judy Hudson

BOMB 75 Spring 2001
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Auburn Rural Studio, Harris House “Butterfly,” designed and built by second-year students. All images courtesy of Timothey Hursley.

Samuel Mockbee has been a highly successful Mississippi-based architect and painter for the last 20 years. He has designed radically inventive houses for clients uninterested in the architectural status quo. In 1983, he started working for families living below the poverty line. These houses were also radically inventive, his newest clients equally open to his ideas. Ten years ago he accepted a teaching position at Auburn University in southern Alabama and decided to get his students in on the act. The resulting program is called the Rural Studio. Each semester, 30 undergraduates leave the secure confines of the Auburn campus and join Mockbee in Hale County, Alabama, a historically impoverished region that was the focus of Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Using primarily recycled materials, Mockbee and his students design and build low-cost (under 30 thousand dollars), low-maintenance, environmentally-sound houses, chapels, and community centers for some of the neediest families in the Southern United States. It’s hard to imagine architecture students anywhere having hands-on involvement in such flesh-and-blood projects as this. Mockbee looks more like a lumberjack than an architect. He is low key yet charismatic without trying; all eyes are on him. Everyone—students, fellow teachers, neighbors, even the inmates from the nearest correctional facility who are on work release at the Rural Studio’s communal home—calls him Sambo.

The night I arrive, to get me in the mood, I follow Sambo in the pitch black into a muddy field behind a derelict antebellum mansion. I can barely make out the massive circumference of an umbrella-shaped tree over our heads, but when he says, “Hit it,” we suddenly find ourselves under the Christmas-lit embrace, perhaps 30 feet in circumference, of an ancient mock orange, its branches festooned with lights. It is a perfect, fantastical mini-pantheon, what will become of the “green room” for an amphitheater being designed and built for the town that hosts the Rural Studio. The next morning, Sambo shows us a dorm designed and built by the three students; Amy Holtz, Gabe Comstock, and Andy Olds; who will eventually live there, created out of corrugated cardboard bales, glass, steel, and heavy timbers. The lines are clean and elegant, but the shredded cardboard gives it a fuzzy, surprising and humorous look. It’s a cross between Mies van der Rohe and a Jeff Koons puppy.

Judy Hudson This is amazing. How long did it take you to build?

Amy Holtz About three months.

JH How much did it cost?

Samuel Mockbee Around 10 thousand dollars.

JH The bales will hold up?

AH They’re incredibly dense. We tried setting fire to them and it just fizzled out.

JH How’d you get the idea for the bales?

AH Sambo had talked about it so we did the research. It’s industrial waste—50 thousand pounds of garbage a day. We’re experimenting with it for emergency shelters.

Exploring the world of the Rural Studio, Mockbee drives us deep into Hale County, past plantation homes, catfish farms, cow fields, abandoned farms and shacks.

JH Would you say you have a particular signature style as an architect?

SM Well, to some degree I guess I’ve been pigeonholed as a vernacular architect or a regionalist. I consider myself a modernist and I believe that as an architect I am capable of designing anywhere in the visible universe. But the forms and the shapes I design are derived from looking at outbuildings and connective buildings in the rural South; I’m informed and influenced by that and I’ve reinterpreted it. The shacks and barns, tornado shelters, silos, chicken coops, these big, long warehouses. Those are strong images in my memory. Burned-out houses where all that’s left is the chimney. I’m drawn to anything that has a quirkiness to it, a mystery to it. And I’m real conscious of the weather conditions, heat and shade. It’s the shade down here that we want. You can have a lot of glass on the north and east, but you want very little on the south and west. And if you do use it that way then you have to have big overhangs. I draw the best from the old and incorporate it into materials that reinterpret contemporary aesthetics.

JH You’ve talked about how you like to design honestly, with integrity. What does that mean?

SM I look for a silhouette when I’m doing a building. A certain silhouette that could be interpreted as a composition. Beyond that, of paramount concern is the push and the pull of light and shadow. Shadow and light define form. I’m not overly impressed with people who do floor plans. Anybody can do a floor plan. Frank Lloyd Wright used to say that the floor plan was the generator of the whole scheme. I understand what he means, but I think it’s one of three generators of a piece of architecture. The other two being the section and the elevation. When I’m picturing space, I’m trying to form both an interior and an exterior space. So I think in sections first, then I worry about the floor plan.

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Auburn Rural Studio, Yancey Chapel, designed and built by Ruard Veltman, Tom Tretheway, and Steve Durden.

JH You think about it in terms of moving from one space to another?

SM I’m choreographing how you’re going through those spaces, how you’re getting from the kitchen to the bedroom. You have to understand the program before you start. You can’t preconceive before you understand the functional part.

JH I like an architect who can reinvent something every single time.

SM Well, we try to. We like to think we can, but we’re all stuck with an individual style, and that’s not bad. Style is part of an architect’s vision. It’s part of the emotion that generates the initial sketch. You can’t preconceive emotion; you sit there and plug into the muse.

JH Can you give me an example of a building that you’ve done or that you’ve worked on with your students—what emotion did you start with?

SM Well, I don’t get to do that with the students because they’re the ones that have to have the emotion. You can put it into position, but then they have to make the moves, and learn how to plug in to get that feel. Once you’re into it, it’s just like a musician, or a writer, or a painter; when you’re really into it, you’re lost, you get a phone call, you can’t hardly carry on a conversation.

JH Okay, so what was the emotion for that house overlooking the Tennessee River, the Patterson House?

SM The site is a bluff that drops off 200 feet. So the emotion came from thinking how you could take advantage of stepping down the different levels and then sketching those sections, realizing that the kitchen, the formal living room and the bedrooms could be experienced on different levels.

JH You were talking earlier about the element of surprise …

SM You don’t want to give up your secrets too soon. It’s like the great state of Mississippi, it doesn’t give up its ethereal secrets easily, and I shouldn’t either, because the half-life is longer that way. That’s why abstraction is so strong. You see a Norman Rockwell, goddamn, you get the sentiment 30 seconds into that painting. The only thing you can admire after that is the technical ability. There’s no half-life. But you go to a Pollock painting, and the half-life continues. So you want to keep your secrets hidden, things like how you let light in.

We drive through the half-abandoned town of Akron, low-slung, fog-shrouded. Sambo points out a wedge-shaped shell of an old market.

SM This is a Rural Studio project right here. The students, Brad Shelton, Craig Peavey, and Patrick Ryan are going to renovate that into a Boys and Girls Club. This town … there’s a catfish processing plant over there, you see it and you feel like you’ve gone back 50 years. Blacks crammed in there elbow to elbow on assembly lines, conveyor belts bringing the fish in. Some people do heads, some guts. And behind two-way mirrors sit the white managers and supervisors—and all the blacks doing the work. Now look at this.

We step out of the car in front of a student-designed and -built pavilion on the banks of the turgid Black Warrior River. The River is filled with cypress trees and mist. The structure is gorgeously stark—just a soaring steel overhang sheltering a plain slate floor.

SM Steve Hoffman, Jon Tate, and Todd Stuart built this pavilion. This is a beautiful structure. Every piece is there for a structural or a functional reason; nothing is done for composition. So every stroke has meaning, it’s not frivolous. That’s what I’m looking for. You can’t show me something here that’s just there for a compositional reason. I always say finally, it’s got to have a moral sense to it. Any work of art has to have a moral sense.

JH What do you mean?

SM In other words, the painting The Raft of the Medusa, has a moral sense to it. Guernica, I’ve never particularly liked the painting aesthetically, but it has a moral sense to it.

JH In other words something about it addresses something larger than what it is.

SM Yeah.

JH What about the big traditional plantation houses, in terms of moral? Boy, it feels like any second, I’m going to see some fugitive with shackles on running through here, bloodhounds chasing him through the mist.

SM The argument is that they were beautifully crafted, beautifully built—and although the unfortunate reality is that they were built by slaves, they still deserve credit for the craftsmanship. From a moral standpoint, those are obscene houses because of the culture they stood for. So that four or five people could live luxuriously in that house you had 500 folks living in shacks right behind them in conditions that were inhumane. So what’s the moral sense of a house? What I would take as my point of departure, for example, might be an ecologically correct home, or as close as I could get it, ecologically, to that site. I’m not just gonna build a house for somebody simply because they can afford it.

Although Sambo seems to have unlimited energy, his priorities must be especially clear to him now. Two years ago he was diagnosed with leukemia. He had a bone marrow transplant with a one-in-four success rate. He drew a lucky card.

JH Can you talk about your influences?

SM I was influenced by Joseph Conrad, George Orwell … Wendell Berry.

JH William Carlos Williams?

SM Big time. He was a physician and a poet who paid attention to his community. His brother was an architect, and he told his brother that the best architect would be the person who had the technical ability and understood his community. He was a big influence.

JH So do you feel that when you have a gift, you have a mandate?

SM I think you have an opportunity. I don’t think it’s a responsibility. Responsibility implies that there’s a requirement. And I don’t want to put a requirement on anything. But the artists I admire made the move and understood that they had an opportunity to share their creative abilities with the community.

JH William Carlos Williams had a gift for the arts, but he also made house calls in working-class Paterson for 60 years. Do you feel there’s a tradition of hybridized people marrying social service to whatever gift they have in art?

SM They’re big influences. Myles Norton in the highlands of Tennessee started a commune there in the ’30s. He trained civil rights workers, Rosa Parks went up there. This is up by Sewanee.

JH That makes me think of Joseph Papp, who thought art was for everybody. His idea was, Why ignore people who aren’t as well educated? Shakespeare gets through to them. And you’re saying, Why build inferior buildings for people just because they’re poor?

SM Walter Anderson, from Mississippi, an artist—a real eccentric—did beautiful watercolors. He’d get into this dinky little boat, not any bigger than this automobile, and row 18 miles out into the Gulf to Horn Island—it had alligators, all kinds of flora and fauna. He’d stay out there a couple of weeks; he’d swim right up to water moccasins, do watercolors of them. Once, he got caught out there in a hurricane. He went to the highest point on the island and strapped himself to a pine tree. He always felt that that hurricane was a performance nature had put on just for him. He also did these murals in Ocean Springs for the community. He got paid well for those: one dollar. He said the community supported the artist, and in return, the artist should support the community. That was his philosophy.

JH What about movies?

SM I don’t see too many movies. But I remember this one scene in a Fellini film. After a snowfall, a woman goes out to the well. She’s all in black, and she leans over the well and her butt’s showing, and a guy sees her and throws a snowball at her. Then she throws a snowball back at him. There’s this little sexual thing about the butt, you know, Italians being Italians and all that. And then, all of a sudden, somebody else shows up and they all start throwing snowballs in this little piazza. And then you hear this squawking, and they kind of stop, and this peacock lands in the middle of the square. Everybody gets real quiet, and that peacock spreads its tail, and it’s got those beautiful colors; up to that moment, everything was black and white. That’s pretty good. (laughter)

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Auburn Rural Studio, Bryant “Hay Bale” House, designed and built by Rural Studios students.

JH Perfect.

We’re driving into the third world of rural Alabama. It’s pouring rain. Drunken looking shacks, trailers, and lived-in school buses seem to be fighting off getting sucked into the swirling red mud. We drive on into an enclave known as Mason’s Bend; amidst the shacks three or four new structures rise. The Rural Studio has built homes and a community center here. The center has a roof made with 1989 Chevy windows, the walls are rammed earth. We drive up to the Bryant house. Its walls are stuccoed hay bales, and it has a sweeping porch covered with translucent corrugated Plexiglas held up with yellow columns. In back, the students have built a smokehouse with concrete rubble and bottles, and a roof of road signs. It looks like a magical, mini Ronchamp Notre Dame du Haut, and it’s everyone’s favorite. It cost $40. We get out of the car. The clay mud sucks at my feet. Kids come running. To say the house is lived in is an understatement. All the walls are propped and plastered with cards and pictures. There are live turtles in buckets, chickens everywhere, an old freezer on the porch filled with catfish. Sambo doesn’t even blink; he clearly feels architecture should serve people, not the other way around.

JH Hi, Mr. Bryant. How do you like your house?

Shepherd Bryant I love it.

JH It’s kind of different, no?

SB That’s what I love about it. At first I thought they were crazy. I thought the cows would eat the hay. But I never even hear the rain; it stayed perfect.

SM You know everybody’s got what I call abstract opinions about all of this. But until you come down here, see the houses, meet the people who live in them … you come out with a different perspective, and a more informed one. We had done Bryant’s house, and we’d drive down that road and everything, and his neighbors, the Harrises, would be on their porch and they never waved or anything, I never spoke to them. I may have at first, but I never got any response. One of the social workers at the Department of Human Resources made a derogatory comment about the Harrises that left us with the wrong impression. So I thought, Well, shit, I’m gonna keep a distance. I’m always concerned about the well-being of the students, their safety, but I felt real comfortable back in there at the Bryant house, and nothing was ever stolen. And everyone respects Bryant in that little clan of families down there. So the next year we went back to the Department of Human Resources and the Harris family ended up on the shortlist of five families to consider. They were probably just barely put on that list but the social worker handling it was concerned about their health, living in a shack with no running water and all that. Three carloads of us pulled up to their house, and I said, “Look y’all, let me go talk to them first,” ‘cause I wasn’t sure what was gonna happen. I went and knocked on the shack and Anderson Harris invited me in and I told him what was going on. He said, “Well I don’t think I’ll take one of those today.” I mean, here you got a big white man saying he’s gonna build you a house and you figure, What the hell’s going on? I don’t blame him. So I said, “Well don’t say no, just consider it.” I was somewhat challenged by that “No.” And then I got in the car and I said, “Y’all let’s go on.” We took off and drove down the road maybe 10 miles, when I stopped right in the middle of the road. And I got all the students out of the cars to talk. The students visit these families and then they have to decide which family they’re going to pick.

JH Oh boy.

SM Yeah, it’s tough. All of them are in desperate need of a decent home. So you want to do it for all of them, but we can’t, no money and all that. So you gotta figure out who’s really gonna benefit. And so I said, “I’m gonna tell you all something, nobody’s gonna deal with them: no Christian organization, no agency, federal, state or otherwise will consider building these people a house. So, if y’all build them a house, y’all really will be doing something important.” They went back and they built them that house.

JH Okay, you get your client. Then what?

SM Then 16 second-year students each individually come up with a design for that house. We meet, and then we meet with the client and the client looks at all 16 solutions saying what they like, what they don’t like. Now usually out of that 16, there’ll be similarities in the group. You might have a two-story scheme, you might have a dogtrot scheme, whatever. So you can say, these three need to go, these four go together. You can split the students up and put them into groups. So it goes from individuals to a group of four people. And they have had the benefit of listening to the client’s likes and dislikes. We did some two-story schemes, and Shepherd Bryant was real fast to say, “We’re too old to be climbing stairs.” So they went back and redesigned it with a bigger roof. Then they show it to the client again. And again we hear the client’s likes and dislikes and we again mesh all that together and go in and come up with the definitive plan.

JH The clients don’t say, “I want a more conventional house”?

SM The clients need it so badly they are afraid to criticize or they feel they’ll lose us. We try to relax them so they will be critical. But they’re very open and excited by our ideas. They’re wonderful clients. They mostly say, “Yes, yes, yes.” If you’re working at the margins there’s a similarity between the two extremes—the very rich and the very poor: an honesty of lifestyles. One can afford to live an honest lifestyle, and the other can’t afford not to, and I’m not saying which is which. But it’s these two groups that will bring the 98% of the middle around to building appropriate buildings. A good client is a good client.

JH Do you have final say in the decisions?

SM I’m not going to dictate and micromanage these things. As long as it’s going in the right direction, I let the students go; you have to have faith that it’s gonna work out, and it does. It does. They always come up with something quirky and it puts a smile on your face. I’ve learned to trust that it’ll happen.

See that yellow house right there, that’s the safe house that Martin Luther King stayed in one night.

JH Was there a turning point in terms of doing work for the community as opposed to yourself?

SM You mean a racial epiphany? I had two. I had one in the army and I had one outside Meridian, later on when I was back in college. Actually, I might have graduated. I was fooling around and dropped out of school, I’d gone to Europe and hell, it was back in ’66 and Vietnam was going on, and next thing I knew, they scoffed me up. I did the army thing. That was the first time I had been thrown into an integrated society.

JH That was your first integrated community?

SM It was the first time I had been thrown in as an equal with anybody but a white person. I’ve grown up with blacks all my life. As a matter of fact, I’m uncomfortable when I’m in a place where there’s nothing but whites. I feel disoriented. But that was the first time blacks were on an equal basis with me. And that threw me. But one day we were in the bleachers freezing to death and I fell asleep. When you fall asleep and one of those drill sergeants catches you it’s hell, so I woke myself up. And all around me were these black guys from Mississippi, where I’m from, and I’m thinking, what have I been worried about? I just went back to sleep.

JH And what was the second?

SM The second one was when I had gone back to Auburn to finish my architecture degree. A friend had built some houses out in the country, three inexpensive houses, and I went to see them. There was some work being done on this dirt road that I was on, and I had to pull over and stop. Across the road was a graveyard and a black church to my right so I got out and started wandering around in the graveyard and I came upon James Chaney’s grave. He is one of three Civil Rights workers who was murdered in Mississippi in 1964. He didn’t have a tombstone, it had been stolen or damaged or vandalized. But someone had etched James Chaney, 1964 into a granite slab. It was in the ground. Anyway, I started thinking about him and the importance of his bravery. An architect is much more passive.

JH I don’t think what you’ve done is passive.

SM Well, I’m not putting my life on the line. He knew he was putting his life on the line and he did what he believed anyway.

JH And from that you started thinking, What am I going to do?

SM Yeah, thinking about the role of the architect and how an architect could become a Citizen Architect.

JH How does the community at large respond to these radical ideas? Nobody in the community complains? They all love what you’re doing?

SM Yeah. The only spoken criticism is we’re too heavily invested in the black community, so the white community says, What are you doing for us? We try to balance that out with community-based projects in an effort to be democratic. Like this children’s center, the farmers’ market down in Thomaston, and the amphitheater that we’re building behind the Chantilly. They’re all public spaces for blacks and whites.

We get out of the car and look at a community center. This is an ambitious project that was built by four students. Two buildings, joined by a canopied dogtrot lead to a playground of swings, climbing equipment and mounds to crawl under and over (an homage to nearby Moundville). Loving details are everywhere: skewed, colored-glass windows, tin ceilings and murals.

SM This adjacent building used to be an old doctor’s office. We renovated it. It’s a one-stop social services building, they do GED programs, reading programs, children and adult health programs, help people find jobs, that sort of thing.

JH Do your students have any carpentry skills before they come to Auburn?

SM No, not a whole lot.

JH Do you have classes in carpentry?

SM You just gotta want to do it, and these students want to do it.

Now this is a dogtrot. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that term. They used to build houses this way around here, they’d build one house then they’d build another room, two rooms behind the house with an open space in between that dogs trot through. What happens is you create a wind tunnel coming through and it keeps the house cool. It is a scientific fact that it works. And it’s called a dogtrot.

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Auburn Rural Studio, Cardboard House, 2001, designed and built by Gail Cornstock, Amy Holtz, and Andy Olds.

JH Have the students done what you wanted?

SM They’ve exceeded my expectations. I’ve learned that once you get them going in the direction they need to be headed, then you just back off it’s like a kid on a bicycle. They start pedaling and it’s remarkable, the hills they can climb. I’m trying to put them into position so they have a moment of glory. At some point they have the opportunity to feel what it’s like to be up there and have done something wonderful.

JH So they can have a standard when they go out in the world.

SM It’s like the taste of blood.

JH And you have an ongoing relationship with all the clients it seems?

SM I don’t think you’re successful if you can’t call your client back up and say, “I’m coming out to see the house.”

JH You don’t aestheticize poverty. It seems like you use the same standards for all your clients.

SM Whether they’re on either end of the social economic ladder.

JH You might use vernacular materials, but it’s not like you’re doing brut or primitive art.

SM No, I’m not a primitive artist, I’m trained, and I’m glad I am. I love the outsider artists, they’re obsessed, but in a different way. It’s about their own possession, it’s really not about dealing with a community or people. But the Rural Studio parallels outsider artists because of the materials we use and the vernacular landscape we’re inspired by.

JH Why did you stay here in Alabama and Mississippi? What does it mean to you?

SM It’s where I’m from, it’s where I grew up, it’s my family, it’s what I love.

JH But you never had any desire to leave?

SM At one point I was considering going to teach in Los Angeles. But why would I leave a place I’m inspired by to go to a place I know nothing about? There’s plenty to do right here. You might as well go out your back door and work and live your life right there. I want to see what makes my backyard special and use that. You can live your life as an artist without all the difficulty and adversity of going someplace else. As a designer, it doesn’t make any difference to me whether I’m here or in Manhattan or in Singapore.

JH You’re always only from one place. Do you think adversity stimulated your work?

SM Yeah, adversity is a big creative generator for a lot of artists, it always has been. But it’s not the sole generator.

JH You’ve overcome adversity in the culture, or certainly addressed it.

SM I don’t know if I’ve overcome it, but I’ve acknowledged it, and tried to use it. It’s worked. That’s what artists are supposed to do, not in a judgmental way, but in a way that opens possibilities. I don’t want to force opinions on anybody. And I don’t want facts to stand in the way of truth.

We enter a barbecue restaurant. Two giant vats of grease are bubbling away on the front porch. We get special treatment since the students built the owners a house.

JH Do you have a main dream project?

SM Yeah, I think most artists have a major project that’s always in the back of their mind. Right now, the project that I’m excited about, that I’m doing more than just daydreaming about is this house for Lucy and one for Amy. Amy is 24 years old, affluent, in Oxford, Mississippi. And Lucy has four kids, she’s economically on the lower rung of the ladder. Lucy is black and Amy is white. And I’m going to design both houses simultaneously, both houses are going to be as environmentally sustainable as possible. Amy’s house may have methods and materials of construction that are a little more sophisticated, because she can afford it. We can then elevate some of the detailing and be a little more polished on that one. I’m going to use my MacArthur Fellowship to build Lucy’s house. But Lucy’s house will have the same qualities that Amy’s house has.

JH Sort of like sister structures.

SM I call them sister houses. I want to push the envelope. I want it to be over the edge, environmentally, aesthetically, and technically, if both clients are willing to go on this adventure. I want to take advantage of what we’ve learned in the studio with the cardboard house. I’m going to have to do some more research into sustainable materials and ecological systems, to see what the palette can be. We’re trying to get the energy cost down as low as possible, and off-grid if possible. This is economical labor and energy maintenance. That’s the goal, to be the most technically advanced, low-cost house available.

JH Do you have the forms in mind?

SM Well, it’s going to have a tornado shelter.

JH How many tornado shelters are there around here?

SM You’ll see some. They’re in the ground like a cellar, but I want to incorporate it into the house as a form element. You can go down in there and use it as a room, not just periodically when bad weather comes. It might even have a fireplace coming out of it, this tornado room. Spatially it’ll be cavelike, a little mystical space.

JH Are there any materials that you can talk about at this point?

SM Now we’re looking at synthetic recycled clothes.

JH That should be good. In bales?

SM In bales. When people give clothes to Goodwill, if they don’t sell them, they pack ‘em up and send them away to Texas where they separate the synthetic clothes from the recyclable cotton clothes. So we’re gonna go and look at those synthetic bales.

JH So the walls will have all the colors?

SM All colors.

—Judy Hudson is a painter living and working in New York. She has shown her work at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, The Drawing Center, P.S. 1, Marlborough Gallery, and Patricia Faure Gallery, among others. She is a contributing editor at BOMB.

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Originally published in

BOMB 75, Spring 2001

Featuring interviews with Wendy Wasserstein, Wong Kar-Wai, Amos Gitai, Eduardo Galeano, Tobias Schneebaum, Micheal Goldberg, Samuel Mockbee, Andrea Zittel. 

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