By THOMAS SPENCER
Birmimgham News staff writer
Publication Date: March 12, 2000
NEWBERN A battle with leukemia, now beaten into retreat, has drawn in Sambo Mockbee's once-full face. With his salt-and-pepper beard tumbling to his chest, he looks more like a Civil War general than an iconoclastic architect and educator.
Mockbee is easy to picture astride a steed, swinging a saber above his head and whooping, like his great-grandfather who rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest.
But Mockbee would be galloping in the other direction. Against tradition. For democracy.
Samuel "Sambo" Mockbee, a 55-year-old Auburn graduate, is a founder of Auburn's Rural Architectural Studio, a university outpost in Hale County from which Mockbee and his architecture-student troops are waging a house-by-house campaign of reconstruction.
With talent and sweat, the platoon designs and builds architecturally unique and inexpensive houses for the poor in one of the nation's poorest regions.
Though a sixth-generation Mississippian, Mockbee has no reverence for the white-colum ned mansions of the Old South, nor the ostentatious New South skyscrapers of the Atlanta skyline. "Where is Sherman when you need him?" Mockbee grumbles.
He is interested in architecture that improves society.
In seven years, using salvage timber, license plates, old tires and hay bales, Auburn students have built five houses, two community centers, a playground and a community chapel. A dozen second-year students come each quarter. They design a project and do manual labor on a project designed the previous quarter. Twelve fifthyear students come for the whole year, design a project and build it. World away Mockbee devised the idea a world away, while serving in 1992 as a guest critic for students at a Clemson Universityowned villa in the countryside outside Genoa, Italy. Back at Auburn, he and architecture school dean Dennis K. Ruth proposed that instead of sending students abroad, they'd deploy them to the Black Belt. Alabama Power pitched in the first support - $250,000 over four years - and the program since has accrued more than Studio, Page 25A 21A $2 million in grants and donations from foundations such as the Jessie Ball duPont Fund and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Working with local social service agencies, Rural Studio students identify needy families.
There are many: Hale County has a per capita income of $15,151 and a poverty rate above 30 percent. Unlike Habitat for Humanity, Rural Studio clients are not required to contribute labor or cash.
Originally headquartered in Greensboro, Rural Studio received the donation of three historic homes in the tiny town of Newbern about 10 miles to the south. Students live and work in one of the three homes, all donated by Greensboro native William Morrisette. The two other homes are targeted for restoration, and one will be the headquarters for a summer fellowship program sponsored by the duPont Foundation that will bring students from other disciplines to the Black Belt for outreach work.
The studio's projects are spread out in a 30-mile radius of countryside. Near the end of a red-dirt Hale County road, on a remote curve in the Black Warrior River, the roof of Anderson and Ora Lee Harris' home perches like a giant metallic butterfly. This is Mason's Bend, an encampment of ramshackle houses and dilapidated mobile homes occupied by the descendants of sharecroppers.
Harris and his wife, both in their 70s, had previously lived in a patchwork house of nine rooms, without indoor plumbing, that Harris had built by hand. They moved into their Rural Studio house three years ago.
"I never thought I'd stay in something ain't nothing in the world like it," Harris said.
Architectural magazines have featured his new house, with its tall ceilings and elegant angles. The Harrises regularly receive distinguished visitors from universities and national newspapers who come to view the studio's work.
Just up the road, Shepard and Alberta Bryant, also in their 70s, are snug and happy in their house, Rural Studio's first. The two-foot thick walls made of hay bales sealed in plaster provide many times the insulating properties of a normal home.
"Ain't nothing wrong with this house," said Alberta Bryant.
It's a far cry from the Bryants' former residence, a makeshift structure with uneven floors and a roof so leaky they had to rearrange the furniture when it rained.
The Studio's works have brought national attention to this obscure corner of Alabama. Earlier this year, Mockbee went to Washington to pick up the National Building Museum's first Apgar Award for excellence. And on March 7, when the Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in New York opens its first triennial exhibition, Rural Studio will be among the 100 designers featured.
Success no stranger
Mockbee knows acclaim. Before he joined the Auburn faculty, he had a highly successful private practice and was known for his Southern-flavored contemporary homes. Built mostly for rich patrons, Mockbee's designs incorporate rural Southern traditions like dog-trots, bare wood and tin roofs, that are then melded with Modernist angles.
He was well paid, but gave it up after a particularly dispiriting episode, in which an institution asked him to tart up his Modernist design with Old South-y columns.
"I don't want to waste my time being a lap dog for the rich," he told himself in disgust.
Teaching is less lucrative, but Mockbee said it's more worthwhile. He believes architectural education has lost its way, so Rural Studio is a throwback, where students paint with water colors instead of scribing plans on a computer. They don't simply design, they build.
On a winter day, on a corner lot, just off Mason's Bend Road, fifth-year students Adam Gerndt, Dale Rush, Jon Schumann and Forrest Fulton are building a small chapel that will also serve as a social center and school bus stop.
Having laid a concrete foundation, they're sawing timber to frame the building. For this structure, the group plans to use rammed earth - massive blocks of a locally mined mixture of sand, rock and clay compacted with a hydraulic press.
"It becomes like sedimentary rock," Gerndt explains.
Like all the projects, this one is on a budget. The Bryants' house cost less than $16,500 in materials; the Harrises' $30,000.
About 30 miles to the south, in Thomaston, another crew of thesis students is building an open-air market where local small farmers can sell their crops. The market's shelter has an attention-getting V-shaped roof. But beyond learning to design with flair, the students come to appreciate that architecture includes such mundane concerns as locating pipes and gas lines, and getting permits for curb cuts.
"You run into issues you don't think about when you're drawing pictures," student Bruce Lanier said.
For Rural Studio students, there's no television. It's miles to the nearest bar. The women live inside the restored mansion; the men live out back in uncompleted "pods"- eccentric student-designed living quarters made from a conglomeration of plywood and metal, sawedcrossties, and old license platesturned silver side out.
Mockbee lives with the students in the mansion during the week. The atmosphere is informal and relaxed. Ghostly hand
Mockbee admits that his design concepts creep into the students' works: "You can see my hand in a ghost sort of way."
But that happens not because he designs for them, but because he pushes them.
"I do make sure the bar is high. If it is a screen door, it's got to be a screen door that's been thought about," Mockbee says. Most important, he wants his students to think of the social implications of their architecture.
"How is it pushing democracy in a community?" Mockbee asks.
Mockbee's charge doesn't end when his students leave Auburn. Former troops have taken his crusade into their professional lives. When Shelly Carder and a group of fellow Auburn alumni set out to design and build a house in a low-income Nashville neighborhood, it was Mockbee who inspired Carder.
Back in Hale County, afternoon light falls from the high windows of the old home. Mockbee is holding up a copy of Contemporary American Architects, a book highlighting 11 of the best. He runs his fingers down the list: I.M. Pei, famous for the glass pyramid at the Louvre, and Richard Meier, the architect of the Getty Center Museum in Los Angeles. There's Frank Gehry, the architect of the monumental Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. They are all builders of multimillion dollar monumental structures.
"These are the major hitters in American architecture," Mockbee says. Then he puts his finger on another chapter: "Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Architectural Studio."
"These guys," he says with mischievous delight, "they do poor folks' houses."