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Beautiful, environmental housing in the midst of poverty. Samuel Mockbee was a gifted architect who devoted his life to ensuring those least able to afford it lived in the most wonderful places. In a world where only those who are already the healthiest and safest on the planet can afford organic food and clothing, non-toxic cleaners, and “green” homes, we should all imagine Mockbee looking down upon us. Here’s an excerpt from an article on Mockbee that appeared in Architectural Record:
Architect Samuel Mockbee was convinced that "everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul" and that architects should lead in procuring social and environmental change. But he believed they had lost their moral compass. The profession needed reform, he believed, and education was the place to start. "If architecture is going to nudge, cajole, and inspire a community to challenge the status quo into making responsible changes, it will take the subversive leadership of academics and practitioners who keep reminding students of the profession’s responsibilities," he said. He wanted to get students away from the academic classroom into what he called the classroom of the community.
In 1992, Mockbee, together with Auburn architecture professor D.K. Ruth, founded the Rural Studio, which Mockbee directed until his death in late 2001. But instead of planting Auburn’s study-abroad program in a foreign country, they rooted it in the hollows and flat fields of Alabama’s second-poorest county, Hale. Mockbee was drawn there partly because of the poverty: The residents obviously needed help, and coming to Hale would force students to test their abstract notions about poverty by "crossing over into that other world, smelling it, feeling it, experiencing it," he said.
Mockbee’s Rural Studio represented a vision of architecture that embraced not only practical architectural education and social welfare but also the use of salvaged, recycled, and curious materials and an aesthetics of place. "I want to be over the edge, environmentally, aesthetically, and technically," Mockbee said. His students used hay bales to build walls for the studio’s first house, worn-out tires for the walls of a chapel, salvaged Chevy Caprice windshields for the roof of a community center, and waste corrugated cardboard for a one-room dwelling. Transmuting ordinary materials into extraordinary objects, the studio’s buildings were obvious relatives of those Mockbee designed for his private clients. For his work at the Rural Studio, Sambo Mockbee was awarded the National Building Museum’s first Apgar Award for Excellence in 1998, and in 2000, he won a MacArthur "genius" grant.
There’s more about Mockbee in the April issue of the Ecologist.