My Architectural Hero

Let’s face it, architecture is a profession built around people with money. Most people look at architects as an expensive indulgence. Many of us have provided our services to people and or organizations that typically might not be able to afford our services as a result of our own altruistic instincts. It’s part of human nature to help those who can’t help themselves. There is one architect that comes to mind that embodies this basic human instinct and has been my architectural hero for many years. His name: Samuel (Sambo) Mockbee.

“Mockbee was born in Meridian, Mississippi. He served two years in the U.S. Army as an artillery officer at Fort Benning, Georgia. He enrolled at Auburn University and was graduated from the School of Architecture in 1974. Mockbee interned in Columbus, Georgia before returning to Mississippi in 1977, where he formed a partnership with his classmate and friend, Thomas Goodman. A growing sense of connection with rural places and a respect for the disadvantaged people who inhabit them, led Mockbee, along with D. K. Ruth, to found the Rural Studio program at Auburn University.”

I never met “Sambo” but a few years ago at the Grassroots Convention in Washington D.C., I met AIA EVP/CEO Robert Ivy, who as it turned out, happened to know Samuel Mockbee very well. Both were born in Mississippi within two hours of each other. His eyes widened and his usually well-paced southern drawl sped up as he waxed poetically about Mockbee. It struck me then as it does now how one person could have such an effect on another. The fact is that long after his death, Mockbee’s legacy continues to thrive, not only through his work, but through the lives of the many people he touched, including the disenfranchised rural citizens of his beloved South. He brought the “art” of architecture to some of the poorest communities in Alabama, but more importantly he brought compassion and caring to a profession that is often looked upon as insular and elitist.

As an architect, I often reflect on where I have been and where I am going. I have made decisions over the course of my career that for better or worse have shaped who I am today. I look at Mockbee’s career and see all that he accomplished as an architect and realize that although his architectural prowess was second to none, it was his connection to the people and places he touched that live on with the brightest flame. We spend many hours isolated and alone performing the work that we do which at times can make us not only appear, but feel detached from the outside world. We owe it to ourselves and to our communities to engage in the dialogue of the human experience, the everyday nuances that make us who we are and shape the built environment around us.

As Robert Ivy wrote in his editorial in Architectural Record following the death of Samuel Mockbee:

“In lectures, Mockbee frequently quoted Alberti’s dictum that we must choose between ‘fortune and virtue.’ Sam Mockbee chose virtue, not as judgmental prissiness, but in a robust, compassionate sense of knocking on doors, finding need, and answering it. By engaging students with authentic clients in Alabama communities, he tapped into the natural optimism of the young, freeing them from the more insular, abstract cynicism and formal obsessions of the design studio. A generation of students, now some 400 strong, inspired by the Rural Studio’s social activism, has followed in Mockbee’s prodigious wake.”

He lived for a purpose and drew inspiration from the simple things around him. He saw injustice in the segregated south that he grew up in and sought to make things right with his work and accessibility to it as an example. He brought an ethical and moral sense to his work. Rational truth and beauty comprised the other hallmarks of his architectural philosophy. Mockbee himself admitted that “beauty” was a term that could be debated, because after all, what you considered beautiful may be different than someone else’s definition of beauty. Bottom line was that it needed to be “easy on the eyes.” He believed that we had a social responsibility to each other in order to be included in the great “Pantheon of American arts.” These principles are not new nor are they particularly ground breaking as single element, but when combined as the foundation for his work, they created architecture worth celebrating and work that has stood the test of time.

Heroes in literature are often deified and placed on a pedestal for all to admire. Mockbee would have none of that if he were alive today. By all accounts he was a humble and compassionate man. Someone who could see beyond the walls that often envelope us as architects and tear them down to expose the ethos of our culture for the good of the whole. These are lofty aspirations and ones that are not achieved easily. Samuel Mockbee was unique in his ability to bridge the gap between those of privilege and the destitute in our society through his life’s work. The Rural Studio will stand as a testament to his will and ability as an architect, while the people he touched throughout his life will stand as a testament to who he was as a man….a true American hero. 

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