Samuel Mockbee: Master of Reuse

Green Architect

"It's not about your greatness as an architect, but your compassion"
~ Samuel Mockbee

While much of architecture is known for glossy images, high-profile clients and starchitect designers, there have been some truly amazing architects that have stayed somewhat under the radar. One of these people is MacArthur Grant winner Samuel Mockbee, who is marked by his transformation of ordinary materials into extraordinary environmentally and socially conscious buildings.

Samuel Mockbee, or Sambo as he was often called, is an important designer to me because I used his work as inspiration during my design/build experience in Ghana, and I continue to reference his work on a weekly basis at my architecture firm. You've probably seen his work but didn't even realize it: modern buildings made with car license plates and windshields, stucco covered tires, straw bale and carpet tile walls.

Mockbee is important to many other people for his contribution to community buildings and residences in Hale County, Alabama, an area known for its economic poverty. For most of his life Mockbee knew his experiences, education and success was "no doubt at the expense of blacks," and during the professional part of his life, Mockbee was haunted by the idea that an architect must "choose between fortune and virtue." In 1982 Mockbee was given an opportunity to choose virtue by moving and renovating houses for poor people in his hometown of Canton, Mississippi, and from this point forward Mockbee dedicated his life to elevating the living conditions of the poor through beautiful and meaningful buildings. "Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul."

After several more projects for the disadvantaged and a visit with Clemson's study abroad program, Mockbee established The Rural Studio at his alma-mater Auburn University in 1992. The idea was to create design/build 'study abroad' style program, but in the deep south rather than overseas. The program consisted of 2nd and 5th-year students, who lived with Mockbee in Hale County during the school year and were educated on the local community in addition to their architecture studies.

Starting with the Rural Studio's first project, while local rural vernaculars were used for form inspiration, salvaged materials were incorporated into the building design in a very unique, modern and beautiful way. The donated, salvaged and recycled materials maintained a local, worn and durable feel, while simultaneously teaching students how to be creative with building materials and keep costs down. Common building elements included embedded glass bottles, car tires, straw bale, car parts, rammed earth and corrugated cardboard.

Unfortunately Mockbee died of cancer in 2001, but the studio continues and with more support than ever. "Through their own efforts and imagination students create something wonderful — architecturally, socially, politically, environmentally, aesthetically. That's the mission of the Rural Studio. And once they've tasted that, it's forever there."

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(Images: Rural Studio/Auburn University)

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