Thursday, February 14, 2008

Sambo Mockbee's "Shelter for the Soul"

Sambo Mockbee showed the world what it really means to be an Architect with a capital A.

Emerging as a quirky, regional Architect in Mississippi in the 1970’s and 80’s, he shattered the myth that affordable housing should look and feel “cheap.” Always the artist, Mockbee took on each project with design ideals usually reserved for the richest of the rich.

Although he was not at all opposed to taking on large commissions, most of his work involved budgets every other architect called “not nearly enough.” He worked with a palate of inexpensive materials, many of which were recycled, and created a soulful expression that lifted the spirit and felt at home with the natural surroundings.

A beautiful chapel made of recycled car windshields.

A home covered with carpet scraps or rustic old barn tin.

A woven retaining wall constructed of used, discarded tires.

Mockbee was the master of breathing life into the ordinary, of making something out of what we consider to be nothing. He taught us that every building, regardless of budget, can and should have a “soul.”

Full disclosure: I’ve personally drawn great inspiration from Mockbee’s work. He was an occasional speaker and visiting professor at the Mississippi State University School of Architecture when I was a student there in the 1980’s. He argued for an artistic approach to architecture. He articulated his heart-felt belief that Architects should be socially responsible and proactive agents for positive change. I stopped in his office from time to time and witnessed his creative process first-hand; he greatly influenced the way I view the world.

In the last decade of Mockbee’s life (sadly, leukemia overtook him in late December of 2001), he devoted his time to teaching at Auburn University, his alma-mater. Along with D.K. Ruth, he founded the Rural Studio, where his vision of a decent architecture for all is studied and practiced.

In 2000, Mockbee was recognized for his life of service with the MacArthur Foundation’s prestigious Genius Award.

Check out the work of Sambo Mockbee and Rural Studio at:


Anonymous said...

Mockbee's fostering of recycled materials in the 1980s and 1990s and (perhaps more importantly) in the rural south, the Deep South, was hugely significant. His work with students left a grand message. One almost heard his designs speak, "The expense of these materials is not only affordable, it is negligible."

Indeed, the materials were salvaged from waste piles... Used tires and old license plates became Mockbee's worthy building materials, examples which have since leveraged the use of other commonplace recyclables. For example, discarded wood pallets (bound together powerfully with original, factory-gunned, spiral shank nails) have since become better recognized as a means to a end (a fact already well understood among persons cobbling together third world squatter housing).

As one result of Mockbee's simple genius, people in need were provided shelter. As another, designers and community builders were provided rich and virtuous reminders that solutions are quite within reach, and shame on us if we don't seize them.

- John Lewis

James Polk said...

The radio program Speaking of Faith did an hour-long show on Rural Studio last year.

The link: