by Brian Libby; Salon.com, Aug, 2001
Aug. 09, 2001 – In the last century of American homebuilding, there may no other time when architects were so irrelevant. Less than 10 percent of single-family residences are designed by architects now, and most of the rest come from mass-produced blueprints that make entire neighborhoods identical. The small percentage of homes architects actually do design go overwhelmingly to the wealthy. And while many charities such as Habitat for Humanity address low-income housing needs, the notion that poor people could ever inhabit unique pieces of architecture anymore is almost laughable.
Somebody forgot to tell this to Samuel Mockbee.
Born in Mississippi and educated in Alabama, Mockbee has spent much of his life surrounded by the extreme poverty of the Deep South. Driven to change this endless cycle, Mockbee and his partner Coleman Cocker designed a series of “charity houses” for low-income families. This was early in Mockbee’s career, and the project won a 1987 Progressive Architecture Honor award. But the homes were never built. The funding simply didn’t exist, and Mockbee vowed not to let this happen again.
In 1993 — Mockbee was now teaching at Auburn University’s College of Architecture, Design and Construction — he founded what is now called the Rural Studio. This time his efforts bore fruit: For the past eight years, Mockbee has brought a group of his students to rural Hale County to design and build homes for the poor. One of the poorest regions in America, the county has more than 1,400 substandard dwellings, nearly all lacking electricity and running water. According to the 1997 Alabama County Data Book, about one-third of residents there live below the poverty level, with a per capita income just over $12,000 and an unemployment rate of 13 percent.
Often dubbed “Redneck Taliesin South” (after Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wisconsin and Arizona homes and architectural studios), the Rural Studio not only fulfills an overwhelming need for decent housing but gives architecture students the kind of hands-on experience virtually all other educational institutions in the field lack. The houses are built for about $30,000 each using a variety of recycled and discarded materials (tires, bottles) and funded mostly with grants from a local power company. Designed through a collaborative process involving students and local residents, the homes boast an unconventional modern flair that incorporates the cultural vernacular of the region. They may be cheap, but these are nice houses.
In this remarkable rebuilding of Hale County, which also includes a number of public buildings, Mockbee is the glue, ensuring that his young protégés meet his meticulous standards and that the clients, perhaps for the first time in their lives, go home happy. Last year he won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, only the third architect (along with Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio) out of 588 past recipients to receive this award, in his case totaling $500,000.
Recently Mockbee spoke with me from his home in Canton, Miss., about architecture, public service and what he’s doing with his MacArthur windfall.
Salon: How does it feel knowing your profession has been marginalized by the American home building industry?
Samuel Mockbee: It’s a shame, because houses are the great paramour for architects, from the most successful all the way down to the most struggling. We draw them on the backs of napkins. But too often when I look at what builders and developers are doing, we’re not talking about architecture any longer. We’re talking about capitalism at its most obscene. The public has bought into the mediocrity and insipid attitude of manufactured and spec houses, and has given up any hope of creating homes with spirit. Real architecture does cost somewhat more. But most homes in America are built with false façades that try to pass themselves as architecture.