Samuel Mockbee’s Vision In An Invisible World

By  Raad Cawthon |  July 6, 2010

Samuel Mockbee

SAMUEL MOCKBEE, HALE COUNTY, ALABAMA, 1997. Photographs by Maude Schuyler Clay.

Sambo sits in a spot of shade poking at some shale with what’s called a “beaver stick,” one of the many barkless, gnawed tree limbs the beavers have skinned and piled in bundles along the banks of Alabama’s Black Warrior River.

The Black Warrior, Tuscaloosa in the Choctaw language, flows a hundred yards wide here in Hale County. The river coils out of the thickly forested banks to the north and passes cool, brown, and slow before disappearing around a wooded point a quarter-mile south. Sambo’s talk passes desultorily from beaver sticks and the ease of finding fossils in the limestone of the riverbank to how he once stole his wife’s and her girlfriend’s clothes as they skinny-dipped.

Sambo wears a floppy straw hat. His pale blue oxford-cloth shirt is long sleeved and buttoned at the neck. Since the cancer struck him a couple of years ago, the sun, relentless in July here in West-Central Alabama, has become a threat.

Samuel Mockbee—“Sambo” to anyone who knows him at all—architect, painter, chair maker, so-far cancer survivor, father, husband, and teacher, received a “genius grant” in June of 2000 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The Foundation, based in Chicago, has handed out 588 of these grants since 1981.

It’s impossible to apply for a MacArthur; there’s not even an interview process. The Fellows are chosen by a thirteen-member selection committee from a list prepared by a slate of anonymous nominators who change yearly. At fifty-five, Sambo was the oldest of the twenty-five winners and the only Southerner. “Some of those people do things in the sciences, and they really are geniuses,” he says.

The Fellowships have gone to twenty-seven biologists, twenty-one physicists, and thirty-four poets. Eight astronomers are MacArthur Fellows, as are three primatologists and now, with Sambo’s inclusion, three architects. “MacArthur Fellows are chosen for their exceptional creativity, record of significant accomplishment, and potential for still greater achievement,” said Daniel J. Socolow, director of the Fellows Program. Winners, he added, are a “wonderful collection of extraordinary minds in motion.”

The grant gives Sambo—who has taught architecture at Auburn University since 1991 while periodically lecturing at Yale, Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Virginia—a hundred thousand dollars a year for five years. There are no strings attached to the money, no papers to write, no lectures to give, not even a requirement that the money be accounted for in any way. The Foundation Web site says such confidence in the recipients is the “underpinning” of the program and that “the Fellows are in the best position to decide how to make the most effective use of the Fellowship resources.”

“They told me the only requirement was that I deposit the check,” Sambo says. “I told them I wasn’t going to deposit it. I told them I was going to take it down to G.B.’s Mercantile store in Newbern, Alabama, and cash it and that it better not bounce.”

Sambo lives in Canton, Mississippi, but spends much of each week in Hale County, the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt—so named for the richness of its soil—where in 1993 he cofounded the Rural Studio. The Studio’s mission, as he put it then, is to “step across the threshold of misconceived opinions and to design/build with a moral sense of service to a community.” Started under the auspices of Auburn University with a $250,000 grant from Alabama Power Company, the Rural Studio exists on a year-to-year basis by collecting funds from various sources—grants, gifts, the university.

By establishing the Rural Studio, Sambo set about to erase the boundaries between the world of academic architectural design and the reality of Hale County, a place with more than fourteen hundred substandard dwellings. Every year the Rural Studio puts forty-five students to work designing and constructing community buildings and houses and working on other service projects—repairing mobile home roofs and septic tanks, digging wells—in one of the poorest parts of one of the poorest states. In the summer of 2000 the project expanded into an experimental outreach program, allowing students from other schools and in other disciplines—biology, medieval history, art—to work there.

The Studio is headquartered in a rambling, restored 1890s farmhouse in Newbern, a proverbial “wide spot in the road,” with no traffic light and no need of one. Half a mile up the street is G.B. Wood’s Mercantile, with its stocks of fishing supplies, rubber boots, pork rinds, and chicken feed. The store acts as the student union, Sambo says.

The students who come here spend the semester without TVs or VCRs; neither the NEW YORK TIMES nor USA TODAY distributes here. Students sometimes pump visitors for news, making them feel as if they have landed among castaways. The sensation of isolation is palpable—and intentional. “It’s like taking them completely out of their world. It’s like taking them out of time,” Sambo says.

Smack in the middle of the Black Belt, Newbern and nearby Greensboro, the seat of Hale County, are largely poor and African-American. Thirty-five percent of Hale County’s population lives in poverty, including forty-four percent of all children under five. The per capita income, according to the Center for Business in Alabama, is $16,380, compared with the state’s average of $22,972.

As he searched across Alabama for the locale that would meet his vision of where the Rural Studio needed to be, it was this legacy of grinding poverty that brought Sambo to Hale County. “I wanted a place that was poor and left behind, where there exists a world most people are not willing to look at,” he says.

The Studio’s projects—which include a soaring chapel in the woods, a house made from hay bales covered in stucco, a community center with rammed-earth walls—are frequently beautiful but are also cobbled together. Often, as in the case of the chapel, with its walls constructed from recycled automobile tires, the buildings are made from discarded materials. Students at the Studio provide all of the project designs and construction.

Now Sambo is excited about the prospect of building with wax-impregnated cardboard. The cardboard, previously used to ship frozen chickens, is compressed into cotton bale–sized blocks weighing six hundred pounds each. Uneconomical to recycle, the bales are routinely discarded in garbage dumps. “The insulation values are off the chart,” Sambo says. “And it’s practically fireproof. We tried to burn one of the bales, and we couldn’t find a way to get it to catch fire.”

Sambo committed to teaching at the Studio for one year. That was eight years ago. But if the Studio, with its mission of designing and building architecture with a social and artistic purpose, has drawn him in in a way he never expected, it is also responsible for giving him his widest professional renown. “Oh yeah, the Rural Studio is the reason I won the MacArthur,” he says. “There’s no doubt about that.”

The impact of the Studio has been almost surgical: someone casually traveling across the area might notice little change in a landscape dotted with cotton fields and bosky river bottoms and interspersed with the dilapidated shanties or disheveled mobile homes, in which much of the black population lives. Most of the county remains untouched and somnolent. Then in unexpected, out-of-the-way places there will be a residence of high architectural imagination that has replaced the trailer or shack where a family lived before. The Hay Bale House, for example, is built of stucco-covered bales of hay. The Butterfly House has a tin roof lifting upward like the wings of a butterfly about to take flight.

Much of the Studio’s work has been done in Mason’s Bend, an all-black community located at the terminus of a dirt road in a crook in the Black Warrior River. The only drinkable water here comes from two wells sunk by students from the Studio. In the summer of 2000 biology major Heath Van Fleet worked to find solutions to the community’s wastewater problem. From some two-dozen residences, most of which are ramshackle house trailers, wastewater is flushed directly onto the ground. “We’ve tested all around, in the nearby creeks and other places, and found the E. coli bacteria from fecal matter to be T.N.T.C.—too numerous to count,” he said.

Van Fleet has worked to get a company that is developing a new type of septic tank to donate a couple to Mason’s Bend residents. “The company wants the publicity, and if we can get enough, it might lead to sewage systems for all the houses,” he said.

Why did Van Fleet, a University of West Alabama biology major, come to the Rural Studio in the first place? “I came for the chance to work with Sambo,” he said.

A community center designed by two fifth-year Auburn architecture students, Jon Schumann and Adam Gerndt, was going up across a dirt road. The center’s arching ceiling joists of laminated cypress are fashioned from trees harvested by the two students from a nearby swamp. The walls supporting the joists are of rammed earth, made mostly from red Alabama clay, which leaves a finish the color of terra cotta that’s reminiscent of classic Italian architecture.

“Our plan is for this to be an open-air gathering place for the community,” said Gerndt, sweating and filthy from the day’s work. “We’re hoping this space will add to the community’s cohesiveness, will give it a focal point.

“Sambo is amazing. He has a sense of what architecture can mean in a broader sense than just a building. That’s what I hope to take away from this.”

The design by Gerndt and Schumann meets Sambo’s criteria that architecture must transcend the merely physical and utilitarian to addresses the ethereal. “If you are not dealing with spiritual comfort,” Sambo says, “you are not dealing with architecture.”

It is that lack of spirituality that Sambo criticizes in well-intentioned programs such as Habitat for Humanity, the faith-based organization that builds largely prefabricated housing for the poor. “They build minimal houses. Nobody is going to want to live in those houses in five years. And the people we are building for here Habitat wouldn’t touch because they are too poor.”

Habitat’s houses, unlike those built by the Studio, are not free to the owners. Instead, the occupants of the houses must have the income to qualify for a loan, though the loan is interest free. “None of the people we build for could qualify for any kind of loan,” Sambo says.

Some have questioned whether the Studio’s unique designs serve the purposes of this impoverished community. The designs are oftentimes experimental and modernistic, with lofty rooflines and nontraditional configurations. But these designs, which would fit in well in Birmingham’s Mountain Brook or Atlanta’s Dunwoody, in effect are customized. Some are surrounded by yards filled with chickens and the rusting hulks of automobiles. Sometimes a battered refrigerator hums on the house’s porch. On a balcony overlooking the two-story screened front porch of the Butterfly House, an artificial Christmas tree sits fully decorated in the wilting July heat. The house’s owner, Anderson Harris, refuses to run the large fan built into the rear wall because it increases his electric bill. At Shepard Bryant’s Hay Bale House plastic buckets beneath the porch’s cantilevered fiberglass roof hold dirty water and hyacinths from the river or turtles with shells the size of hubcaps. In the yard a student-designed smokehouse—ovoid and almost church-like, with different colored bottles piercing the walls to allow in light—is filled with a chugging, rusting chest freezer.

To all this, Sambo shrugs and says, “Some people have said these houses aren’t appropriate. What’s appropriate? Who do you mean by appropriate? We are not building anything gluttonous. These people like these houses, and I like what they do to them. They make them their own, which is what they are. We don’t get into judging these people. We don’t get into changing them.”

Maybe that’s true, and maybe it’s not. When Sambo first approached Harris, who is in his eighties, and said the Studio might be interested in building him and his wife, Ora Lee, a new house for free, Harris was skeptical. “I don’t think I’ll take one of those today,” he told Sambo.

It took several discussions before Harris reluctantly allowed the construction. Now he says of Sambo, “He’s about the most wonderful man I’ve saw,” and of the Studio students he says, “The children! I keep my mind on the children all the time.”

Why, then, did Harris at first refuse the offer of a house? “Well, always before, when somebody come around here offering something, there was always something attached to the end of it.”

The Butterfly HOuse

THE BUTTERFLY HOUSE, MASON’S BEND, ALABAMA, 1997


Even before the MacArthur came along, Sambo’s career was one of distinction. A Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, he had already won two awards for other projects from ARCHITECTURAL RECORD, the institute’s magazine, as well as an American Institute of Architects National Honor Award, an honor award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and an Apgar Award for Excellence. Still, the MacArthur comes as a one-time money blessing to a life that, so far, has been blessed with most everything but money.

“Whenever we worked with him, he wasn’t thinking about money. His partners were thinking about money, but he wasn’t,” Hap Owen, owner of Communication Arts, a Jackson, Mississippi, design firm, says of Sambo. Owen has known and worked with Sambo for twenty years. “Sambo has always strived to understand what motivated great artists. I don’t know if he understands all their work, but he wants to understand what motivated them. He has always desired to bend to the cycle of great art.”

Owen characterizes Sambo’s designs as a radical rendering of the South’s rural architectural vernacular. “He is a master of form,” he says. “He is an inventor of forms that I have really not seen used by other architects.”

Sambo’s forms draw on reconfiguring and rethinking older, conventional architectural models. For example, in designing a house for a prosperous Jackson family, Sambo included a dogtrot, the roofed, open-air passageway that was a traditional architectural aspect of the houses of the South’s rural poor. Such deconstructing and refashioning of the well-known elements of Southern architecture—barns and other outbuildings have been a prime inspiration to Sambo—create something that is at once familiar and new.

Born in 1945 in Meridian, Mississippi, he was raised the son of a salesman father and schoolteacher mother. In 1981, when I first met him, Sambo was a young architect in Jackson who cited the writings of Ellen Douglas and Eudora Welty as major influences.

One of his first high-profile commissions, Mississippi’s state pavilion at the New Orleans World’s Fair in 1984, showed his bold design while also demonstrating his flair for whimsy. The pavilion included a trellis planted with kudzu (although it did not include the stuffed possums Sambo wanted to hang from it). But what Sambo most remembers is the incredulity on the faces of his clients, including Owen, when he suggested trucking Elvis Presley’s Tupelo birthplace to New Orleans and including it in the pavilion. “They thought I was crazy. Then they laughed, thinking it was a big joke. Hell, I wanted to do it. It’s just a little old shotgun house. Moving it wouldn’t have been anything.”


Alabama’s Black Belt sweeps in a crescent eastward from the town of Demopolis, toward the Georgia border. Bounded on the south by the Gulf of Mexico’s coastal plains and on the north by the Piedmont’s beginnings, the Black Belt is a land of almost mystical alluvial richness. That richness brought cotton plantations here even before Alabama became a state in 1817. And it was the remnants of that plantation culture that deposited the region’s still existent legacy of racial separation and poverty after the Civil War.

In 1936 James Agee and Walker Evans came to Hale County to write a magazine article that later became LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN, their pivotal study of rural poverty in America. The book helped open the nation’s eyes to what Sambo refers to as “the invisible world” of wretchedness that lies all around us, close enough to see but just on the other side of the boundaries drawn by most people to surround their everyday lives. A couple of years ago, Sambo gave a lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, where he discussed his invisible world. The lecture’s full title was “Praying Pigs in Mississippi: An Invisible World in an Observable Universe,” and it began with an eight-minute film of a farmer who taught his pigs to “pray”—including crossed trotters and bowed heads—before he fed them.

People like Shepard Bryant and his wife, Alberta, populate this invisible world. “I guess I’m about eighty-five years old,” Bryant says, sitting on a broken wooden chair on the front porch of his Hay Bale House. “I was born down here across the road. Me, my father before me, and his father before that.”

Alongside Bryant’s house, across a yard patrolled by his multicolored, gimlet-eyed fighting cocks, head-high weeds hide a jumble of old roofing and falling-in walls. The walls mark the shack where the Bryants lived for forty years, raising half a dozen children before the Hay Bale House was constructed.

What does he think of his house of thick hay bales and stucco, with its reaching, cantilevered porch? “All through the years I hear the roosters crowing at night,” Bryant says. “I’m eighty-something years old, and this is the first house I ever lived in where you can’t hear a rooster call.”

Shepard Bryant in front of his studio-designed home.

SHEPARD BRYANT IN FRONT OF HIS STUDIO-DESIGNED HOME, THE HAY BALE HOUSE, MASON’S BEND, ALABAMA, 1997


It is less the recipients who distinguish the MacArthur from other grants than it is the mystery of how the Fellows are chosen—the list of nominees is shrouded in secrecy, and those who are chosen get only one telephone call from the Foundation to tell them they have won.

When the MacArthur people called to tell him the news, Sambo was at home in Canton, Mississippi. He told Jackie, his wife of thirty years, that he was “a half-millionaire” and then went happily into the yard to toss a baseball around with his son, Julius, the youngest of his four children.

Sambo is not the type to act modest by the acclaim or the money. “Hell, no. I’m glad they gave it to me,” he says.

The money would have been welcome at any time, but for Sambo, the award came in the midst of a two-year fight with a chronic form of leukemia that usually kills within twelve months. The disease was as unexpected as the MacArthur. A bruise on Sambo’s foot that would not heal led to a checkup, which led to the diagnosis in September 1998. “The first thing I said to the doctor was, ‘You can cure this, right?’”

It wasn’t promising. The needed stem cells from a bone marrow transplant could come only from a sibling. Even though Sambo had a sister, Martha Ann, four years his senior, the chances were only one in four that her cells would match.

Sambo drove to his sister’s house in Selma, Alabama, to have her sign consent forms and have blood drawn. The next day he drove back to the hospital in Jackson so the blood could be tested. “I wanted to face things. I didn’t want to wait. If I was going out, I wanted to know.”

For the ten days it took to get the results, Sambo lived not in the Rural Studio’s big house but in one of the futuristic, student-built pods tucked fifty yards away against a wall of towering hardwood trees. The pods are Sambo’s tribute to Thomas Jefferson’s notion to dot Monticello with small studios for artists, writers, and thinkers.

Both of Sambo’s parents died of cancer. “Every night I came out and looked up at the North Star and thought, ‘I might be up there with you soon.’ Everything kind of started to close in on me. I thought about never seeing my grandkids and that I would be leaving Jackie financially screwed because I’ve always lived hand-to-mouth and never had any money.” (So precarious were Sambo’s finances that when two students wrote a nine-hundred-dollar check from his personal account to buy building materials, they drained the account dry.)

Martha Ann’s blood cells matched. “When my doctor called to tell me,” Sambo says, “he said I should go to the Silver Star Casino because I was a lucky man.”

Still ahead was full-body radiation and a regimen of chemotherapy—treatments that sapped Sambo’s previously bear-like body of its weight and his once voracious constitution of its energy. He barely survived, and then, six weeks later, just as his sister’s cells began to take hold in his bone marrow, Martha Ann herself was diagnosed with cancer. The disease, born in her breast, spread to her lungs, heart, and brain. She died in August 1999. It is unknown when the cancer first struck her, but it was not there when Martha Ann’s blood was screened or when her cells were drawn to put into Sambo.

Sambo takes copious amounts of medicine. He moves slowly and tires easily. The marks of strain on his fully bearded face are not just the products of age. His laughter is the same as before, though, as is the bubbling tenor of his voice. In fact, Sambo seems to have a hold on the simple joy so often seen in cancer survivors. But the disease took its toll on more than just his body. “Mortality is around the corner, and, like Faulkner said, everyone wants to leave a mark somehow. I admit that’s one of the goals I aspire to. I’m insignificant as an architect. I’m insignificant as an artist. I still aspire. Balzac. Pliny. Welty. Mary Ward Brown. They all aspired to it, to leaving their mark. I have to make every brush stroke count.

“Most architects have too much ego. You want to lead the orchestra. But too often architects give up the creative decision-making; they give up their responsibility to the creative process. Once you veer from that, once you stray from the opportunity to serve the creative process, you begin to lose it. I have seen architects who were much more talented than I am abandon their gift and fail.”

Sambo’s leukemia is, so far, in remission. But his doctor has stopped telling his patients that if they can survive the disease for five years, they can consider themselves cured. “He said he’s seen too many of his patients relapse after five years for him to say that any longer,” Sambo says.

Still, life for Sambo has a fragile clarity as he moves around Hale County, which he jokingly calls “my fiefdom.”

“I’m like Kurtz, just not as sinister. I’m way up the river like HEART OF DARKNESS.” Sambo laughs his deep laugh. “I’m living the myth. The myth that your life can mean something.” 


AND ANOTHER THING…

Samuel Mockbee recommends some of the most  significant architectural sites in the South:

1. Residence at 64 Wakefield (Atlanta, GA)
“On the scales of architectural beauty, this 1995 house strikes a perfect balance between solid to void, light to darkness, technology to art. It was built by the Scogin, Elam and Bray architectural firm.”

2. Windsor Ruins (Claiborne County, MS)
“Completed by Smith Daniell in 1861, this is the embodiment of Sex and Death in the mythological antebellum South.”

3. The Crosby Arboretum (Picayune, MS)
“Designed by the architect Fay Jones and the landscape architect Edward Blake in 1985, this is the Deep South’s answer to the gardens of Versailles.”

4. Phillis Wheatley Elementary School (New Orleans, LA) 
“The work of a visual futurist, the architect Charles Colbert, this 1952 structure cantilevers itself well past the next thousand years of architecture.”

5. Riverfront Revitalization (Chattanooga, TN) 
“Curated by Stroud Watson, this ongoing project started in the 1980s and demonstrates the power of architecture to humanize a city.”

6. Fort Morgan (Gulf Shores, AL)
“In every brick of every arch the memory of the ancient Roman builders embeds itself; and a brick arch, after all, makes architecture eternal. This structure was created by the military engineer Simon Bernard, from 1819–34.”

7. Hightower/Prystup House (York, AL)
“A composition of technology at work with its ex-twin, Mother Nature; built by B.B. Archer, architect, in 1974.”

8. Ark of the Covenant at Margaret’s Grocery (Vicksburg, MS)
“Built by the Reverend H.D. Dennis, its crude materials and method of construction place it in an ethereal state of being and a perpetual state of beauty.”

9. Medical Arts Surgical Group building  (Meridian, MS)
“An example of the work of the Deep South’s premier modern architect, Chris Risher Sr., who was always in league with his Muse and Art. Built in 1977.”

10. Town squares (Marion and Eutaw, AL; Lexington, Oxford, and Canton, MS)
“These public squares remind us of the importance of civic life, and they also have the ability to give architecture a human face.”