Sam Mockbee – visionary architect and leader

On Monday, August 23rd, a documentary on the work of Sam Mockbee will be showing on PBS. If you aren’t familiar with his work you should be. His architecture was a unique response to a time and place and one of the few southern architects that have successfully integrated vernacular building forms with a disjunctive expression to create and overall poetic response to making place.

Barton House, by Sam Mockbee and Coleman Coker

If that wasn’t enough, what Mockbee is most famous for is the creation of the Rural Studio program at Auburn University. This inspiring program takes the needs of the citizens of Hale County Alabama and presents them as design problems for architecture students. These are then built by the students using donated materials with surprising and amazing results. Over the 17 years of the programs they have built barns, children’s centers, town halls, fire stations and countless houses for the rural poor, extricating residential “architecture” from the lofty realm of the wealthy and privileged to everyday working people.

Mockbee died in 2001 from leukemia and was succeeded at the Rural Studio by Andrew Freear. The program has gone through many changes but continues to do good and valuable work as well as inspire many other similar offshoots across the country. This program and Mockbee’s influence may be the single most important episode in architectural education, if not the entire profession, in the last 100 years. There are other, and older, design/build programs at universities, Yale’s Building Project, being an excellent example. But there are none that I know of that so forthrightly brought excellent design and rural poverty into the same sphere.

The Rural Studio

the documentary link, Citizen Architect

the Sam Mockbee site

(photos from the Rural Studio website and the Samuel Mockbee site)

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design thinking, creativity and its sources – fearlessness

“there is hope in honest error, none in the icy perfection of the mere stylist”

Charles Rennie Mackintosh

If there was a motto of my undergrad school, the College of Architecture at the University of Kentucky, for the time I was there at least, the above quote would have been it.  Like many schools of architecture at big, state universities, maintaining a really good program over many years is extremely difficult and rare.  Most ride along, doing decent work, a valuable asset to their institution, for decades.  And then something happens – a critical mass of  new, energized instructors, a new dean that can bring in, by force of will and calling in all their favors, strong teachers and working pros, at least for as long as these favors can outweigh the stasis of the institution, the poor pay, the frankly difficult fit of educating architects in a purely academic setting.  I was very lucky to have arrived and lived through such a period at Kentucky, merely good timing and luck on my part.

The famous schools of architecture – Cornell, Yale, Harvard, etc. have consistently produced good work and good students.  But, in my experience, rarely do they spark greatness.  There is frankly a lot at stake at these schools – students are too smart to take too many risks, instructor’s positions are so competitive that they rarely challenge conventions, the school’s reputation hangs like distant, forest-fire smoke all over the place.  RISD and Cooper Union have figured out how to extend these creative periods for longer spans.   But,at the lesser-known state schools, a brief, white-hot creative environ can emerge, lifting all the students and instructors alike.  This happens at places like Kentucky, Montana State, Arizona State, VPI; all respectable schools, mostly drifting along,  but strongly marked by these periods of amazing productivity and indeed, greatness, however fleeting.

When I was at Kentucky, the Italian architect and educator, Leonardo Ricci, taught studios and seminars along with his colleague and wife Maria Dallerba Ricci.  Leonardo seemed old as the hills and was our resident sage.  Having taught at schools around the US and Europe, he would say of Kentucky:

“You students at Kentucky, you know nothing, no history.  But, you have big balls!”

At the time I had no idea what that really meant.  Only after having practiced in Boston and grad school at Yale, did that really take on significant meaning for me.  Tucked away in little Lexington, Kentucky most of us had never seen that much of the world.  We were not surrounded by amazing buildings, neither the rich, thick history of Rome or Venice, nor the thrilling Modernism of New York or LA.  That ignorance, along with a stridently experimental atmosphere engendered by the faculty and a staggering work expectation, made for a great architectural education at an unlikely place.

A fellow architect and I were speaking the other evening and wondering aloud about what makes for a creative environment.  Management seminars, science foundations and engineering departments are all clammering to implement ‘design thinking’ as part of their DNA.  The creative environment that sparks into life at these smaller, lesser-known schools of architecture is the goal of these heavily-funded, highly-sponsored, but stolid institutions.  In my experience, creating this environment is not a patentable process or a set of strategies.  It does depend on some strong, amazing individuals, given free-reign to teach and inspire in their own way.  But it also depends a bit on a kind of naivete’, an unselfconscious, passionate curiosity that has only one essential ingredient – fearlessness.  Anything you make, anything you attempt, any honestly approached work, passionately sought and doggedly pursued, is given the space and time to play itself out.

Why can’t some institutions ever produce this environment?  I have no idea.  It is not something you can thrown on like a set of clothes and be happy about the new “look”.  To be in that place is thrilling and bit scary, it is bold, and daring, and delicate. And rare.

Maria Dallerba and Leonard Ricci at their Palace of Justice, Savona, Italy

see also the work and thoughts of Alex Bogusky, former director of CP+B, certainly no stranger to creativity.

And, Architect Magazine’s recent article on design thinking and architects.