Sambo Mockbee: Legacy, Community, and the Empowerment of Myth

When the American Institute of Architects awarded Samuel (Sambo) Mockbee the AIA Gold Medal in 2003, he joined an elite company of architects (including Thomas Jefferson) who received the award posthumously. “The AIA does not like to confer a gold medal on people who are no longer living,” says architect Tom Howorth. “It’s an award for those who have the potential to continue contributing to the field of architecture. The fact that it was conferred on Sambo confirms he is continuing to shape the architectural landscape.”

The Cook House, near Oxford, Mississippi (photo by Undine Proh)

Sambo Mockbee died in 2001. Hailed as a visionary with designs such as the Barton House in Madison, the Cook House in Oxford and the Magee Church of Christ to name a very few, Mockbee set an even higher benchmark when he and D.K. Ruth co-founded the Rural Studio at Auburn University. There in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt, the studio continues to be a place where students learn the social responsibilities of architecture by creating homes and buildings with a spirit for poor communities.

“Sambo’s mission was to see about people,” Jackie Mockbee says. Jackie married Sambo in 1970. “We had two blind dates, we really did,” Jackie says. “The first was at a homecoming for Sambo when he was at Fort Benning. I’m sure he didn’t remember me; I just remember having fun watching everyone there. Two years later, my cousin called me and said they were going to a party and said there’s this guy that we all know who needs a date. They started telling me who he was, and. I said, ‘Wait a minute; I’ve had a date with him before.’ They asked me if I had fun, and I told them that we really didn’t get to know one another. That night, Sambo asked me if I went to MSCW, if I was a Baptist and if I’d marry him. I said, ‘Yes, yes and no.’ That was in August. We were married that December.” The Mockbees had four children, but Jackie remembers that at their home in Canton, “We had kids everywhere.” Jackie says. “They ran all around the neighborhood, but always ended up in our yard. Sambo was like the Pied Piper; he always had something going on, he was always the coach, and when he hit that door, the kids came running.”

“He was a gregarious, affable, lovable teddy-bear of a guy,” says Malcolm White, a long-time friend. “Once you became his friend, you were his friend for life. He loved collecting eclectic personalities. He was an engaging conversationalist and could sit up literally all night and carry on about Van Gogh or the Civil War or American history or Western civilization or anything else you might be interested in.”

Magee Church of Christ (photo by L. David Fox)“He believed in legacy, he believed in creating things that would last,” Malcolm says. “He wrote a check out of an account that didn’t have a nickel in it for the first float that I ever purchased, the very same trailer that the Sweet Potato Queens use today.”

“In the early 80s, Sambo had an office on North Street on a stretch of property that’s now parking lots,” Malcolm says. “On Friday afternoons, Sambo would gather people and would serve Heinekens, which he loved, and sausages or peanuts, whatever he had on hand. Sambo began to explain to us that he had this big idea that he was closing in on, this notion that was going to involve all of us,” Malcolm says. “He wanted to empower rural people of little means in the same way that wealthy people could empower him to design beautiful, elaborate offices. He wanted to incorporate not just architecture and design, but philanthropy and entertainment and recreation, all the components that build community. Basically what he was talking about became the Rural Studio.”

Former partner Coleman Coker first met Mockbee in Corinth. “I think in 1980 or 1981, and we hit it off, just sitting around and talking. Neither one of us had much work at the time,” Coleman says. “He was making a lot of collages, I was painting, and that’s where we found a commonality in translating the world as we saw it through our constructions and paintings into architectural compositions. We never were successful going out and marketing ourselves, particularly to corporate clients,” Coleman says. “Most of the work we were proudest of involved small residences for people looking for something different, looking for something that had a relationship to place, to locale. Most of those buildings were reflections of the clients, an extension of their personalities, and as we got more built, more people would see them and give us a call.”

“We didn’t sit around talking about the work of other architects; we’d talk about literature—Welty and Faulkner—looking for roots, connections to place, and we found that so much more directly through Southern writers,” Coleman says. “There’s no long tradition of Southern architecture outside of the classical, which comes from Europe, and we weren’t looking for that. We were trying to build on what was just beneath the surface here in the Deep South, whether it was black culture or the culture of the landed gentry, whatever mythology could be unearthed.” Mythology, Coleman admits, is “difficult to talk about.”

“Sambo, through the paintings that he did, was building a whole mythological world,” Coleman says. “Characters would repeat themselves throughout the paintings, and they started telling a narrative. It’s easier to render a narrative through literature, even through painting, than it is through architecture, yet you strive to expound those roots and reprocess them through design. Our concern with social responsibility in professional ethics fell in trying to reach out to a group that was estranged otherwise,” Coleman says. “We were trying to design in context with this locale, the locale in a social sense, when the abject poverty in much of Mississippi was virtually ignored by the great majority of designers and the great majority of people who could afford architects.”

“Eutaw: Children of Eutaw Pose Before their Ancient Cabin” (Mural, photo by L. David Fox)

In 1993, Mockbee and D.K. Ruth founded the Rural Studio. “Prior to the Rural Studio there were a few notable construction-focused, hands-on learning opportunities in architecture schools in the country, notably at Yale,” says Tom Howorth, also a former partner. “But there was nothing on the scale, level of commitment and pedagogical continuity that runs through the Rural Studio. Now there are those sorts of programs across the country. So much of what we do is picked from catalogues that the work of putting buildings together becomes a matter of picking the systems that exist and putting them together in a way that you solve the client’s problem,” Tom says. “That wasn’t what Sambo was interested in; he was interested in creating from scratch. He challenged students to think originally.”

Daughter Carol Mockbee recalls that “Papa (Sambo) first started talking about the Subrosa Pantheon in 1999. In the summer of 2001, they started digging in the Alabama clay. D.K.’s mother had died, as well as two young professors at Auburn, and that was probably when they came to the decision to build a memorial space for the Rural Studio, a place to remember and meditate and reflect. So they started digging out the site for the Pantheon in Newbern. By August, they’d poured the first slab. Papa got really sick that fall and passed away in December.”

“The project was suspended for two years,” Carol says. “After I graduated from Auburn in interior design I applied to the Rural Studio as an outreach student to finish the Pantheon. I knew the idea, knew my father’s mythology behind it, and knew that he loved the project. Had I known then what I know now, I don’t think I would have touched it. But, luckily, I was ignorant, young and energetic. For the first few months, I worked on other projects. I had to find my own way, find my role and boundaries. Everyone was skeptical; one engineer at Auburn said, ‘You know, if you were my daughter, I would not let you do this.’ I left that meeting thinking that I am Sambo Mockbee’s daughter and he wouldn’t want me to be doing anything else. I completed it on August 27, 2005. I was so preoccupied with my last pour three days before that I had no idea Katrina was coming.”

“Every June 21, you can go into the Pantheon and stand at different points, align yourself with stars and planets, then sit on a bench next to someone, lean away from them, whisper into a pipe on your side, and the secret travels around the entire space back to the other end of the pipe to them.”

Samuel Mockbee (photo courtesy AIA)