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Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio: Community Architecture

May 22, 2004 - September 6, 2004

Over the past decade, architecture students participating in Auburn University’s Rural Studio have designed and built dozens of modest yet remarkably innovative structures for the residents of Hale County, Alabama. The Rural Studio is both a practical program for educating future architects and a vital force for improving living conditions in one of the nation’s poorest regions. This bold experiment began with the drive and vision of architect and educator Samuel Mockbee (1944-2001), who was posthumously awarded the 2004 AIA Gold Medal.

Bryant “Hay Bale” House, 1994, Masons Bend, Hale County, Alabama.
© Timothy Hursely

In 1994 the Rural Studio completed its first building, the Bryant “Hay Bale” House (see left); it was this project that established the working method of the Studio. Alberta and Shepard Bryant, a couple in their 70s, had been raising three grandchildren in a dilapidated shack when Mockbee and his students approached them. The family’s needs were basic: indoor plumbing, a septic tank, and comfortable places to sleep (each bedroom needed to accommodate both a bed and a desk). What Mockbee and the students created for them is nothing short of remarkable—an inventive, individually tailored home that is diametrically opposed to typical institutionally generated low-income housing.

“The goal is not to have a warm, dry house, but to have a warm, dry house with a spirit to it.”
 —Samuel Mockbee     


The Lucy House, Mason’s Bend, Hale County, Alabama, 2001-02.
© Timothy Hursley

The compact, 850-square-foot house is at once radical, and practical. Despite its unusual construction from plentiful hay bales, stacked like bricks and covered with stucco, the home has a rather conventional appearance. The hay, which provides natural insulation for the home, was inexpensive and kept construction costs to the astonishingly low sum of $16,500. The house’s signature feature, a covered porch that runs the full length of the house, serves as the family’s main entertaining space.

In addition to designing and building individual homes, the Rural Studio has built a range of distinctive structures including chapels and churches, community centers, playgrounds, and outdoor pavilions. All the work shares Mockbee’s contemporary aesthetic, appreciation of Southern vernacular forms, and a profound connection to place. And each of the ingeniously resourceful designs is informed by readily available—often salvaged or recycled—materials.

Most Rural Studio projects follow a similar path. Fall-quarter students establish the first contacts with the clients and begin the design process. Subsequent students determine the materials of construction and other details, including additional design elements, always responding to the needs of the clients. One standard rule applies: anything built by prior students must remain intact. Up to three groups of usually 15 students work on a project during the course of a year, which is generally the time it takes to complete a project.

Samuel Mockbee in front of his 1992 work, The Children of Eutaw Pose Before Their Ancient Cabins.
© Timothy Hursley, 2001

“For me, drawing and painting are the initial influences for the making of architecture.” —Samuel Mockbee

An idealist who put into practice one of the most daring programs in contemporary American architecture, Samuel Mockbee was also a teacher, an artist, and an architect who for 10 years maintained a respected and successful partnership with Memphis-based architect Coleman Coker. Their affiliation continued in spite of Mockbee's return to his alma mater to establish the Rural Studio, in 1993. What also continued was Mockbee's devotion to one of his other true passions: painting. Indeed, his later works have a vibrant mythological dimension that at once relates to the landscape of Hale County and also pays homage to the clients for whom the Rural Studio has built homes.

This exhibition includes both models and photographs of the Rural Studio’s completed projects, as well as a number of Mockbee’s large-scale paintings and sketchbooks inspired by his work at the Rural Studio. The installation also features a unique "carpet temple." This prototypical Rural Studio structure, created from discarded carpet yarn, was both designed and built by students from the Rural Studio.

Yancey Chapel, 1994–5; Sawyerville, Hale County, Alabama
© Timothy Hursley

An accompanying publication entitled Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio: Community Architecture is published by the Birmingham Museum of Art, and is available for sale in the Museum Shop.


The exhibition has been made possible by major funding from Altria Group, Inc. Additional support has been provided by The Comer Foundation, Interface, Inc., the Rich's Fund of the Federated Department Stores Foundation, and the Graham Foundation.

The National Building Museum's presentation of Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio: Community Architecture is made possible by Deedie and Rusty Rose; the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®; Joseph Giattina, Jr., FAIA; KPS Group, Inc.; Ray Anderson and John Wells; and other generous donors.