Tonight as part of the AIA Architecture and Design Festival, the Center For Architecture will be screening a documentary about the late, great architect Samuel Mockbee.
Entitled The Rural Studio after Mockbee's project, the film chronicles how, starting in 1993, the Auburn University Professor Samuel Mockbee guided his students in designing and building homes and community spaces in economically depressed Hale County, Alabama. Mockbee's contextual-based learning philosophy transcended race and class and in the process has changed the lives of both students and clients. With tongue firmly placed in cheek, Mockbee often called his Rural Studio "Redneck Taliesin South".
The film screens at 5:30pm at the Center For Architecture, at 403 NW 11th Avenue, and admission is free.
I had the opportunity to interview Mockbee for Salon in 2001, just a few months before his untimely death from cancer. Here is a portion of that Q&A:
Me: How does it feel knowing your profession has been marginalized by the American home building industry?
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.
You've often said that all great architecture is honest.
It always has been. Architecture addresses truth and beauty and has a moral sense to it. All great art has that, too.
You cite painters like Klee, Goya and Picasso as your primary architectural influences, emphasizing the art of architecture. Yet the Rural Studio is known for advancing the profession's social and practical side.
For me art is a very personal endeavor, a way to reflect on what I'm trying to do as an architect. An architect, on the other hand, has to be an extrovert. You can't get anything built by yourself. You've got to have consultants, suppliers and a client who understands what you're trying to do. The connection is that art is a reflection of the best of who we are. One informs the other, and vice versa.
What immediately comes to mind is the Hay Bale House we did for Shepherd and Alberta Bryant. Shepherd is about 80 years old, and unable to fish or hunt or do many of his favorite outdoor activities anymore. His wife, Alberta, who had lived with him in an old shack for 40 years, wasn't in the new house six weeks before she had a leg amputated and the other soon after. She says she doesn't know what would have happened to her had we not built that house.
But the most profound result of our efforts has been on their grandson Richard Bryant. This was a kid who didn't have anything, but because of his relations with the students -- we've watched him grow up over the eight years we've been building down there -- he's blossomed into a mature young man who's just graduated from high school, and is going to go to college. He wanted to be like them, and now he's going to be.
Have any clients chafed at the vibrant designs and unconventional materials being used for their homes?
That has happened to us, but not to the extent that it can't be fixed. The students have to learn to listen to the clients, and find out what their needs are. But on another level, as hard as we try to get the clients to be honest and relaxed with us, there is some apprehension that if they don't agree with us somehow we won't build it for them. I'm always trying to explain to the clients that we're going to build the house for them no matter what, and that they need to tell us what they need and want. We don't push our aesthetics onto anybody, nor do we push any values. The students work very hard to win the respect of these clients. They want to make these houses wonderful for them.
A lot of architects talk about trust being the key to a relationship with a client.
Well, sometimes that word means the architect wants the client to indulge his ego. Architects like to have their way; they micromanage too much and they think they have the answer to everything. But we are good problem solvers, and our education serves us well in attacking projects and looking at them creatively. The problem is, we often believe our own propaganda. But there are also two sides to that coin. You don't want a client who misunderstands what design and architecture are really about. Many want this faux architecture, and that drives us nuts.
Do Rural Studio houses reflect your own architectural style?
I don't lift a pen or put one stroke down on those designs. But I have a high bar I expect students to reach. I make them draw and redraw, so in that sense maybe it does reflect my style a bit. At any firm the work takes on the personality of the principals, and I think that's true of the Rural Studio. But really the students do it themselves.
Do you think we should give more large-scale commissions to young architects?
I'll have to be honest about this: I feel just the opposite. Back in the '60s, we said don't trust anybody over 30. Now I say don't trust anyone under 50. If you take a look at the primo architects of the Renaissance, and the ones practicing today, you'll see that they're all over 45 and older when they do their major buildings. Frank Gehry is over 70. It takes years to accumulate the necessary abilities to produce a piece of architecture. You can do small work at a young age, but the technical aspects, the business aspects, the aesthetic aspects -- all of this you're juggling throughout your career, and trying to improve and mature. I tell my students: You may be able to start practicing two or three years after you graduate, but you're not really going to be an architect until you're 45. It's just the nature of the beast. That's probably true in medicine, law and all the professions -- except the oldest one, of course. You've got to invest in the long haul.
Meanwhile, if the Mockbee film doesn't interest you, there are two more events coming up worth noting:
Tonight (October 28) there is a panel discussion at Froelick Gallery at 7:15pm hosted by OFFICE, the creative office products store formerly located on Alberta Street and now doing a series of special appearances. The talk includes Greg Stobbs, retail director for Nike; Doug Cooke, co-founder of Tinder Design Research; and Greg Mitchell, a project manager at LRS Architects. Froelick Gallery is located at 714 NW Davis and admission is free, as are the cocktails provided by New Deal Vodka.
Next Wednesday (November 4) at 6PM, Rejuvenation (1100 SE Grand Avenue) is hosting a conversation with legendary local midcentury modern home builder Robert Rummer.
The evening is a benefit for Street Of Eames (or more specifically the homeless youth programs the Eames tour benefits) and admission is a $20 suggested donation. You must RSVP by November 1
Builder of 1960s-'70s residences in neighborhoods mostly west of downtown, Rummer's homes have acquired iconic status for their focus on bringing the outdoors inside as well as their dramatic yet elegant mixture of high ceilings, warm wood paneling, and full-length glass walls.
Rummer homes were also directly inspired by the better known Eichler homes of Southern California.
Rummer will be interviewed by Becca Cavell of THA Architecture and will show slides from his personal collection. RSVP is required - you can sign up here.