Samuel Mockbee is eager to show off the buildings his Rural Studio has designed throughout Hale County, Ala. Driving his pickup truck, he barrels past catfish farms, abandoned barns and sleepy towns, pointing out houses and community structures along the way. Even the 100[degree] temperature and nearly 100% humidity don't seem to slow him down. It is only when he reaches the hamlet of Mason's Bend and the home of Alberta Bryant that this bear of a man with a bushy graying beard slips into low gear and momentarily seems to surrender to the heat. Plopping down on Bryant's couch, Mockbee rests his straw hat to the side and catches up with one of his studio's earliest clients.
Bryant is not your typical home buyer. She is very poor, and previously lived in a decrepit shack with openings large enough to allow animals to walk through. But Mockbee, 55, is not your average architect. A recent recipient of a "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation and an architecture professor at nearby Auburn University, he is a man with a mission. Rural Studio finds people and communities in need of buildings and, using inexpensive and unusual materials, designs structures that are practical and affordable, but at the same time unconventionally beautiful.
A Mississippi native and graduate of Auburn's architecture school, Mockbee has long been troubled by the poverty found in the South. He got his first hands-on experience with low-cost housing in the early 1980s, when he worked in Canton, Miss., with a nun who was finding homes for that area's poor.
In 1993, now teaching at Auburn, he used what he had learned in Canton to develop the Rural Studio. Mockbee sees the studio, which is financed by the university and such philanthropic groups as the Alabama Power Foundation, as a way to train a new generation of students in his belief that "architecture is a social art. It has to function in an ethical, moral way to help people."
Rural Studio has been dubbed Redneck Taliesin South and compared with Habitat for Humanity. Yet the apprentice architects in the studio have more design freedom than students at Frank Lloyd Wright's famed Taliesin studios. And unlike Habitat, which to date has built 100,000 affordable houses, the Rural Studio turns out only a few handcrafted homes, farmers' markets and community buildings each year.
Hale is an ideal laboratory for the studio's architectural experiment. This region of west-central Alabama is one of the poorest stretches in the nation. The writer James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans passed the summer of 1936 here while preparing their Depression-era classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. While prosperity has come to parts of this area, the region is still dotted with the shacks chronicled in Evans' haunting photographs.
The Bryant House exemplifies the studio's approach to affordable housing. After Mockbee asked Bryant and her husband Shepard if he could build a home for them, he introduced the couple to some of the Auburn architecture students assigned to the project. The students quizzed the family about how many bedrooms it needed as well as how much time family members spent in the kitchen, and then started on the house.