A native of Meridian, Mississippi, Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee enrolled at Auburn University after serving two years in the U.S. Army in Fort Benning, Georgia. He graduated in 1974 with a degree in architecture, and later formed a partnership with his classmate and friend, Thomas Goodman. The pair earned a regional reputation for outstanding architectural design utilizing materials indigenous to the area. An ensuing partnership with Coleman Coker in 1983 firmly established Mockbee as one of the nation’s top regionalists.
The accolades continued to mount for Mockbee, but he couldn’t ignore the cultural, social, and economic inconsistencies still plaguing the region. To pursue “a work which was true to the heart,” Mockbee joined the faculty at Auburn’s School of Architecture in 1992, and with close friend and colleague, D.K. Ruth, created the Rural Studio.
Mockbee’s vision for the studio was to raise the quality of life for west Alabama’s rural poor by providing them with safe, well-designed homes and community buildings; and to teach his students the value of applying what they had learned to enable others to be self-sufficient. The lessons he imparted to his students encompassed not only architecture and design, but a way to respond creatively and with an open heart to those in need. They acquired a “social conscience” along with a university degree.
In fitting recognition of his creativity and humanitarianism, Mockbee received the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” for the Rural Studio in 2000. That same year in a White House ceremony, he was honored by the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum as one of five architects who have contributed to environmental, social, and aesthetic awareness. In 2001, Mockbee received the Mississippi Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, and later was invited to display work of the Rural Studio at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, the first time architecture had been included in the museum’s biennial exhibit of the best in American contemporary art.
Despite enormous public recognition throughout his career, “Sambo” was perhaps most proud of the fact that he taught and touched the lives of students and colleagues at Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, the University of Virginia and his beloved Auburn. Mockbee was diagnosed with leukemia in September 1998 and died December 30, 2001. He is survived by his wife, Jackie, and their four children: Margaret, Sarah Ann, Carol, and Julius.
D.K. Ruth, Samuel Mockbee’s friend, colleague, and co-founder of the Rural Studio, died in 2009. Now under the direction of Andrew Freear, the Rural Studio remains a popular outreach project for Auburn University students. The studio is currently focused on completing community projects, such as the Newbern Town Hall and Greensboro Boys & Girls Club, in three Alabama counties. In celebration of the 20th anniversary, the Rural Studio aims to build eight homes for $20,000 each, as part of the 20K House project which began in 2005 to address the need for affordable housing.