Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio on WXXI-TV

Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio on WXXI-TV

Mon, 08/23/2010 - 10:00pm

Pictured: Akron Boys and Girls Blub

Credit: Dutch Rall/Big Beard Films

The legacy of architect Samuel Mockbee, co-founder of Auburn University’s Rural Studio.

WXXI presents a documentary film about the late architect Samuel Mockbee and his radical educational design/build program. Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio airs Monday, August 23 at 10 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT 21.1/ cable 1011 and 11)

Known as the Rural Studio, Mockabee co-founded his program in the poverty-stricken Hale County, Alabama. Awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant and the American Institute of Architects’ Gold Medal Award for his work at the Rural Studio, Mockbee was an artist, builder and educator who instilled his passion and philosophy in those he believed will become a new generation of “citizen architects.” The film explores the effort by Mockbee to infect architecture’s future practitioners with the knowledge and passion to improve their community’s quality of life by putting compassion and ethical responsibility at the heart of their design.

Aptly named Rural Studio because of its remote location in West Alabama, the program invites Auburn University architecture students to leave behind the typical academic setting to live and work together in the classroom of the community. The students design homes and neighborhood buildings that reflect the needs and wants of their underserved clients — many of whom don’t have indoor plumbing or a proper roof over their heads. With minimal funding, the students build their designs, relying mostly on donated and locally salvaged materials that keep costs low and the environmental impact negligible. The results are graceful, clever and often stunning structures that provide shelter for the body and soul while fostering a healthy dialogue between disparate groups of people whose assumptions about race, class and economic disparity are upended by the experience.

Citizen Architect is guided by frank, passionate, never-before-seen interviews with Mockbee that provide context and insight for the story of Jay Sanders, a young Rural Studio instructor, and a group of 20 year-old students he leads in crafting a custom home for their charismatic client, Jimmie Lee Matthews. Known within the community as “Music Man” because of his obsession with soul music, Matthews maintains a healthy zeal for life, blasting R&B from his collection of used stereos and boasting that he “ain’t never met a stranger!” His infectious, optimistic attitude despite decades of difficult living rubs off on the students as they form a strong bond with him throughout the film. The story unfolds during the year after Mockbee’s untimely death from leukemia as the Rural Studio struggles to maintain the guiding spirit of its founding father. 

Mockbee and his team are the avatars for a new generation of architects and designers committed to putting social and environmental responsibility at the forefront of their practice. This film offers a dialogue about what it means to be both a successful professional and a responsible member of society — ultimately arguing that the latter is essential to the former.