Samuel ‘Sambo’ Mockbee Awarded 2004 AIA Gold Medal Posthumously


The AIA Board of Directors on December 4 conferred the Institute’s highest individual honor, the 2004 AIA Gold Medal, on the late Samuel ‘Sambo’ Mockbee, FAIA, a teacher and practitioner who devoted his life to advancing socially responsible architecture.

An award-winning architect, Mockbee, widely known as “Sambo,” may be best known for co-founding, with D.K. Ruth, Auburn University’s Rural Studio—conceived as an opportunity to raise the spirits of the rural poor through the creation of homes and community centers designed with the same set of architectural principles as those buildings made for prominent clients with sizeable budgets. The Rural Studio aims to advance “context-based learning” by pairing second-year and fifth-year architecture students, removing them from their college campuses, and placing them to live and work with rural residents as architects and clients. The students design and build homes or other structures, primarily with donated and found materials.

Mockbee’s Magee Church of Christ, Magee, Miss., blends “the reality of Southern suburbia mixing with the rural landscape.”To his students, Mockbee presented architecture as a discipline that must be committed to environmental, social, political, and aesthetic issues. In a 2001 interview with Architectural Record, Mockbee said, “These small projects designed by students at the Rural Studio remind us of what it means to have an American architecture without pretense. They remind us that we can be awed by the simple as much as by the complex, and if we pay attention, they will offer us a simple glimpse into what is essential to the future of American architecture . . . its honesty.”

Immediately after the AIA Board’s vote selecting Mockbee for the honor, AIA President Thompson E. Penney, FAIA, called Auburn University College of Architecture, Design, and Construction Dean Daniel Bennett, FAIA, to tell him the news. “His spirit is certainly in the room,” Penney said, “he represented the values that we all hold near and dear to our hearts.”

“This is wonderful news,” Bennett exclaimed, adding that the university will work with the AIA to share Mockbee’s values with the rest of the world. “It is my pleasure to be a part of this,” he said.

Mason’s Bend Community Center, Mason’s Bend, Ala., completed by the Rural Studio in 2000, employs rammed earth walls and 80 recycled Chevy Caprice windshields.“Shelter for the soul”
The Gold Medal recognizes an individual whose significant body of work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture. In nominating Mockbee for the award, AIA Gulf States regional director and board member Jamie Aycock, AIA, commented, “Sambo and the Rural Studio he founded have transcended both architectural profession and academy and have found shelter in the hearts of the populace.” In highlighting Mockbee’s deep commitment to the community, Aycock says, “He taught his students that architecture is a discipline deeply rooted in community, and to embrace his philosophy that everyone, rich or poor, deserved a ‘shelter for the soul.’”

Mockbee practiced privately for many years prior to embarking on the Rural Studio. After completing his internship in 1977, he founded Mockbee Goodman Architects with friend and classmate Thomas Goodman. The firm quickly built a regional reputation for utilizing local materials in the exceptional designs, winning more than 25 state and regional awards in four years. After parting with Goodman, Mockbee continued to build on his reputation by forming a partnership with Coleman Coker in the early 1980s.

The Lucy House, originally conceived by Mockbee, was finished eight months after his death by seven of his students from around the world.During that time, Mockbee, a fifth-generation Mississippian, was hailed as one of the nation’s premier regionalists and an important new voice of the South. Mockbee Coker Architects was known for challenging the classic processes and definitions in the creation of architecture, documented in their 1995 monograph, Mockbee Coker: Thought and Process (Princeton Architectural Press). While working with Coker, Mockbee continued to investigate the social, economic, and cultural inconsistencies that he saw permeating the South. Out of his observations grew a mission and plan for the Rural Studio.

The Hale County, Ala., playground worked with the premise that children are most comfortable in natural settings with natural materials.A “genius”
For his work with the Rural Studio and his architecture, Mockbee received many grants and awards including the prestigious John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellow “Genius Award” (2000); Mississippi Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Artistic Excellence (2000); several AIA Honor Awards (1995, 1994, 1982); and the Apgar Award For Excellence (1999). His work has been exhibited in several galleries and museums, including The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City (2002); the Museum of Modern Art, New York City (1998); and the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, New York City (2000).

The Goat House, Hale County, Ala., employs huge windows that open all the way to maximize natural ventilation. Mockbee died in December 2001 of complications from leukemia. However, even as he was being treated for the debilitating illness, he continued to work with his students, as they researched low-cost building materials, and sketched his vision for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site, which was included with 60 other designs at the Max Protecht Gallery in New York City.

Mockbee’s biography describes him as “truly loved and admired by all who came into contact with him. He had an amazing design talent, but his uniqueness came from his compassion for people, especially those who were socially and economically disadvantaged. He cast a spotlight on an aspect of our culture that most avoid . . . and he demonstrated that socially responsible architecture can delight the senses, inspire the masses, and serve the soul.”

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Photos © Timothy Hursley

Representatives of Samuel Mockbee will be presented with the Gold Medal at the 2004 American Architectural Foundation Accent on Architecture Gala March 3, 2004, at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

AIArchitect reflected on Mockbee’s contributions in a January 2002 article. For a review of a book on his work, Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency, see this “Summertime Reading” article from last year.

The Gold Medal recognizes an individual whose significant body of work has had a lasting influence on the theory and practice of architecture. To honor his legacy to architecture, Mockbee’s name will be chiseled into a granite wall of honor in the lobby of the AIA headquarters in Washington, D.C. As the 60th recipient of the award, his name joins the ranks of such visionaries as Thomas Jefferson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, I.M. Pei, Cesar Pelli, and 2002 AIA Gold Medal recipient Japanese architect Tadao Ando.

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