Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee And An Architecture Of Decency

by | 23. Aug 2012



I tell my students, it’s got to be warm, dry, and noble.
/Samuel Mockbee

For almost ten years, Samuel Mockbee, a recent MacArthur Grant recipient, and his architecture students at Auburn University have been designing and building striking houses and community buildings for impoverished residents of Alabama’s Hale County.

Using salvaged lumber and bricks, discarded tires, hay and waste, cardboard bales, concrete rubble, colored bottles, and old license plates, they create inexpensive buildings that bear the trademark of Mockbee’s work, which he describes as “contemporary modernism grounded in Southern culture.”

Mockbee-Photo-2.jpg Bryant (Hay Bale) House

The Bryant House, finished in 1994, was the Rural Studio’s first completed building.  Ingenious construction gave the house it’s nickname, the “Hale Bale House.”

After exploring and rejecting other low-tech methodologies for creating an inexpensive, well-insulated dwelling, the students selected eighty-pound hay bales for the structure of the walls.


Three barrel-shaped nieches provided bedrooms for the Bryant’s grandchildren while a separate rounded structure serves as a smokehouse.

Mockbee-photo-4.jpg Harris (Butterfly) House, 1997
The 600 square-foot house is nearly all porch and fully ventilated. The winglike tin roof of the porch, supported by sharply angled timber, explains the house’s nickname, “Butterfly House”.


The roof’s two intersecting rectangles create a 250 square-foot screened porch and make the house look poised for flight.  

In a time of unexampled prosperity, when architectural attention focuses on big, glossy urban projects, the Rural Studio provides an alternative of substance. In addition to being a social welfare venture, the Rural Studio, “Taliesin South” as Mockbee calls it, is also an educational experiment and a prod to the architectural profession to act on its best instincts.

In giving students hands-on experience in designing and building something real, it extends their education beyond paper architecture. And in scavenging and reusing a variety of unusual materials, it is a model of sustainable architecture.

Mockbee-photo-6.jpg Mason’s Bend Community Center, 2000
The facade of automobile windshields partially covers a raised nave and side isle.
Mockbee desribed it as ” a windshield chapel with mud walls that picks up on the community’s vernacular forms and shapes.”


What began in design as a closed-in structure ended as an open-air pavilion.  Mockbee desribed it as ” a windshield chapel with mud walls that picks up on the community’s vernacular forms and shapes.”

In lectures, Mockbee frequently quoted Alberti’s dictum that we must chose between “fortune and virtue”. Sam Mockbee chose virtue, not as judgmental prissiness, but in a robust, compassionate sense of knocking on doors, finding need, and answering it.

Mockbee-photo-8.jpg Supershed and Pods, 1997 – 2001
The barnlike supershed rises 16 feet and stretches 144.  It shelters pods – cottages where second-year male students live. The cottages fit snugly in nine sixteen-foot bays between the shed’s timber columns. The pods are a hodgepodge of materials, colors, textures and quirky shapes – the ultimate in assemblage.


The Cardboard Pod is made from discarded, baled sheets of corrugated, wax-impregnated boards.


The toilet, which perches on a concrete-block base containing the composting mechanism, is covered in old license plates, silver side out and arranged like shingles, and is topped by a long, shallow gable.

The Studio has completed more than a dozen projects, including the Bryant “Hay Bale” House, Harris “Butterfly” House, Yancey Chapel, Akron Chapel, Children’s Center, H.E.R.O. Playground, Lewis House, Super Sheds and Pods, Spencer House addition, Farmer’s Market, Mason’s Bend Community Center, Goat House, and Shannon-Dutley House.

These buildings, along with the incredible story of the Rural Studio, the people who live there, and Mockbee and his student architects, are detailed in this colorful book, the first on the subject.  

Andrea Oppenheimer Dean is former Executive Editor of Architecture Magazine and a published author. She lives in Washington, D.C.

Timothy Hursley is an architectural photographer who regularly contributes to the international press. He lives in Little Rock, AR.