Architecture and Morality

by Justin Ribble

The new Rural Studio HQ. (Courtesy ffffound)

I don’t know about you, but now that I’ve been out of school a few years, I’m finding it increasingly more difficult to not get frustrated by endless stacks of RFI’s, tight budgets, or impossible project schedules.

Sure these things are accepted parts of our profession, but at what point do you draw the line? When does the work we do cease being a shelter or a communal gathering place, and become a soulless shell of a building, waiting for yet another tenant move-in? Is it wrong of me to think that ever since the move into the “real world” that architecture has slowly been less about true design and more about the ever-present bottom line?

It’s during troubled economic times like these that I think about a different kind of architecture. You see, a few years back I was lucky enough to catch a talk sponsored by the local AIA chapter regarding a program out in the Alabama backwoods called the Rural Studio. Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee founded the Rural Studio as a living lab of architecture and design for Auburn University. 2nd Year and thesis students have been providing their own labor and using donated materials for going on 17 years now as they design, then build structures for the people that need them the most. Their client list is as far from a suit-wearing, real estate developer as one could get. Many of these people don’t have even the most basic of utilities at their disposal. For years now, the Rural Studio has been stepping to the plate and proving that there is a morality still alive and well in the work we do.

Samuel "Sambo" Mockbee (Courtesy Citizen Architect)

Sambo, a native son of Alabama, held the belief that architecture isn’t just about the all-white, multimillion dollar, designy pieces that land on the cover of Record or the in the New York Times. Architecture for him was about making your own corner of the world better than how you found it. That is something I think we should all remind ourselves from time to time. Since the program got off the ground, more than 80 projects have been completed in this very neglected part of the American South. Sambo and his students experienced the most pure form of design/build there ever was as they worked on small single family homes, community churches, and open air markets throughout the years. Sadly, Sambo left us in 2001 after a long fight against leukemia. His program still lives on, and students from Auburn University still venture into Hale County to take part in the Rural Studio.

Ever since I was first shown the incredible work of Sambo and his students I’ve secretly wanted to win the Mega-Millions and head off into the woods with them, doing work for a client base that truly appreciates the gift that architecture and design can provide. In the meantime, I’ll just have to keep Sambo’s story fresh in the back of my head as a reminder that there is more to what we do than paperwork and timecards.

P.S. The work of the Rural Studio has been the subject of a several documentaries, one of which is titled “Citizen Architect” and it’s PBS debut will be made on August 23rd. See the links below for further information about “Citizen Architect” and other interesting Rural Studio information, podcasts, etc.

About the Author

Justin Ribble