Skip to main content
CNN EditionEntertainment
The Web     
Powered by
powered by Yahoo!
Headline News

Working in the 'Taboo Landscape'

By Al Matthews
CNN Headline News

The late Samuel Mockbee standing in front of the Bryant (Hay Bale) House.

Story Tools


(CNN) -- "These affluent students are working their butts off in order to impress and win the respect of the poorest people in America," said Samuel Mockbee, the late architect and MacArthur "genius" grant recipient. Mockbee also built Auburn University's Rural Studio in Hale County, Alabama.

Which is what, you may ask?

Well, it's small. It's also a little old-fashioned in that it uses "neck-down work" -- student construction labor -- to teach architecture and emphasize the facts of building, schedules, costs and compromise. It's also a decent place that encourages middle-class students to work in what Mockbee called the "taboo landscape" which is inhabited by poor, Southern African-Americans

Generally lacking inspectors and building codes, Hale County is a fertile laboratory for innovative student architecture (though Mockbee reserved truly experimental materials for the studio's personal buildings). Recycling local refuse, the studio works in a palate of tires, telephone poles, license plates, windshields, hay bales, compressed earth and even compressed cardboard. The materials reflect the landscape of trailers, barns and sheds.

"Money is thicker than blood," maintained Mockbee, who felt that class barriers were more divisive than race. He called that a lesson learned "in discovering that there's very little difference between people."

But Mockbee was exceptional. A fifth-generation Mississippian, he described being seduced by the austere and "almost supernatural" beauty of rural Alabama and the Black Warrior River, "drifting among the dreams of the neglected ... his ancient liquid light," as he once wrote. "I was familiar with 'Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,'" he said, referring to the Walker Evans/James Agee book on the same area during the Depression. "But I'd forgotten it was Hale County."

Harris (Butterfly) House
The Harris (Butterfly) House.

Rural Studio students in Hale County are in immersion. They live, study, build and talk architecture. Fifth-year students build civic structures. Second-year students collaborate to build one house for one client, after interviewing the list supplied by the Department of Human Resources. The houses, typically costing $25,000-$30,000, are donated.

"No, I don't think I'll take one of those today," Anderson Harris is said to have replied when Mockbee offered to replace the unheated tin-and-plastic structure he and his wife, Ora Lee, had lived in more than 40 years.

Harris ultimately changed his mind, though. The Harris' 600 square-foot home is sometimes called "Butterfly House" because of the structure's roof. Two prominent slopes define the 250 square-foot porch, and also channel rainwater into a cistern, serving laundry and a wetlands-friendly septic system.

Mockbee's dictate was that the houses be "warm, dry and modern." But they are also Southern, absorbing the vernacular and using it to speak a language of engagement, responsibility and social progress.

Although Mockbee died of leukemia in December 2001, the buildings -- designed by students and approved by clients -- reflect his easy, generous style.

The Rural Studio also continues -- those inside and outside the architecture world are still absorbing its lessons -- and there, his legacy is most clear.

Story Tools
Subscribe to Time for $1.99 cover
Top Stories
Review: 'Perfect Man' fatally flawed
Top Stories
CNN/Money: Security alert issued for 40 million credit cards

International Edition
CNN TV CNN International Headline News Transcripts Advertise With Us About Us
   The Web     
Powered by
© 2005 Cable News Network LP, LLLP.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us.
external link
All external sites will open in a new browser. does not endorse external sites.
 Premium content icon Denotes premium content.
Add RSS headlines.