For eight years, Samuel (Sambo) Mockbee led his architecture students at Auburn University in building cutting-edge, environmentally sound houses for impoverished residents in Hale County, Alabama. Mockbee’s Rural Studio, often referred to as “Taliesen South,” has been both laboratory and inspiration, providing homes built with everything from rammed earth to straw bale to garbage for people who once lived in inefficient, unhealthy dwellings. “He was a fellow who had dreams about helping poor people, that’s the way I’ll remember him,” Newbern, Alabama, Mayor Paul Owens told the Mobile Register. “I guess that’s just the type of fellow he was. He saw an opportunity and he took advantage of it.”
Mockbee died on December 30, 2001, just a little more than a year after he received a $500,000 MacArthur “genius grant” to further his work. The following is an excerpt from one of his last interviews, with Raad Cawthon for the Oxford American (Issue 41, Fall 2001), which he gave while his leukemia was in remission.
“Mortality is around the corner, and, like Faulkner said, everyone wants to leave a mark somehow. I admit that’s one of the goals I aspire to. I’m insignificant as an architect. I’m insignificant as an artist. I still aspire. Balzac. Pliny. Welty. Mary Ward Brown. They all aspired to it, to leaving their mark. I have to make every brush stroke count.
“Most architects have too much ego. You want to lead the orchestra. But too often architects give up the creative decision-making; they give up their responsibility to the creative process. Once you veer from that, once you stray from the opportunity to serve the creative process, you begin to lose it. I have seen architects who were much more talented than I am abandon their gift and fail.
“I’m like Kurtz, just not as sinister. I’m way up the river like Heart of Darkness.” Sambo laughs his deep laugh. “I’m living the myth. The myth that your life can mean something.”