Thursday, November 3, 2005

Life Lessons in Mason’s Bend

Written by: Marilyn Puett

Nestled in a sleepy curve of the Black Warrior River is Mason’s Bend, part of Alabama’s Black Belt, home of the poorest counties in the state. Every semester a group of Auburn University architecture students leave the comforts of campus life to study, work, and live in this Hale County community. They participate in a program called Rural Studio to design and build homes for the rural poor.

The brainchild of the late Samuel Mockbee, a Professor of Architecture, Rural Studio is a curriculum designed to allow students to put their education to a real-life test. Most of the students are from relatively affluent families, and moving to one of the poorest counties in the nation is an abrupt lesson in culture shock. From day one, they are immersed in an environment where people live in tumbledown chicken coops and abandoned buses. Working with local agencies, the students select a family and then get to know them so they can meet their real needs. Rural Studio gives these families a hand up rather than a handout since they are actively involved in the design and construction of their homes.

Living in several old houses donated to the program plus pod dwellings constructed of waste corrugated cardboard, the students pour over building books and blueprints at night instead of watching television, working out practical and cheap solutions to their project. Money is tight, so students look for innovative construction materials such as the aforementioned cardboard. One of the first houses was built of hay bales, and another project has a glass wall made from old automobile windows. A chapel was constructed from tires donated by a man under court order to get rid of them, and another building was shingled with old license plates donated by a judge. Leftover carpet tiles were compressed and used to build the walls of a recent project. While they may sound depressing and unattractive, these well-built and often colorful structures have been featured in national magazines, and the program is respected worldwide.

In 2000, Mockbee received a half-million dollar McArthur Foundation genius grant and in January 2001 he was awarded a one hundred thousand-dollar “Use Your Life Award” by Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network. Sambo Mockbee died from complications of leukemia on December 3, 2001. While on his deathbed, he completed and submitted an entry for the World Trade Center memorial. Rural Studio is still a strong part of the architecture curriculum at Auburn. Further info is available at .

To the residents of Mason’s Bend, Samuel Mockbee (or Sambo as he is referred to by students and locals alike) was an angel. And to the students who were privileged to work at Rural Studio, he was their mentor. He instilled in them a sense of civic pride and responsibility that he felt necessary in the profession. He watched his students work to earn the respect of area families.

My personal experience with Rural Studio occurred in the fall of 1998 when my son was selected to participate. I knew little about it other than the few facts he gave us. And I was a bit surprised that he wanted to give up the campus life to live and work under these conditions. After assurances that it would be a plus on his resume, I agreed and sent him (and his money, because Rural Studio participants pay to take part) to Hale County.

We kept in touch by phone, and halfway through the quarter he emailed me photos of their project. It was a simple three-bedroom home, designed to provide creature comforts yet have its own spirit. Their client was a single mother with four children. At the end of the semester, my husband and I were invited to Parent’s Day to see first-hand what our son had been doing. We visited previous homes from the program such as the Butterfly House, which has a roofline reminiscent of a butterfly in mid-flight. We met the owners and heard their stories and the gratitude they expressed over Sambo and his students.

We met the woman whose home our son was helping to build. She told us about her chaotic life with her children divided among different relatives. This home would allow the family to be reunited. She made a special effort to speak to the parents and thank them for her new home.

Several weeks later the quarter ended, and my son came home for Christmas. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Mason’s Bend to spend his vacation finishing the house so the family could be in by Christmas.

In September 1998, I sent Rural Studio a boy. In December, they sent back a man. He learned compassion and understanding in addition to design and sheet rock installation. I think he’s well on his way to becoming that “citizen architect” that Sambo hoped his students would become, and the world will be richer for it.



My son received dual degrees in Architecture and Interior Architecture from Auburn in May of 2004. He works for MSTSD, a mid-size commercial architecture firm in Atlanta, Georgia.