Samuel Norman Mockbee, Jr.

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Samuel Norman Mockbee, Jr.

Also Known As: "Sambo"
Birthplace: Meridian,MS
Death: December 30, 2001 (57) (Lukemia)
Place of Burial: Meridian, Lauderdale County, Mississippi, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of Samuel Norman Mockbee, Sr. and Margaret Sale Mockbee
Husband of Jacquelyn Lee Mockbee
Father of Private; Private; Private and Private
Brother of Martha Anne Tinsley

Occupation: Founder, Auburn Rural Architectural Studio
Military Service: 1st Lt. (USAF) Vietnam
Managed by: Marsha Gail Veazey
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About Samuel Norman Mockbee, Jr.

“Shelter for the soul” was the phrase architect and teacher Samuel Mockbee used to describe the functional and strikingly beautiful houses built by his students for impoverished residents of Hale County, Alabama. In 1993 Mockbee and colleague D. K. Ruth founded the Rural Studio, an innovative teaching and community service program for undergraduate architecture students at Auburn University. Using salvaged, often curious materials such as hay, rammed earth, telephone polls, and even tires and windshields, the Rural Studio builds houses and community buildings for residents of one of the poorest communities in America. More than 30 percent of Hale County residents live in poverty, many in substandard housing. The Rural Studio combines social responsibility, experimental design, and cues from the regional vernacular to create what author Andrea Oppenheimer Dean has called the “architecture of decency.”

A fifth-generation Mississippian, Mockbee was born on 23 December 1944 in Meridian. As a youth he enjoyed drawing and developed an interest in architecture. Growing up in Mississippi on the eve of the civil rights revolution made him keenly aware of the social injustices that permeated southern society. He earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from Auburn University in 1974 and in 1977 formed a partnership with Thomas Goodman, an Auburn classmate. Mockbee left the firm in 1983 to establish a practice with Coleman Coker. In later years the original, unusual work of Mockbee Coker Architects gained a strong following.

Mockbee began teaching architecture at Auburn University in 1991 and launched the Rural Studio after obtaining a $250,000 grant from the Alabama Power Foundation. The program is predicated on the belief that architecture as a discipline is rooted in community. Students live in Hale County and participate in the local community as they learn the critical skills of planning, designing, and building. Whereas architectural training at most universities is largely theoretical, the Rural Studio gives students hands-on experience in every step of the building process. Working alongside the local residents who will be living in the houses, students learn firsthand about the influence of social and cultural values on architecture. Today, more than two decades after its founding, the Rural Studio continues to craft houses and other buildings from unlikely materials, each serving as a powerful statement about the social relevancy of architecture.

Mockbee routinely cited the “hay bale house” as one of the Rural Studio’s most satisfying projects. Built for the Bryants, an elderly couple who had lived for decades in what Mockbee described as an “old shack,” the house is made of stacked and stuccoed hay bales. The forty-two-inch-thick walls are strong, and their natural insulating characteristics allow the Bryants to heat the entire three-room house with only a wood-burning stove. Acrylic panels cover the long front porch, which provides outdoor living space. Warm, light, and dry, the house is but one example of the Rural Studio’s innovative, human-centered approach to design.

Known to almost everyone as “Sambo,” Mockbee possessed a humble, soft-spoken demeanor that made him an unlikely candidate for international acclaim, but widespread interest in the Rural Studio led to visiting professorships at Harvard University, Yale University, and the University of California at Berkeley. Mockbee also won several major awards, including a five-hundred-thousand dollar John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2000. He received the Mississippi Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Artistic Excellence the same year.

Since Mockbee’s death from complications of leukemia on 30 December 2001, the Rural Studio has continued its work under Andrew Freear and to date has built more than 150 projects and educated more than six hundred “citizen-architects.” In 2004, the American Institute of Architects posthumously awarded Mockbee its Gold Medal. By refocusing attention on the human dimension of the built environment, Mockbee’s approach to design and work with the Rural Studio provided a powerful counterpoint to the increasingly impersonal architecture of late twentieth-century America.


Auburn University (AU) architect and professor Samuel Mockbee (1944-2001) was the driving force behind the Rural Studio, a hands-on architectural field school established in 1992 in Hale County. Mockbee conceived the project while driving between his home in Canton, Mississippi, to his job at AU, a commute that took him through the economically depressed Black Belt region of west-central Alabama. Working with colleague, friend, and architecture chair D. K. Ruth, Mockbee established what has become a signature design-build training program in one of the poorest areas in the nation.

Samuel "Sambo" Mockbee was born in Meridian, Mississippi, on December 23, 1944, to Margaret Sale Berry Mockbee and Samuel Norman Mockbee. He had one older sibling, a sister, Martha Samuel Mockbee (1944-2001) was an architect and educator Samuel Mockbee Ann, with whom he was raised in a traditional southern Christian home. He often recalled that as a boy he sat with his mother at the kitchen table drawing fanciful house plans and, from an early age, knew he wanted to be an architect. After a stint in the U.S. Army, Mockbee met and in 1970 married Jacquelyn Lee Johnson, with whom he would have four children. Mockbee graduated from Auburn's School of Architecture in 1974 and entered into a professional partnership with classmate and friend Thomas Goodman and then later with Coleman Coker in Mississippi. In both associations, his reputation grew as a remarkable and unconventional innovator who employed local materials and regional, culturally specific designs while underscoring the architecture profession's moral imperative to serve all citizens, not just those among the upper class.

In 1990, the partnership Mockbee Coker Architects was chosen by the Architectural League of New York to be a part of their Emerging Voices series and, in 1995, Princeton Architectural Press published Mockbee Coker: Thought and Process in recognition of their important body of work. The structures they built in the Deep South drew on traditional, local, rural themes and included elements such as brick piers, shed roofs, masonry chimneys, glass walls, wide awnings, and expansive porches. The designs, materials, and structures were at the same time thoroughly modern and innovative and practical and utilitarian. Several also featured whimsical and even urban elements. The Barton House in Madison County, Mississippi, and the Cook House in Oxford, Mississippi, both completed in 1991, are the best examples of the Mockbee Coker collaboration. Already emerging in his early work is Mockbee's use of recycled or salvaged materials and his philosophy of social justice: "Everyone, rich or poor, deserves a shelter for the soul."

A warm, burly, bearlike man, Mockbee was greatly loved by his clients, associates, students, and family. Goat House in Sawyerville, Hale County, was designed Goat House, 1998 In his Canton home and neighborhood, he was known by all the children as "Papa," and he delighted in playing with them, whatever their age. He was self-effacing, optimistic, and enthusiastic and made friends easily of every rank of person.

All his life, Mockbee relaxed by drawing and painting, and he was enthusiastic about all artists, no matter their level of education or expertise or the medium of their craft. Award-winning Alabama author Mary Ward Brown has noted that Mockbee often brought Rural Studio students to her Perry County home to experience both the work of Black Belt artists and artisans and books by the world's great writers.

When he joined the architecture faculty of AU in 1991 at the request of Ruth, he brought with him a plan that incorporated all the various elements of his work and philosophy. As conceived by Mockbee, the Rural Studio would pair the needs of families and communities having limited financial resources with the ingenuity and fervor of students seeking practical experience. In the exchange, both parties would educate the other and both would benefit. With a small grant from the Alabama Power Foundation, Mockbee and Ruth launched the bold experiment in 1992, eventually settling on the hamlet of Newbern as their base of operations. From there each semester, teams of second-year and fifth-year AU architecture students (and outreach students from other disciplines and universities) continue to work on projects located in the region. As of 2008, more than 100 projects have been completed by the program.

In the 10 years following its founding, the Rural Studio and Mockbee were recognized nationally and internationally. They were featured on television on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Yancey Chapel in Sawyerville, Hale County, was the Yancey Chapel CBS's Sunday Morning, and ABC's Nightline, as well as in Time and People magazines. In 1998, Mockbee was diagnosed with leukemia just as the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., mounted an exhibit on the Rural Studio and gave its first Apgar Award for Excellence to the program. In June 2000, Mockbee was awarded a $500,000 Genius Grant by the MacArthur Foundation. On December 30, 2001, Mockbee succumbed to cancer at age 57.

The accolades continued and his ideals and innovations lived on after his death. In 2002, the Rural Studio was part of the Biennial Celebration at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City and the NeoCon World's Trade Fair, the annual design exhibition in Chicago. Mockbee was honored posthumously with Auburn University's Lifetime Achievement Award. His students paid a memorial tribute to their leader with a Birmingham Museum of Art exhibit entitled "Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio: Community Architecture," curated by David Moos in 2003. That same year, the cities of Vienna, Austria, and Barcelona, Spain, hosted exhibits on the Rural Studio and lectures by Andrew Freear, Mockbee's AU colleague who assumed the mantle of leadership after his death. On March 3, 2004, Samuel Mockbee was posthumously awarded the American Institute of Architects' prestigious Gold Medal, joining such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen, and I. M. Pei.

Additional Resources

Dean, Andrea Oppenheimer, and Timothy Hursley. Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.

———. Proceed and Be Bold: Rural Studio after Samuel Mockbee. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Architectural Press, 2005.

Moos, David, and Gail Treschel, eds. Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio. Birmingham, Ala.: Birmingham Museum of Art, 2003.

Ryker, Lori, ed. Mockbee Coker: Thought and Process. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1995.

Elizabeth Motherwell Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Birth: Dec. 23, 1944 Mississippi, USA Death: Dec. 30, 2001 Meridian Lauderdale County Mississippi, USA

Family links:

 Samuel Norman Mockbee (1915 - 1979)
 Margaret Sale Berry Mockbee (1915 - 1985)

Inscription: 1ST LT U. S. ARMY VIETNAM

Burial: Magnolia Cemetery Meridian Lauderdale County Mississippi, USA

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Created by: Robert Miller Record added: Jul 31, 2016 Find A Grave Memorial# 167639401

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Samuel Norman Mockbee, Jr.'s Timeline

December 23, 1944
December 30, 2001
Age 57
Magnolia Cemetery, Meridian, Lauderdale County, Mississippi, United States