In 1993 the late architect and MacArthur Genius Samuel Mockbee started the Rural Studio at Auburn University, a design/build education program, in which students create striking architecture for impoverished communities in rural Alabama. Guided by frank, passionate interviews with Mockbee, the documentary Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio shows how a group of students use their creativity, ingenuity and compassion to craft a home for their charismatic, destitute client, Jimmie Lee Matthews, known to locals as Music Man because of his zeal for R&B and Soul records. The film reveals that the Rural Studio is about more than architecture and building.
Mockbee’s program provides students with an experience that forever inspires them to consider how they can use their skills to better their communities. Interviews with Mockbee’s peers and scenes with those he’s influenced infuse the film with a larger discussion of architecture’s role in issues of poverty, class, race, education, citizenship and social change.
Citizen Architect makes its’ Minneapolis premiere at the Walker Cinema on Thursday, July 1 at 7 pm. A discussion follows the screening, featuring panelists Maureen Colburn, cofounder of the Minneapolis-St. Paul chapter of Architecture for Humanity and architect with LHB in Minneapolis; Paul Neseth, cofounder of Locus Architecture in Minneapolis and founder of the RAW design/build program; and James Wheeler, intern architect at Gulf Coast Community Design Studio in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Below are snippets taken from a Q & A with Citizen Architect director, Sam Wainwright Douglas. To read the full interview click here.
You are Samuel Mockbee’s son-in-law. Aside from the family connection and access to the subject, what drove you and your wife, Sarah Ann, to work on and complete this film?
SAM: I was always struck by the beauty and power of Sambo’s architecture and drawings. They had a lot of life and energy in them. But, more than that, I was inspired by the simple fact that he tried to make the world a better place with his talent, creativity and compassion. I think every artist wants to touch people the way Sambo was able to.
My father and Sambo were friends and did several jobs together in the 80’s and 90’s, starting with the Mississippi Pavilion at the World’s Fair in New Orleans in 1984. As a kid growing up in Houston, I was quite taken by this big Mississippian with a huge beard who liked to draw as much as I did. And, then later on I was blown away when I saw that he was making architecture not only for the usual crowd, but for everyone else and also engaging students to use their skills for something more fulfilling than just a paycheck. When I was a student at NYU, I would often drive through Mississippi on my way to school. Sambo always welcomed me into his home. We’d drink Heinekens and talk about art. He always had time to talk art.
You’re in a grocery store checkout line, and you’re explaining to someone the legacy of Samuel Mockbee … GO:
SAM: Samuel Mockbee was an architect who tried to make the world a better place through his creativity and compassion. He co-founded a program called the Rural Studio that invites architecture students to design and build striking, functional, respectful architecture for very impoverished communities in the rural South. He created an educational model that not only provides badly needed homes and facilities but also provides students with a seminal experience that leaves them bitten by the bug of incorporating a social responsibility into everything they do.
When taking on a big personality like Mockbee’s – especially someone you were close to – what did you consider when making this film? What did you want to accomplish?
SAM: We wanted to produce a film that followed a project from start to finish, so you could see the impact the experience was having on students, while also allowing Mockbee to explain the Rural Studio and his motivations, allowing you to get to know this amiable, thoughtful person. We also tried to show his impact on the profession beyond the borders of Alabama and have a larger discussion about architecture’s role in our lives, education, citizenship and social priorities. And, we wanted to do it in an entertaining, thoughtful way that engages audiences beyond the architecture community.
One of the funnier moments of the movie is when Peanut Robinson, a Hale County resident, tells Rural Studio’s Jay Sanders in no uncertain terms that architects don’t work for poor people and haven’t done anything for him or his community. Can you tell us how that scene came about and why you included it?
SAM: Peanut sets up one of the main questions explored in the movie. Can architects have real impact? Is architecture just for the wealthy or can it benefit everybody? Peanut was very accommodating as far as filming went. He has a masters degree in education from Tuskegee and he loves to pontificate. So if you catch him in downtown Newbern, which you usually can, then he’ll be happy to strike a conversation with anyone who’s going to be respectful.
One of film’s biggest strengths – you have never-before-seen interviews with Samuel Mockbee, speaking eloquently about his teaching philosophy and the effect of Rural Studio on students and the community. How did you get access to this? When were these interviews done?
SAM: These interviews with Sambo were conducted at his home in Canton, MS in 1999. I’d been out of film school for a year. They were supposed to be a preliminary interview for a film on Sambo that I knew I wanted to do some day, which is why the production quality is a bit lackingI thought we might just use them to get a grant or something. Sadly, Sambo passed away and these interviews ended up becoming the only candid, in-depth footage that exist of him on camera. It’s very fortunate that we have them for future generations.
You offer an alternative perspective to Samuel Mockbee’s thinking by interviewing Peter Eisenman, Yale professor and noted architect. Why did you choose to add this element? Was it difficult to get him to open up?
SAM: We interviewed Mr. Eisenman so the audience can hear from someone who is on the other side of the architectural spectrum from Sambo. He is very sure of his opinions and was very forthcoming, which we really appreciated and respect. All we had to do was ask the question. He liked Sambo, but he approaches his work from a different point of view. It’s important to have multiple perspectives—it’s not about who’s right or who’s wrong—that’s the great thing about dialogues like this.
It took a while to put this film together. What drove you to complete it?
SAM: The year before Sambo passed away, he charged me and Jack Sanders with making a film that got to the heart of the Rural Studio. We had to honor that, and it’s a story we really cared about, so we never doubted we would get it done somehow. It has been 10 years since the initial interviews with Sambo, but I’m glad that the film has had the opportunity to explore his ongoing impact several years removed from that first footage. It’s a testament to his lasting impact and relevance.
What kind of feedback have you gotten from architects and designers who have seen the film?
SAM: Simply put, EVERYONE we’ve screened the film for leaves inspired and entertained… and they want more, which is why I’m grateful for this website. We hope to continue the conversation and engage those who want more.