The Alphabet of Grace: A is for Architecture

[Borrowing the title of a Frederick Buechner book, I’m posting a series of reflections on grace, each beginning with a different letter of the alphabet, ranging across such topics as sex, food, church, film, literature, work, and mission. I hope you enjoy them]

In 1991, a prosperous, middle-aged architect named Samuel Mockbee took a drive through America’s South. It was to change the direction of his life.

He had become disillusioned with the elitism of his profession, with its cloistered, expensive, big city architects chasing fame and wealth with little regard for the needs of others, let alone the socially disadvantaged. Mockbee still held to the altruistic ideal that architecture was more than an art form. It was a social symbol. Buildings were representations of status, wealth and security. Only the rich could afford the most artistically creative dwellings. The poor could access most other art forms – literature, film, photography, painting – but they had no direct access to architectural beauty. It was simply unaffordable.

President Jimmy Carter’s ministry of providing free housing for the poor – Habitat for Humanity – was gathering steam, but Habitat’s houses are basic and functional. Sam Mockbee dreamed of the poor living in architecturally stunning new houses. Only the wealthy could claim to own an architect-designed house.

To Mockbee, this made his profession the most elitist of all to arts. As he trundled through the most poverty-stricken rural areas of the South, he noticed the hundreds of dilapidated, virtually unlivable shacks dotting the countryside. This was a region where nearly two-thirds of the population lived below the poverty line, where many lived in trailer parks and cottages without running water or even electricity. The levels of social need was devastating.

That trip in 1991, along the dirt roads between the wheat and corn and cotton fields of Alabama confirmed in Mockbee’s mind that something had to be done to throw open the doors of the architectural academy.

He wanted to provide beautiful buildings for the poor.

But more than creating affordable housing, Mockbee wanted to confront architecture students with the racial and cultural divide that separated those in the South. He wanted to shake up their values and help foster in them compassion for their fellow human beings before they got a job at a thriving firm and lost their passion for justice.

And along the way, just maybe, they’d create some mighty fine buildings.  

That year, he quit the large firm he worked for and founded a socially-engaged school of architecture called the Rural Studio in a farmhouse in Greenboro, Alabama.

He was to change lives in more ways than he imagined.

Mockbee once said of his students at the Rural Studio, “Most of these kids come from affluent or middle-class families. They think they’ve seen poverty, but they’ve only driven by it and smelled its perfume. When they shake their client’s hand, and work with him month after month, then they realize this is a real person.”

Sam Mockbee was a big, barrel-chested man with a gray beard who drove an old pickup and ate breakfast in his favorite diner every day. He looked like an Old Testament prophet. By his passion, eccentricity and intelligence, he inspired an emerging generation of architects.

His students were instructed to literally walk up dusty driveways to decrepit old hovels, knock on the door and offer the resident a brand new house. For free.

Often the recipient of this too-good-to-be-true offer would resist the invitation, thinking there must be some catch to it. Rich white kids just don’t offer free houses to poor black folks. And yet, Mockbee and his students have built some astonishing homes for their clients.

The Goat House was once a run-down yellow stucco house. The Rural Studio literally cut it in two and pulled apart so a soaring, cathedral-like hall could be inserted. The central section – all recycled beams and cladding – rises through the middle of the original building to dramatic effect. Inside the addition, floor-to-ceiling windows flood the chamber with natural light, revealing an airy and comfortable family space, framed by natural timbers and polished wooden floors.

Mockbee’s students designed the unique construction and built it at a cost of $12,000 (none of which was paid by the client).

Another example is the the Hay Bale House, which has a colonnaded porch and three barrel-shaped bedrooms that look like hay bales lined along the side of the house.

An adjoining rounded brick building with a bull-nose, corrugated roof serves as a smokehouse for the owners, Shep and Alberta Bryant, who also received it for free, having previously lived in a tar paper shack with a dirt floor and leaky roof.

Anderson Harris and his wife, Ora, received a free home with a winged timber roof and screened porch made from recycled timber and tin at a cost of only $25,000. It’s appropriately known as the Butterfly House.   

Alabama is literally dotted with homes, churches, playgrounds, and community centers created by students at Sam Mockbee’s Rural Studio, including the beautiful Newbern Library (the cover photo for this post).

Mockbee died in 2001 at the age of 57, too young for a folk hero to go. Because of his paradigm busting approach to training architects he’d become a visiting professor at Harvard, a guest on Oprah, and the recipient of a half million dollars ‘genius’ grant from the McArthur Foundation. He’d grown famous and wealthy, not by pandering to the self-serving values of many of his peers, but by stepping out of the frame within which most architects worked.

What would happen if we allowed grace to govern our lives, even our vocations? What if we could start all over again? Would we choose to do what we do? Or would we take our staff, our clients, our students, our parishioners on a journey of grace to address real social need? Could we, by partnering with the poor, recognize them as real people, and together build a more beautiful world to live in?

The kind of genuine partnership Sam Mockbee pioneered involves love, justice, creativity, imagination, hard work and lots of hammering and sawing. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it?

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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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4 thoughts on “The Alphabet of Grace: A is for Architecture

  1. Sooooo good! I could not love this post anymore. I’m challenged and inspired and can’t wait to get to the work of renewing and rebuilding!!

  2. When all the ills and negative news of this world start to weigh you down remember that there is also Love, compassion and grace.
    We just don’t get to hear the good stuff enough. Thank you for the reminder.

    1. I could not have phrased it better: “love, compassion and grace”!
      Reading this post has had a profound and emotional effect on me… simply wow!
      God bless, Kees

  3. Thanks Mike – I remember reading about Sam Mockbee / Rural Studio in your book “Exiles”… from there I spent years following their work. So inspiring on so many levels.

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