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Sambo

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA
Editor-in-chief

Photo copyright Timothy Hursley

This portrait of Samuel Mockbee served as the cover for a program of the evening's events.

Friends of Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee gathered in New York on Thursday, March 7, to honor the memory of a man who reminded the world that architecture is for people. Max Protetch, who became Mockbee’s friend while showing his work, organized the event at his gallery in Chelsea. Timed to coincide with the rural Studio’s Biennial opening at the Whitney, the time finally arrived for last good-byes.

Mockbee’s own personality filled the room, such that you could almost hear his voice. Drawings and multiple video images completed the illusion, or was it real? By 6:30 p.m., Sambo’s family, including three lovely daughters and son Julius, had taken their seats, and the gallery had filled to standing-room-only, augmented by a passel of Auburn students, faculty, and friends who braved the trip north. Max and Jackie Mockbee had invited over 20 people to say something.

Dennis Ruth, who had founded the studio with fellow traveler Mockbee, led things off with a eulogy previously given at Auburn. Literate and soulful, Ruth’s elegy began by quoting the poem “Do Not Be Ashamed,” by Wendell Berry, an apt kick-off for what would prove to be an evening celebration of an architect’s humane genius. Although enjoined to brevity, the proceedings continued until 9:00 p.m., and the evening seemed short.

Some knew him well; others crossed his path briefly. All brought eloquence and a sense of emotional resonance. Here are random glimpses from the evening:

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Paula Dietz, editor of the Hudson Review, standing elegantly still and warmly sharing observations and memories.

Andrea Oppenheimer Dean and Timothy Hursley, whose book on Mockbee and the Rural Studio had just been released, each shared complementary experiences.

Andrew Freear, director of the graduate program for the Rural Studio, who read quotes from real people from Hale County, Alabama, whose lives had been altered in positive ways by Sambo. A trusty, for example, from the local penal farm said that Mockbee had been the first person to fully look at him, to see him, and to endow him with his full personhood.

Karen Stein, who remembered the elation and sense of justice we all felt on learning that this man and his architectural program had captured a MacArthur grant.

Mack Scogin, who recaptured a rowdy story fully in character with the original. Ask him to tell you himself.

Shelley Martin, a teacher at VPI, who quoted Mockbee’ fellow Mississippian Eudora Welty.

As an architect who had grown up professionally with Sambo (we both practiced in Mississippi—I returned in ’76, he in ’78), I remembered how his gift was apparent from those earliest days. The honor award submissions, which he always won, carried the stamp of an authentic voice in clarity and form. We faced similar clients in the nation’s poorest state, shared the platform numerous times, and all knew that he was ahead of the pack—a position he maintained.

Born in Meridian, an early exemplar of the New South, he chose to live in Madison County, which represents the old—at the crossroads of present and past, where the tension, and action, reside. His architecture, literally recast from the physical shards and abstract forms of the past, brought a radical continuity, a witness that change was coming, and had, in fact, arrived.

After my wife and I adjourned to the diner around the corner for a cheeseburger, Sambo’s voice remained very much inside my head, rich and sonorous and proud as hell for such an evening in New York.

Here’s a list of who spoke:

Max Protetch, owner, Max Protetch Gallery
D.K. Ruth, Professor and Director, The Rural Studio
Paula Dietz, editor Hudson Review
Deedie Rose, a client from Dallas, TX
Tim Hursley, photographer of the new book on the Rural Studio by Princeton Press
Andrea Oppenheimer Dean, author of the book (Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency)
William T. Dooley, Director of the gallery of art at the University of Alabama Arts and Sciences
Karen Stein, editorial director of Phaidon Press
William H. Sledge, MD, Professor of Psychiatry, University School of Medicine
Lawrence Chua, writer
Reed Kroloff, Editor in chief of Architecture magazine
Coco Brown, developer, Sagaponack, NY
Jane Adlin, Curator, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
Joseph Giovannini, architect and critic for New York magazine
Andrew Freear, Professor of Architecture, Auburn University
Judy Hudson, artist and writer, who interviewed Sambo in Bomb Magazine
Mindy Fox, Creative Director of Earth Pledge Foundation
Shelley Martin, Assoc. Professor, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State Univ.
Mack Scogin, Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, Atlanta, GA
Robert Ivy, yours truly

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