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Sambo’s Night in Gotham

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA, Editor in chief

 

The lights of Gotham glittered from the windows of the United Nations this Monday night as the late Samuel (Sambo) Mockbee received high praise from the powerful: ironic, indeed, that his gentle bear of a man, who spent the last years of his own life working with the rural poor in Hale county, Alabama, should be feted by the powerful. They came out in force.

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Auburn University, where Sambo co-founded the Rural Studio, honored the late architect and Madeline Albright, the former U.S. Secretary of State, with its International Quality of Life Awards on December 9. Previous winners have included Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Don Logan, the second in command at AOL-Time-Warner. In addition to Mrs. Albright, speaking were John Huey, Editorial Director of Time Inc. and moi. It was (to cop a Southernism) “tall cotton”, but entirely deserved for a man I searched hard to describe as having “generative power.”

I knew him when. We both arrived in Mississippi at about the same time, returning from the service and architecture school in the late seventies, he from Auburn, I from Tulane. He had been born in Meridian, 90 miles down the road from me, in Columbus. It was the era of Elvis and Otis Redding and civil rights and antiwar. Both practicing, both comparing notes on what we thought mattered. I wrote about his transformational command of the vernacular and continued to do so throughout all those years.

A born storyteller, Sambo was in a sense an interpreter of people, place, and history. He always had the gift of architecture in drawing and in art, but on reflection, I think his true gifts lay bound in his personality. His presence and voice continue to resonate among us, his memory is that strong today.

The Rural Studio, now the subject of a popular book, engaged Auburn students with real life people, allowing them to wield a hammer as well as a pencil and constructing an artful legacy of buildings that continue to garner media attention. The Butterfly House, the Farmer’s Market in Marengo County, the Shepherd Bryant home, the HERO Community Center form a memorable architectural assemblage in Newbern and Greensboro that capture the spirit of place and people in a new way.

However, Sambo’s legacy will come through the students who follow in his path, now approaching 400, but numbers don’t tell the whole Sambo story. All of us have been drawn to this man by an irresistible force, a life force, a generative force that remains strong, despite his early death.

500 people turned out in black tie to honor him and the Secretary. We stood up straight for our friend that night, for a man who traveled down back roads most people will never venture to find. The stars that night glowed back on us all.

To read Robert Ivy's interview with the late Sam Mockbee, click here.


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