December 17, 2002
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.
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
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 Farmers 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, Sambos legacy will come through the students
who follow in his path, now approaching 400, but numbers dont
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,