Samuel and Oprah
Auburn Rural Studio
Received by:
Samuel Mockbee
Sponsored by:
Jeff Bezos,

For more Information, please contact: Samuel Mockbee
Auburn Rural Studio P.O Box 278
Newbern, AL 36765 PH: 334-624-4483 FAX: 334-624-6015
Web site:
How it Began
Samuel Mockbee, a Professor of Architecture at Auburn University, has his roots and his heart in the Deep South. An architect with a social conscience, Samuel has created a program to train a new generation of architects to build relationships as well as unforgettable homes for the rural poor.

One day when Samuel was out on an old road, he came upon civil rights worker James Chaney's grave. James Chaney was one of three civil rights workers killed in 1964 outside of Samuel's hometown, Meridian, Mississippi. Samuel was inspired by Chaney's passionate crusade against racial intolerance, inequality, and poverty. Like Chaney, Samuel wanted to dedicate his life to making a difference.

"As an architect, my life's not at risk but I still have the same responsibility to address the issues of injustice," says Samuel. "And that started me thinking about the kind of issues that the Rural Studio's dealing with today. The mission of the Rural Studio is not only to educate architects, but educate a community and improve the quality of civic life."

The Solution — Create New Opportunities
Each year, undergraduate students from Auburn University School of Architecture study and work in Hale County. Samuel says, "We chose to build houses with low-income families mainly because there's a great need. This is one of the poorest regions economically, not only in Alabama but in the country. There's a beautiful culture here with a beautiful history to it but economically, it's tough."

"We're on a very tight budget. We have to build as cheaply as possible. The hardest thing for us to find is money to buy bricks and mortar, lumber and nails. We're always looking for ways to save. What other people call garbage, we call opportunity." For example, the students used thousands of old license plates donated by a probate judge as shingles. They built a beautiful glass wall out of Chevy Caprice side windows, made a chapel out of old tires, and with non-recyclable cardboard they built a house. They've also used natural resources — the walls of the "Hay House" are insulated with bales of hay!

"We design our houses not only to have creature comforts — warm in the wintertime and cool in the summer — but they also have to have a spirit to it. [The house] has to be something that we can be proud of and that they're proud of," Samuel says.

One grateful recipient of a Rural Studio home says, "Before I got my house, I was living in total chaos. Me and my children were separated. Once I got my house, I could have all my children back together living with me. That was the greatest part about having a house."
Successful Programming
Students leave the comfort of the university to live, study and work in the classroom of the community. Working with the Hale County Department of Human Resources, the students identify which residents they are capable of helping. Before work begins, they meet and get to know the future inhabitants of their buildings. Samuel says, " It's important that they live out here and they become part of this community. They meet real people with real needs."

The Butterfly House, so named because of its unique roof that acts like a drain, was designed specifically for an elderly couple. Working on the Rural Studio projects has a profound impact on the way students view poverty and race relations. One student who built a house for an elderly couple says, "We really had to develop a relationship with them. You can imagine... 13 white kids showing up on your front door saying, 'I'm going to give you a house for free and we don't want anything.' For me personally [the couple has] become my adoptive grandparents."

Fifth year students working on their theses build community projects, such as a community pavilion, and a Boys and Girls Club. One student says, "We all feel like we are connected to this community. We'll have Sunday dinner at somebody's house. The people here are great."

"What we are trying to create is the citizen architect," says Samuel. "Part of being an architect is to improve civic life. And that's what we try to do, for the citizens of Alabama and the Deep South."


Next Story