12.05.03 Citizen Architect
“I do not believe that courage has left our profession.”
–Samuel Mockbee (1944-2001)
Yesterday, the American Institute of Architects conferred its highest honor, the AIA Gold Medal, posthumously on the late Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee.
Best known as a founding father of the Rural Studio, hosted by Auburn University, Mockbee became a figure of epic proportions in the years before his passing, earning multiple commendations including the MacArthur Genius Award. Now, in these two years since his death, Mockbee’s spirit seems stronger than ever.
Known as much for his teaching as his buildings, Mockbee has inspired and come to represent a new generation of citizen architects–young and old. And just as it’s not fair to say that the Rural Studio was nothing more than Samuel Mockbee, it’s also not accurate to say that Mockbee was nothing more than the Rural Studio. Yet, the majority of his career, however accomplished, was not all that different than most. Whatever it was that attracted Mockbee to Hale County, Alabama, eventually reshaped his practice, career, and life in ways no one could have imagined–perhaps not even Mockbee himself.
While today is rightfully Mockbee’s day, this honor isn’t about Mockbee alone or even the Rural Studio. This recognition is instead a long-overdue validation of community-focused design initiatives of all kinds. Awarding Mockbee makes us all feel good, and we should. But it shouldn’t stop here, either for the AIA or for you individually.
Until receiving news of Mockbee’s award yesterday, we were planning to dedicate today’s issue to community service, as we’ve done a handful of times in the past. The issue was supposed to lead off with a profile of Good Deeds, Good Design: Community Service Through Architecture–a compilation of essays by 29 individuals, including Mockbee, for whom the term “citizen architect” is redundant.
Released last month by Princeton Architectural Press and inspired by the Structures for Inclusion conference series, Good Deeds, Good Design chronicles the many challenges and successes of community-focused design initiatives throughout the country. The book begins with an essay by editor Bryan Bell, founder of Design Corps, titled “Designing for the 98% Without Architects.” This essay constitutes the premise for the book and builds on the fundamental theme of the original Structures for Inclusion conference in 2000. A short excerpt from Mockbee’s essay, transcribed from his presentation at the 2000 conference, is included below.
Through his work and his passion, Mockbee challenged the profession to “Proceed and be bold.” We have been bold. Now we must proceed.
“The Role of the Citizen Architect”
By Samuel Mockbee
“…Now I am the first to admit that architecture cannot alleviate all the social and physical woes of rural Alabama communities. But what is necessary is a willingness to seek solutions to the community in its own context and not from the outside. What is required is the perfect placement of abstract notions with the knowledge based on real human contact and personal realization applied to a people and place.
I do not believe that courage has left our profession. On the contrary, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, our profession is on the very verge of reinventing itself through technology and science. But we still tend to be narrow in the scope of our thinking and devoid of our moral responsibilities to warn and inform. In other words, we still have the duty to participate in the social, political, and environmental realities our communities are facing, and this requires architects to look beyond architecture toward an enhanced understanding of the whole to which it belongs. It takes a peering out at the contemporary landscape before commitments to nudge and cajole and inspire can be started, worked on, and accomplished.
Architecture more than any other art form is a social art, and for those of us who design and build, we must do so with an awareness of a more socially and physically responsive architecture. The practice of architecture not only requires the active individual participation in the profession, but it also requires active civic engagement. The architect’s primary emotional connection should always be with place, and not just the superficial qualities of place, but the ethical responsibility of shaping the environment, of breaking up social complacency and energizing one’s community. It is not prudent for the architect to sit back and rely on the corporate world, science, and technology experts to decide what problems to address. It is in our own self-interest to assert our ethical values and our talents as citizen architects.
I believe most of us would agree that American architecture today exists primarily within a thin band of elite social and economic conditions. So to me the question is really a matter of understanding appropriateness. I have worked with both the upper 1% and the lower 1%. And in working with these two most extreme poles, it seems to me there is much in common. For each, the challenge is the responsible distribution of appropriate resources for the individual, and for society as well. This is not the redistribution of resources, but the responsible and appropriate use of society’s resources as a whole…”
Reprinted from Good Deeds, Good Design, edited by Bryan Bell, and published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2003. Order yourself a copy today.
As always, we welcome your thoughts by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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