By William Plummer
December 04, 2000 12:00 PM

Alberta Bryant remembers the day a bearded white man approached her and her husband, Shepard, and asked if they’d like a new home. She thought she was hearing things. First there was the man’s politically incorrect nickname. “I say to my husband,” she says, ” ‘Did that man say his name was Sambo?’ ” Then he said he wanted to build them a house—for free—and would make it out of hay. Hay? Alberta jokes, “I used to say the cows were going to eat my house.”

Not a chance. The Bryants’ striking hay-bale and stucco dwelling has survived six years now in tiny Mason’s Bend, Ala., a hamlet of tumbledown shacks and bungalows, 110 miles southwest of Birmingham. Their 850-sq.-ft. house was designed and built by the Rural Studio; that is, by internationally known architect Samuel Mockbee, 55—who does indeed go by the name Sambo—and his students at Auburn University. Each year Mockbee teaches his 28 students how to make sturdy and beautiful houses, chapels and community centers out of cheap cast-off materials: old tires and license plates, bottles, hay and rammed earth (red clay and cement). “We are creating citizen architects,” says Mockbee, who recently won a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. “[The students] are dealing hands-on with the social and physical issues of the people they are building for, people nearly invisible to everyone else.”

Mockbee is not only a visionary, says David Buege, chairman of the department of architecture at the University of Arkansas, but a powerful example to students. “He’s as genuine a person as you could find,” says Buege, “and he’s been able to go into a culture where academics would normally create suspicion.” Mockbee got the idea for the Rural Studio in 1993, two years after joining the Auburn faculty, when he observed that students would build a wall each semester, only to tear it down. “It seemed wasteful,” says Mockbee, who thought, “Why not give students the opportunity to do something real and enhance the community at the same time?”

The Studio focused on Hale County, one of the country’s poorest areas (30 percent of its population lives below the poverty line), which was documented in Walker Evans and James Agee’s 1941 book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Mockbee and crew—who live in two 1890s farmhouses—began by repairing trailer homes for the elderly. “This is total immersion out here,” he says. “We have no TV and you have to drive an hour to see a movie.”

The Bryants, who were raising three grandchildren in a leaky shack with no plumbing, were the Studio’s first clients. Now in his 70s, Shepard still fished the Black Warrior River for catfish, but Alberta, who’d had her legs amputated because of a circulatory problem, was having trouble getting around in her wheelchair. In addition to their new wheelchair-friendly home, the Studio built them a smokehouse out of concrete rubble and colored bottles. It cost just $40 and, according to Shepard, lights up at night like a little town.

Around the corner from the Bryants is another Studio creation called the Butterfly House, because its tin roof soars in two directions. The house—its walls are made of wood salvaged from a 100-year-old church—belongs to Anderson and Ora Lee Harris. Their son Anderson Jr., 46, is married to one of the Bryants’ daughters, Lucy, 39. It is their house that Mockbee plans to build as one of the next Rural Studio projects. “I’m gonna push all the environmental issues and all the aesthetic issues and take Lucy with me for the whole exploration,” he says.

Mockbee can’t remember a time when he wasn’t building things. “I said from the earliest age that I wanted to be an architect,” he recalls. He was born in 1944 in Meridian, Miss., where his only sibling, Martha Anne, who was four years older, irrevocably branded him Sambo. His mother, Margaret, an English teacher who died in 1985, was the family’s backbone, especially after his father, Norman, a salesman, contracted tuberculosis and had to quit working. “He was a sweet man but became an alcoholic,” says Mockbee. Norman died in 1979.

Despite his father’s troubles, Mockbee regards his childhood as idyllic. “When I was 11,” he says, “I got a pile of lumber for Christmas, and I built a tree house, then tore it down to build a fort and then another tree house.” Young Sambo was a mediocre student, unless the subject was art. “I was a daydreamer and an athlete,” he says. He went to Auburn for two years, then in 1966 was drafted by the Army and sent to Officers Candidate School. “It was the last thing I wanted, but it was a turning point for me,” says Mockbee, who became a rifle instructor at Fort Benning, Ga. In the Army, says Mockbee, who came of age in the white segregated South, “I finally jettisoned any concepts about race I had grown up with.”

After his hitch was up, he finished at Auburn while working at an architecture firm in Columbus, Ga. By 1974, when Mockbee graduated, he was married to Jackie Johnson, a former high school homecoming queen, with whom he was twice fixed up on blind dates. The first time, he says, “I was wild and crazy, and she had no interest in that. Then two or three years later we met again. We just looked at each other and said, ‘Hey, didn’t we do this before?’ ” This time they clicked. They married four months later. The Mockbees have four children: Margaret, 24; Sarah Ann, 21; Carol, 19; and Julius, 15. Mockbee is a fantastic dad, Jackie says: “All the children call him Papa—not just our children but all their friends too.”

In his commercial practice, Mockbee has designed a range of buildings, from private homes to the Mississippi Pavilion at the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition. A house in Oxford, Miss., won a prestigious American Institute of Architects award in 1994. These days, he says, he is more centered than he has ever been. The Rural Studio and the effect it has had on both clients and students is part of the reason. “A lot of architecture is supermarkets and stuff,” explains fifth-year Auburn student Craig Peavy, 26. “But this is a chance to touch people’s lives.”

A second part is that two years ago, Mockbee was diagnosed with leukemia. “The type I had,” he says, “kills 50 percent of patients within the first year and all within the third, unless you can have a bone marrow transplant.” His sister Martha Anne proved to be the perfect match. “It was a nightmare. I lived in a bubble for weeks and weeks. It took a year to recover.” Meanwhile, Martha Anne contracted cancer herself and died in August 1999, at 58.

“Of course, it changed me,” says Mockbee of the ordeal. “I was a rompin’, stompin’ Auburn man leading a robust life and never thinking about mortality. I was totally unprepared. There were things I wanted to accomplish. Now, I’m making sure that if I get bad news from a checkup, I won’t have any regrets. With the Rural Studio, I’m using my energies and abilities. I am fortunate in every way.”

William Plummer

Gail Cameron Wescott in Hale County, Ala.