Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio

Conceptual architecture might strike some as an elitist art, but the film “Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio” shows how the legacy of one idealist can create a viable program of bold design for one of the most destitute communities in Alabama.

The film screens 6:30 p.m. today at City Arts Center, 3000 General Pershing. A discussion with director Sam Wainwright Douglas and architect Dave Boeck will follow.

Rural Studio was personified by the buoyant, humanistic spirit of Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee, who started the undergraduate program for Auburn University in the ’90s as a way to encourage architecture students to engage impoverished communities. He wanted the budding minds to see how architecture could benefit humanity.

It began with a project dubbed the Smoke House, completed in 1994, and endured after Mockbee’s death in 2001. The program has now finished more than 60 projects, including the Akron Boys & Girls Club and the Safe House Museum.

The buildings are not simply low-rent housing, but innovative works of art that have the students designing and building striking, practical structures to offer residents a higher standard of living.

The documentary focuses on one particular project for Jimmie Lee Matthews, known in his community as the “Music Man.” He lived in squalor before Rural Studio took on the project.

“The Music Man loves rhythm and blues. He loves old soul music and is really charismatic and a really sweet guy,” Douglas said. “He was living in horrible conditions and, like a lot of the students, I was blown away at someone living in such abject poverty had such a joyful spirit. He was so loving and welcoming. He was a real joy to be around.”

Encouraging empathy in the next generation of architects is at the heart of the Rural Studio mission.

“Architecture is a social art,” Mockbee said in the documentary. “It is our social responsibility as architects that we deliver architecture that not only meets the functional and creature comforts, but also spiritual comforts.”

Admission is $5. For more information, call 951-0000 or visit http://www.cityartscenter.org. “”Charles Martin

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