The Oxford American recently revisited (by posting online a lengthy feature from it’s print archives) the legacy of Samuel Mockbee, god of Auburn Architecture, whose spirit rises annually on the wings of pig smoke (once to the beat of mine own snare!) above the gnarley pods of the Rural Studio in our western settlement of Newbern.
Samuel Mockbee—“Sambo” to anyone who knows him at all—architect, painter, chair maker, so-far cancer survivor, father, husband, and teacher, received a “genius grant” in June of 2000 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The Foundation, based in Chicago, has handed out 588 of these grants since 1981.
It’s impossible to apply for a MacArthur; there’s not even an interview process. The Fellows are chosen by a thirteen-member selection committee from a list prepared by a slate of anonymous nominators who change yearly. At fifty-five, Sambo was the oldest of the twenty-five winners and the only Southerner. “Some of those people do things in the sciences, and they really are geniuses,” he says.
The Fellowships have gone to twenty-seven biologists, twenty-one physicists, and thirty-four poets. Eight astronomers are MacArthur Fellows, as are three primatologists and now, with Sambo’s inclusion, three architects. “MacArthur Fellows are chosen for their exceptional creativity, record of significant accomplishment, and potential for still greater achievement,” said Daniel J. Socolow, director of the Fellows Program. Winners, he added, are a “wonderful collection of extraordinary minds in motion.”
The grant gives Sambo—who has taught architecture at Auburn University since 1991 while periodically lecturing at Yale, Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Virginia—a hundred thousand dollars a year for five years. There are no strings attached to the money, no papers to write, no lectures to give, not even a requirement that the money be accounted for in any way. The Foundation Web site says such confidence in the recipients is the “underpinning” of the program and that “the Fellows are in the best position to decide how to make the most effective use of the Fellowship resources.”
“They told me the only requirement was that I deposit the check,” Sambo says. “I told them I wasn’t going to deposit it. I told them I was going to take it down to G.B.’s Mercantile store in Newbern, Alabama, and cash it and that it better not bounce.”
TWER officially recommends Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency, which documents the genius of Mockbee and showcases the fantastically innovative work his students undertook in the late 90s and early 2000s in poor, poor, poor Hale County. Maybe it’s me, but there is just something about the photos in that book…