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Its inspiration and statement of teaching philosophy.
“Finally, remember this, act on a foundation of decency. Go above and beyond the call of a ‘smoothly functioning practice,’ help those who aren’t likely to help you in return, and do so even if nobody is watching.”
—Samuel “Sambo” Mockbee
About ten years ago I witnessed, in an architectural trade magazine, remarkable photographs of homes in the Black Belt of Alabama. As I read, I learned that they had been built by students from Auburn University, from a class known as the Rural Studio, under the direction Samuel Mockbee.
I invited “Sambo” out to the University of Utah to give a talk at the annual Henrietta Johnson Louis Symposium. He proceeded to incite the audience, primarily architecture students, to action. He said that “if architecture is going to nudge, cajole and inspire a community into making responsible environmental and social structural changes now and in the future, it will take the ‘subversive leadership’ of academics and practitioners to keep reminding the students of architecture that theory and practice are not only interwoven with one’s culture, but with the responsibility of shaping the environment, of breaking up social complacency, and challenging the power of the status quo.”
After the lecture I invited myself to the Rural Studio to observe, hang out, and lend my inexperienced but highly curious hands.
What I saw there was a lot of hard work, students who had abandoned the comforts of campus and home for a cooperative life and the opportunity to learn about architecture through action. I saw experimentation, scale mock-ups and countless knockdowns. I saw consensus-building through a piling on of ideas and emotions, a juxtaposition of two cultures considered diametrically opposed, knee-slapping and generally just carrying on into the night. I partook in good humor, a cornerstone of the whole program, but most importantly I felt a burgeoning awe emoting from all sides.
I wanted in.
Sambo told me to go start my own out in Utah, said he’d do whatever he could to help. Senselessly, he died of leukemia before we could re-invite him for further wisdom, guidance, and for my own selfish sake, blessing. Undeterred I bushwhacked on, forward, sideways and oftentimes even losing ground.
Our program, DesignBuildBluff, aspires to grow a student’s comfort zone, immerse them in an unfamiliar culture, twist the scales of tolerance, open ears, and hence minds… Indeed, that’s what I want to learn, which implies that that’s what I want to teach. As Sambo mentioned, it’s not about your greatness, but your goodness, it’s not about your passion, but your compassion. The students become architects of their own education. These small projects have in them the architectural essence to enchant us, to inspire us, and ultimately to elevate our profession. What I hope to impart is the veracity of the old Chinese proverb: I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand. To paraphrase Sambo, DesignBuildBLUFF is not a representation of reality, it is real in and of itself.