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citizen architect

Marley Porter’s tribute:
“Once upon a time there were three architects:
Frank Gehry,
Samual Mockbee
and me.I don’t personally know Frank Gehry, but I have a personal relationship with Samual Mockbee.Lots of people have personal relationships with Samual Mockbee. His friends call him Sambo.Sambo’s legacy is love.1

McGee Church Mississippi – bags of concrete, some corrugated metal and some pipe

Film maker Wainwright Douglas of Big Beard Films made a documentary on Sambo. He called it “Citizen Architect – Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio.”

This is a documentary that looks at Sambo from the perspective of his students and from regular folk, many of them poor.

Frank Gehry’s legacy is lust.


Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, SpainVeteran film director Sydney Pollack called his documentary “Sketches of Frank Gehry”. Pollack and Gehry are friends.This is a documentary that looks at Gehry from the perspective of other famous and mostly rich people.

The Lust and the Love of Architecture.
Frank Ghery, Samuel Mockbee and me.

I graduated top of my class at Arizona State. I broke out of the starting gate early and never looked back. I pushed my career hard and by the time I was thirty five, I was a principal in the largest architectural firm in the East Valley of the Phoenix Metropolitan Area. The firm started with my name. We had a ton of high profile work. We received award after award. I was published in magazines, quoted in the papers and seen on TV. My children understood I was famous.

I was in love with the lust of architecture.

My architectural foundation was my ego. A foundation built on the soil of ego is a foundation made of soggy cardboard signage. It cost me, I cost me, a wonderful life.

Running away from fame is like running away from fire. Stay too close to it and you get burned. Suck it in too deeply and you choke on your own burnout.

I ran to rural Alabama, far from the fires of fame and met Sambo, professor Mockbee.

The first thing he did was invite me to come to the Auburn University Rural School of Architecture.

“Where’s that?” I asked.

“We’re out in the boondocks right now building a straw bale house for a super-deserving family. Drive on out. Stay the night. Bring some beer.”

I drove out into the middle of nowhere and discovered it was everywhere I wanted and needed to be. Sambo gave me a great big bear hug the first time we met. I loved him right away. We sat around a big fire that night, Sambo and me and maybe a dozen zombie-eyed students, drinking up the juju from a Master Human Being.

Sambo introduced me as a top-notch designer type architect looking for the meaning of life. They all laughed, none as loud and happy as Sambo.

“You’re going to see a whole lot of life manana, brother Marley, a whole lot of life.”

The next day, we drove another twenty minutes through the humidity in the dark green cotton of rural Alabama. This was the Rural School.

An ancient, bean-pole black man with no teeth came up to greet us, smiling like summer squash. Sambo squeezed him and I shook his hand.

“Damn Sambo”, the old man whistled, “Good to see you again. You bring a new friend to see our home?”

What I saw blew my mind and melted my heart. The home was made of stacked bales of straw. Three six foot diameter drainage culverts stuck out the side, the ends capped half with glass, half with corrugated rusty metal. The roof was huge, twice as big as the house below it. It cast tons of shade and cool breeze was everywhere. The family kept pouring out, kids and grandkids and dogs and everybody smiling and holding out their arms to their architect, Sambo.


Bryant (Straw Bale) House, Mason’s Bend, Ala., Rural Studio, 1994Samuel Mockbee introduced me to the Love of Architecture.Sambo said, “Architecture has to be greater than just architecture. It has to address social values, as well as technical and aesthetic values. On top of that, the one true gift that an architect has is his or her imagination. We take something ordinary and elevate it to something extraordinary.”

Sambo added, “Architecture, more than any other art form, is a social art and must rest on the social and cultural base of its time and place. For those of us who design and build, we must do so with an awareness of a more socially responsive architecture. The practice of architecture not only requires participation in the profession but it also requires civic engagement. As a social art, architecture must be made where it is and out of what exists there. The dilemma for every architect is how to advance our profession and our community with our talents rather than our talents being used to compromise them.”

Frank Gehry inducts us into the Lust of Architecture.4
Walt Disney Concert Hall
Frank Gehry is beyond famous. He is an icon, a “Starchitect”. He receives every award there is to receive in accolades, and dances on mountain top commissions.
He is undeniably a great artist possessing an extremely unique perspective and vision.
And he is smart, very smart. He puts into his contracts provisions that ensure his and only his vision is the last and final word.
And he’s probably a nice guy.
Gehry has earned a grand reputation for ignoring budgets and the ultimate wishes of his clients. His Sydney Opera House came in fourteen hundred percent over budget. His Walt Disney Concert Hall was one hundred seventy million over. The project ended up in a Mickey Mouse law suit.
No matter. He’s a super marketer, smart enough to poke fun at himself. He even starred on The Simpsons as his famous self, demonstrating how his ideas came from looking at crumpled up paper.
He is a very smart guy.
Yet critics say “his buildings waste structural resources by creating mega-budgeted functionless forms”. Critics state that “his buildings do not account for the local climate or surround.” Critics churn that “his buildings are spectacles overwhelming their intended uses, not belonging in their surroundings.”
The “Economist” declared Gehry a “one-trick pony”, an “auto-plagiarist”.
Gehry remains rock solid though in his resolve and his reason. He’s a very smart guy.
His newest idea, well, you be the critic.5
Gehry on Gehry on Gehry’s newest high-rise idea.
Gehry insists, “It’s a mixed use high-rise. It’s now on hold but I am very proud of it.”
Gehry is proud of all his buildings.
Others wonder why.
One.  The disdain I harbor for this dilettante is getting in the way of a thoughtful answer. But I’ll try. It’s sort of like, one has a dream with all the distortions that dreams have, and the next day writes it down, and with major delusions, proclaims it literature. This image, this proposed building (is it a building?) is lacking two fundamental qualities. Intellectually, it’s vapid. Visually, it’s hideous. Someone, please take his license away.
Two.  At first glance, it looks like a lump of something… stinky.
Three.  Well I love Frank Gehry. I am not an architect but love architecture and I think sometimes Frank seems bored! Is this supposed to be a building? Like “Two” said, it looks like something stinky! He is just trying to see what he can provoke and see who would sponsor and buy this design… This needs not to be built. When he is good he is brilliant and when he is being a bad boy…he must be treated as one.
Four.  And now from the fecund to the fecal and yes, you’re right. Gehry goes scatological. He told us that in the office they lovingly call this project “the Turd.” Hard to digest? Glad it’s eliminated? Gehry always said his architecture is about movement.
Five.  After designing turds for a long time, he made his life easier and literally put a turd on a podium and called it a building. Well played, Mr. Gehry. Now we know that intellectual laziness can lead you somewhere.
Once upon a time there were three architects:
Frank Gehry,
 Samuel Mockbee and me.
I am grateful I got to know Sambo personally. I miss him. He helped change my career and my careening into everything I am not.
I am grateful to know of Frank Gehry. To experience his brilliance, to stand in awe under the hot reflected brilliance of his polished stainless steel tiled skin shadow, gives me humble perspective.
I am grateful that my foundation of soggy cardboard signage failed me and that I learned this lesson well:
The Love of Architecture is the gift of creativity shared with those who need it and with those who receive it well. It is the gift of sharing. The Love of Architecture is The Gift Given.
Sambo, here’s to you Dear Friend: Love On Dude!

Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio-FIlm Trailer




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