Essay by Jennifer Bonner
Jennifer Bonner / MALL recounts her experience in rural Alabama twenty years ago. As a witness to Samuel Mockbee’s vigilantism at the Rural Studio, she was also a participant in its experiment. Two decades later, a professor and Harvard-trained architect is a trainee again: she speculates on locating an architectural project anew. Bonner’s reflections probe her own white privilege, Mockbee’s dissent (pushback against status quo), and vigilantism.
The editors of this journal have tasked a group of contemporary architects and scholars with a challenging assignment. I want to be very clear and upfront: this is hard.
GB: What makes this task hard?
JB: It is hard because as a female architect, I have been conditioned to not engage in stereotypical gendered norms such as being “emotional.” During interviews I am asked to personally reflect on a design process or topic. My tendency is to overshare, leaning on emotional, visceral examples, which often leads to an auto-corrective tendency to scrub the personal during the editing process in favor of the intellectual. To a certain extent, this writing assignment asks for a personal reflection.
To write about topics on vigilantism and architecture is sure to be a soul-searching effort for several of the contributors. How does our work engage vigilantism? Am I a vigilante?
GB: How do you define vigilantism?
JB: I have never really given the idea of a vigilante that much thought until I read your prompt for this publication. My reading of a vigilante is connected mostly with someone who “takes matters into their own hands.”
As a white female who teaches at an Ivy League on the East Coast, my work can only be viewed from a point of privilege. I can certainly think of a list of architects before me who have taken matters into their own hands, and in meaningful ways successfully shifted discourse in the discipline, but how has my work contributed to these efforts? These questions and many others swirl around in my mind as I immediately connect the assignment on architectural vigilantism with the summer of 2020. At various points throughout the summer, like most, I couldn’t sleep. When Rayshard Brooks was shot and murdered in a Wendy’s parking lot in Atlanta on June 12 while peacefully pleading with law enforcement to walk home, I stared at all of my screens, wishing I was there, in-person, screaming with rage, joining the protests. Those sleepless nights were further compounded by the daily hateful political discourse instigated by the 45th President and coupled with the isolation of the coronavirus lockdown. In July, I joined a reading group at Harvard GSD led by Naisha Bradley, a scholar of diversity and inclusion, where a small group of colleagues read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Sitting in a Zoom room full of privilege, myself included, a visceral realization began to unfold. The murder of Rayshard Brooks, in combination with the crystal-clear awakening that racism is wild and rampant in our country, rattled me to my core. The discipline of architecture is not immune to this behavior: systematic racism exists in our profession and academia.
GB: This is quite the cliffhanger. In what ways does systemic racism exist within architecture? In what ways do you benefit from it?
JB: My thoughts on this are contributed to the writings of DiAngelo:
+ Schools of Architecture are statistically led by white people. DiAngelo states, “This system of structural power privileges, centralizes, and elevates white people as a group.”
+ Schools of Architecture engage in behavior of “anti-blackness.” In DiAngelo’s words “Anti-blackness is rooted in misinformation… It is also rooted in a lack of historical knowledge and an inability or unwillingness to trace the effects of history into the present.” The architectural canon does not center around Paul Williams, but Mies van der Rohe.
The summer of 2020 was not dissimilar to events that happened exactly fifty-six summers ago on June 21, 1964. James Chaney, a Black civil rights worker from Meridian, Mississippi was murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan.1 Brooks, like Chaney, was murdered. Architect and educator Samuel Mockbee, from the same hometown as Chaney, was rattled.2 Overwhelmed by the injustices of the US South, Mockbee did not actively take part in the civil rights movement. Instead, he became an activist in his creative work.3 Through a series of public lectures, writings, paintings, and sculptures, Mockbee began to define his architectural project with urgency. A series of large murals funded by the Graham Foundation, three dimensional constructions with sets of steps and doorways, served as a backdrop for a collection of photographs with families from a small community in Eutaw, Alabama. Published in 1998 in Architectural Design’s “The Everyday and Architecture,” Mockbee wrote about the ambitions of this work: “I am interested in what might prompt and make possible a process of entering a taboo landscape, in my case, the economic poverty of the Deep South;
SR: Did Mockbee also ever explicitly address race? Either way, that might be interesting to weave in. If he was foregrounding poverty over race, or connecting the two, or otherwise, that perspective could be productive here.
JB: Mockbee usually included the book, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, by writer James Agee and photographer Walker Evans in most of his academic lectures. The book centers on writing and photography of poverty found in rural west Alabama during the Great Depression, specifically portraits of white tenant farmers. He primarily spoke about poverty, which reflects the injustices of race in the rural south. I believe if Mockbee were to have fore fronted “race”, he would have had more resistance from patrons, donors, and academic administration.
also in developing a discourse beyond merely looking at the effects of poverty but also at how architects can step over the threshold of injustice.”4 The murals served as a representational device for crossing a threshold and engaging a community. In his words, “it’s about stepping across a social impasse into an honesty that refuses to gloss over inescapable facts.”5 Half a century ago, Mockbee was confronted with a tragic event that steered his practice and pedagogy. And here we are again, a generation of architects, in a similar position, at the critical juncture of asking ourselves how we might take matters into our own hands.
In the early 1990s, Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth established Auburn University’s Rural Studio, a design-build program for architecture students located in rural West Alabama assisting underserved communities with housing, public space, and community centers. Expanding upon his theoretical work and writings, Mockbee began to connect the injustices in the Rural South with a proposal for a new educational model. To put it plain and simple, Mockbee was a vigilante. This kind of vigilantism was connected to dismantling pedagogy of a traditional design studio that fit neatly within the confines of a semester and encouraged the invention of an architectural project that required him to take matters into his own hands. Fed up with the idea that Auburn students would spend time in a study-abroad program, he thought the Grand Tour was an expired, out-of-date, and intellectually bankrupt model for education that was available to only a few.
GB: What is the Grand Tour?
JB: In sixteenth century England, recent graduates would travel through Europe for two years to experience architecture, art, and culture. These “tourists” were young, elite men who traveled from London to Paris, Rome, and Venice—the cultural centers of the time. Similarly, in most schools of architecture there is an option to take a study abroad program during a Bachelor degree. As an educator at Auburn University, Mockbee questioned the idea that students would spend a semester in Europe looking at architecture when there was something more urgent to study in the state of Alabama. These were a few of his early motivations for beginning the Rural Studio, a program where students left Auburn’s campus for a semester to live in rural West Alabama. Rather than traveling to Europe, he convinced students to get in their cars and travel three hours to Hale County.
(*I should actually verify this with someone, but as Southern storytelling seems to go, elaborations on Mockbee often become the real story.) With eyes on Hale County, Alabama, Mockbee believed education should happen “in our own backyard”—specifically in the Black Belt Region, not Tuscany. It took hard work while also absorbing a lot of risk to initially establish a program that would allow students of architecture to leave the comforts of a university to live in Alabama’s most impoverished small towns, population 200. A vigilante has tenacity, determination, and grit—Mockbee’s doggedness materialized in 1993 and remained intact until his untimely death in 2001. Setting up an architecture program in the middle of the state without resources is no small task. It took perseverance to partner with local nonprofits and governmental adjacencies to establish collaborative relationships, fundraise, and secure the general trust of locals. It took exuberance to convince twenty-somethings to skip SEC football games and instead search high and low for weird building materials, think, discarded tires, car windows from a junkyard, hay bales, and corporate office carpet tiles.
GB: Why these materials?
JB: In rural communities, not only is there a lack of capital to make building improvements; there is a lack of resources and access to basic construction materials which requires driving long distances to larger towns. Mockbee doubled down on the students’ imagination. His pedagogical model encouraged invention of unique wall assemblies, challenging conventional materials. These efforts were partly due to small budgets, but also because his interest in material innovation demonstrated in his own architectural practice, Mockbee Coker.
It took a certain kind of stubbornness to hire young faculty without any teaching experience and team them up with inmates from a local state prison out on work release to engage in shared responsibilities and projects. (*Even when local community members didn’t agree with a white girl driving two Black inmates around town daily in a Ford F-150 Dually. The group in the truck was AJ, Big Selma, and myself.) Mockbee was interested in challenging social norms in the lives of middle-class white kids from suburban Alabama. He mixed constituencies, projects, and dialogue with race, architecture, and space. He forced individualistic thinking into a collective DIY spirit. He set up relationships between clients who we designed homes and community centers for and students studying architecture. It wasn’t always easy. Sometimes an uncomfortableness lingered as students desperately tried to play it cool, but in actuality, most had never personally been that close to poverty coming from a place of privilege. Students, namely white, now stood in the homes of Black clients, dried in a bedroom with a new roof, or built a handicap ramp. (*No, it wasn’t all the glitzy fish-scaled, aluminum license plates (imitation Gehry) and cardboard bales (shredded Gehry). Many of the Rural Studio projects also provided residents with basic living conditions such as warm, dry rooms, plumbing, and accessibility for the elderly.)
What other lessons can be learned from Mockbee’s vigilante project? Most tend to default to writing about the Rural Studio as a social project, the narrative circling around sustainability and the do-goodism of this pedagogical model. I argue that the largest contribution of Mockbee’s project on the discipline was none of these narratives. Now, with thirty years’ distance to the first built works, I suggest Mockbee’s project was a demonstration to students and the architectural profession on how to push back on the status quo. His project, at its core, denied the confines of a typical design studio (sit here, draw that) rather encouraging exploration (find it, test it, build it). He certainly did his part to blow up traditional modes of education, architectural references, and creative starting points. As a designer and educator, he started with immediate objects and context surrounding him whether that was overgrown roadside kudzu or a sculptural awning detail on a nearby shed. His project showed students how to take matters into their own hands, whatever that looked like to them. It was certainly not based on a style, technique, or technology. It was open and malleable.
SR: How might this have influenced you as an architect? And was it successful?
JB: Personally, I can say that this unique educational model in some respects instilled confidence in me to be a self-starter. Not to follow “accepted” modes of practice, but to question them outright. An example of this in my own work might be the decision to look at sandwiches (yes, sandwiches!) as a starting point for architecture. This line of inquiry was precisely the moment in my career when I felt a heavy-handed seriousness to how architecture was being discussed during my initial days teaching at Harvard GSD. Surrounded by murmurs of “she can’t do that” and “well, this is not going anywhere”. A new stream of work emerged in my practice influenced by these lessons learned from Mockbee and the insight to make a creative space around myself to explore new work freely and without prejudice.
One of the hardest things to do for a young architect is to set up one’s architectural project—to define a working method around a set of ideas—that begins to guide practice. And just as you think you might have figured it all out, the architect at any age becomes a trainee, again, back to learning, decentering, and reimagining how to work within contemporary culture. The architect’s arc of a career can be characterized as long and slow, almost too slow. Yet, by recognizing the cultural events that surround us, the reflective educator or architect has the capacity to preemptively question methodology, a list of a studio’s final deliverables, a historical canon propped up by narrow-minded historical accounts, representational norms, or mutually agreed upon aesthetics passed down by a non-diverse group of taste makers. Architecture is at another crossroads: the architect can follow the long career arc with minor deviations (stay on course as planned) or consciously insert jarring loopty loops with shape shifting trajectories. At MALL (acronym for Mass Architectural Loopty Loops), the loopty loop is an intentional detour, not a trivial loop where you end up right where you started. To instantiate radical shifts in the discipline, influential detours and substantial loopty loops in what is otherwise a smooth arc, become an absolute necessity. What we do know is that a collective effort is underway to shift power structures in our practices and institutions, and acknowledge the single authorial voice will not direct the way. Now, it is more likely to come from a collective DIY that looks different. Loopty loops should not be misinterpreted as a trivial and childish way to engage a critical discourse on how architectural projects will proceed, but rather as a means of figuring out what matters.
GB: How does this inform your search for process as the once again trainee?
JB: Architecture is an exciting discipline to me because there is no “correct” way of making a building, formulating an idea, or engaging material. This open-ended context creates enormous room for innovation and the imagination. It seems like in moments of racial injustice and substantiation of the status quo, architects and the architectural project reexamine itself.
1. John Herbers, “Most Tied to Klan,” The New York Times, December 5, 1964, https://www.nytimes.com/1964/12/05/most-tied-to-klan.html.↵
2. Andrea Oppenheimer Dean and Timothy Hursley, Rural Studio: Samuel Mockbee and an Architecture of Decency (New York: Princeton Architectural Press), 5.↵
4. Sarah Wigglesworth and Jeremy Till, The Everyday and Architecture (Architectural Design) (Academy Press, 1998).↵
Born in Alabama, Jennifer Bonner is Associate Professor of Architecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Bonner founded MALL in 2009, a creative practice that stands for Mass Architectural Loopty Loops or Maximum Arches with Limited Liability—an acronym with built-in flexibility. She is the author of A Guide to the Dirty South: Atlanta, faculty editor of Harvard GSD’s Platform: Still Life, and guest editor for ART PAPERS special issue on architecture and design of Los Angeles. Bonner is an award-winning designer and has been featured in several publications, exhibitions, and installations on art and architecture.
www.jenniferbonner.com | @jbonn90057