Thursday, March 19, 2009

Samuel Mockbee: Educating Artists

I was listening to an old edition of NPR’s Speaking of Faith this evening on the way home. It was a wonderful episode called “An Architecture of Decency,” about the famous Rural Studio in Western Alabama. Included in the website for the program was an essay by Samuel Mockbee, the founder of the Rural Studio. I

This brings me to Auburn University’s Rural Studio. It had become clear to me that if architectural education was going to play any socially-engaged role, it would be necessary to work with the segment of the profession that would one day be in a position to make decisions: the student. The main purpose of the Rural Studio is to enable each student to step across the threshold of misconceived opinions and to design/build with a ‘moral sense’ of service to a community. It is my hope that the experience will help the student of architecture to be more sensitive to the power and promise of what they do, to be more concerned with the good effects of architecture than with ‘good intentions’. The Rural Studio represents an opportunity to be real in itself, the students become architects of their own education.

I believe that this could easily be the purpose of the educational aspects of the <100k>

For instance, I have a student who spent spring break in Guatemala with Patch Adams and the Gesundheit! Institute. She has created a small clown troupe who visit a local nursing home. Another of my students spent a semester touring with an environmental group that went to schools using the arts to teach about planting trees. These are small contributions in small places, but I think they are important, and that they receive far too little support in “professionally” oriented theatre programs across the US.

In the same essay, Mockbee writes:

Last year, I was asked to participate in an AlA (American Institute of Architects) Design Conference, along with two other architects and the English architect Michael Hopkins. Each of us gave lectures during the day and then participated in an after-dinner panel discussion that evening. Primarily, the questions-and-answers session that evening settled around questions about how an architect receives and executes major commissions. Each of the other architects were giving their answers to this question when Michael Hopkins interjected somewhat matter-of-factly that the evening before he had received a ‘fax on his pillow’ informing him that he had just received yet another commission from one of his major clients in England.

Later on someone made the observation that Hopkins was working for the richest woman in the world — the Queen of England — while I was working for the poorest man in the world, Shepard Bryant (the client and recipient of The Rural Studio’s first charity house, the Hay Bale House in Mason’s Bend, Alabama). They noted at the same time that my work and the work of Michael Hopkins represented two very different approaches to the practice of architecture. They wondered what the implications of this were. The question was directed at me and I answered that it probably had more to do with our nature than with any convictions — more to do with our own private (and somewhat selfish) desires rather than any commitment to public virtue. But as far as my own convictions went, I believe that architects are given a gift of second sight and when we see something that others can’t we should act, and we shouldn’t wait for decisions to be made by politicians or multinational corporations. Architects should always be in the initial critical decision-making position in order to challenge the power of the status quo. We need to understand that when a decision is made, a position has already been taken. Architects should not be consigned to only problem-solving after the fact.

People then turned to Michael Hopkins for his answer. He replied, ‘Maybe architects shouldn’t be in the position to make those kinds of decisions.’ I took this to mean issues affecting social, economic, political or environmental decisions, and also staying away from making subversive decisions!

At first I was somewhat stunned by his answer and then reflected that perhaps here was a man who could be speaking for most practicing architects.

I do not believe that courage has gone out of the profession, but we tend to be narrow in the scope of our thinking and underestimate our natural capacity to be subversive leaders and teachers.

This easily applies to the other arts as well, and particularly the notoriously conservative theatre, which I do think has lost much of its courage and been over-run with careerism and caution. We talk a big game about “subversion,” but our idea of subversion is focused on pathetic attempts to stick our thumb in the eye of the middle class by saying bad words or acting out heinous acts onstage, rather than being truly subversive by creating a vision that helps to bring into existence a better way of being, by creating with a moral sense of service to the community.

1 comment:

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