Building a Better World: Citizen Architect at ArCH's Architecture Film Festival

The Patrick House in Newburn, Alabama
The Patrick House in Newburn, Alabama
Courtesy of Big Beard Films

While he was still in film school at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Sam Wainwright Douglas took a trip with his family to Hale County in Alabama to visit family friend Sam Mockbee at his Rural Studio. Mockbee had founded the studio a few years before as part of Auburn University's architecture program. Through it, students spend a year in rural Alabama, designing and building low-cost, sustainable living spaces for the poorest members of the community.

"I saw this beautiful, magnificent architecture where you did not expect to find beautiful, magnificent architecture to be, and where you did not expect architects to go," Douglas tells Art Attack.

Mockbee and the Rural Studio are the basis for Douglas's documentary Citizen Architect: Sam Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio, which will be shown tomorrow night at ArCH's first-ever Architecture Film festival. The film documents the origins and influence of the Rural Studio, but it also puts the studio in perspective, examining in-depth an ages-old argument within the field of architecture itself: Should architecture be considered an art form, highly aesthetic and theoretical, or should it be a public service, meant to help people in need of shelter?

Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, says it best in the film:

The reality is, the world is not going to look like Dubai. It's going to look like Lagos, Nigeria. And when we're spending most of our education teaching most of our architects to design some godawful, horrible building in the middle of the desert when they should be designing adequate and affordable housing for 90 percent of the planet, there's a big disconnect.

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The film was more than ten years in the making. Douglas interviewed Mockbee in 1998 with the hopes of making a documentary about the Rural Studio, but kept putting the project off as he began working more and more in the film industry. When he met Mockbee's former student Jay Sanders, who would become the film's producer, at Mockbee's funeral in 2001 (Mockbee had wanted them to meet for a long time), the project gained impetus, and Douglas went to Hale County between editing jobs to film the Rural Studio in action in 2002 and 2003.

"It ended up, we were six or seven years older than when we first started, and I think because of that, we were able to put more perspective into the film and show the influence of the rural studio," Douglas says.

The film was a family affair for Douglas, a native Houstonian now living in Austin; not only was Mockbee a close family friend, but also his father-in-law. He says the hardest part about making the film was not to make it overly sentimental.

"He would've hated that," Douglas says.

7 p.m. Saturday. 315 Capitol. $20, free for members. Douglas will be in attendance for a Q&A session. For information, call 713-520-0155 or visit www.aiahouston.org/arch


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