Our Story
The Road to Newbern

Co-founder Samuel Sambo Mockbee standing next to students on the steps of the old thesis barn in downtown Newbern. The numeral 93 made with wooden letterpress blocks overlays the photograph
August 1993: Rural Studio begins
Samuel (“Sambo”) Mockbee (1944–2001) and D.K. Ruth (1944–2009) cofound Rural Studio and begin designing and building projects with Auburn architecture students in rural West Alabama.

Read founder bios:
Samuel (“Sambo”) Mockbee (1944–2001)
D.K. Ruth (1944–2009)
May 1994: Bryant Haybale House complete
Forty-four 2nd-year, 3rd-year, and 4th-year architecture students complete Rural Studio’s first project, the Bryant Haybale house in Mason’s Bend.
The Tire Chapel project with the quote I want to be over the edge, environmentally, aesthetically, and technically
May 1995: Yancy Tire Chapel complete
The chapel’s completion propels Rural Studio to the front page and sets the stage for two more chapels, the Glass Chapel and Antioch Baptist Church.
1996: Rural Studio moves into Morrisette House
William Morrisette gives Rural Studio an 1890s farmhouse and its five acres of land in downtown Newbern, AL. In 1996, Rural Studio moves into the farmhouse as a permanent home.
Passengers riding in the back of Director Andrew Freear’s vintage baby blue Ford truck. Flags of Auburn University, the United Kingdom, and the USA fly in the back of the truck
August 2000: Andrew Freear starts teaching at Rural Studio
Andrew Freear, educated at the Polytechnic of Central London and the Architectural Association in London, joins Rural Studio. He brings with him insight from both practicing and teaching in London and Chicago into the farmhouse as a permanent home.
Sambo Mockbee leaning over his drafting table and the quote Proceed and Be Bold!
2000: Sambo awarded “Genius Grant”
Sambo Mockbee is awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, a.k.a. “Genius Grant,” for his pairing of social consciousness and unconventional design.
A sign sitting alone in the grass. The sign text gives directions: pavilion with an arrow pointing to the right; bridge with an arrow pointing left; and tower with an arrow pointing right
2000: Perry Lakes Park Pavilion project begins
The Pavilion project gets underway in a clearing at Perry Lakes Park, along the Cahaba River, defining a gathering place for visitors to the park’s attractions, including its cypress and tupelo swamps and oxbow lakes. The project begins Rural Studio’s larger-scale community park work.
December 2001: Focus pivots, Sambo passes away, and leadership changes
Rural Studio community projects flourish. Sambo Mockbee, vibrant despite a 1998 diagnosis of leukemia, passes away from complications of the disease. D.K. Ruth briefly directs Rural Studio, followed by Andrew Freear as Director.
A sketch of the Newbern Firehouse on notebook paper
2003: Newbern requests a Firehouse
The town asks Rural Studio to design and build a Firehouse for its newly formed Newbern Volunteer Fire Department. The Firehouse will house a grant-funded pumper truck, keeping the vehicle warm and dry. This project begins Newbern downtown work.
The date 2004 in rust colored type. The first zero in 2004 is represented by a graphic of the AIA Gold Medal
2004: Sambo posthumously awarded AIA Gold Medal
Sambo Mockbee is posthumously honored with the prestigious American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, awarded to one esteemed architect a year for “a body of distinguished architectural work.”
An exterior shot of 20K Dave’s home partially overlain by two other images: RS20K in bold rust-colored text and a section drawing of 20K Dave’s Home
August 2004: 20K Project research begins
Rural Studio begins the 20K Project, initiating a body of research aimed at identifying scalable solutions to stubborn rural housing problems.
The entrance gate at Lions Park, a composite of a photograph of the finished project (Lions) and a project drawing (Park)
2005: Lions Park begins
The initiation of the Lions Park project sets off 10 years of phased building at the location and establishes new relationships within the city and county. As a result, a series of new projects become possible, such as the Farmers’ Market and the Greensboro Boys & Girls Club, and Rural Studio works with officials on larger-scale planning.
2006: Rusty Smith becomes Associate Director
Rusty Smith, with experience from international architectural firms and having received national teaching awards, informally becomes Associate Director of Rural Studio in 2006, with his new role becoming University official in 2007.
Portrait of co-founder DK Ruth
August 2009: D.K. Ruth passes away
Illness had moved D.K. Ruth back to Auburn University’s main campus in 2002. In 2009, D.K. passes away, leaving a legacy of not only work but also deep respect and a fundamental decency in his approach to architecture.
Fall 2009: Curriculum timeline shifts
Early undergraduate involvement moves from 2nd year to 3rd year, allowing students to better focus on material assembly. Students joining the 3rd year program now have the benefit of applying coursework in materials and methods, environmental controls, and structures.
The exterior of the Rural Studio Solar Greenhouse overlain by an image of three ripe tomatoess
2010: Rural Studio Farm begins
Rural Studio founds the small-scale Farm with sustainability as one of its operating principles.
Two postcards. The top reads Greetings from London and the bottom shows partial text that implies Rural Studio’s home address at Morrisette House
June–August 2010: Victoria & Albert Exhibit in London
Rural Studio’s full-scale Woodshed installation is featured in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s exhibition 1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces, a project asking international architects “to design structures which explored notions of refuge and ‘retreat’.”
October 2010–January 2011: MoMA Exhibit in New York
20K Dave’s House is featured in Small Scale Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement, an exhibit highlighting architecture with transformative effects.
On the left, a fanned stack of three posters. To the right, the numeral 13 made with wooden letterpress blocks.
2013 – 2014: 20th Anniversary
Rural Studio commemorates its 20th anniversary, by designing and building 13 projects and featuring 71 guest lectures.
Front cover of the Rural Studio at Twenty book
May 2014: Rural Studio At Twenty published
Rural Studio’s 3rd book, Rural Studio at Twenty, celebrates the origins and evolution of Rural Studio from its beginnings in 1993 to its 20th anniversary.
The interior of the Rural Studio exhibit at the Venice Biennale in 2014 and, overlaying it, a photo of one of the benches from the exhibitt
May – November 2016: Exhibit in Venice
Rural Studio’s exhibit The Theater of the useFULL at Biennale Architettura 2016’s Reporting From The Front is the only invited installation from the United States at the Venice Biennale in Venice, Italy.
A wooden model of 20K Mac’s Home in front of the text Front Porch Initiative 2019
2019: Front Porch Initiative launches
The Front Porch Initiative transforms the 20K concept, scaling up with partners and collaborators to bring dignified, economical, and easy to maintain rural houses to rural communities beyond Hale County.
Samuel Mockbee with Rural Studio students

Sambo Mockbee

December 23, 1944 - December 30, 2001

Samuel "Sambo" Mockbee dedicated his life, as a teacher, an architect and an artist, to the goal of providing "shelter for the soul." His inspirational and authentic architecture served to improve the lives of the most impoverished residents of rural Alabama through his work with Auburn University Rural Studio. In September of 1998, Sambo was diagnosed with leukemia. The illness slowed him down, but he remained committed to the aspirations and ideals of the Studio. In December 2001, he died of complications from the disease. He is survived by his wife Jackie and four children: Margaret, Sarah Ann, Carol and Julius. Despite his renown, Sambo remained modest and resolutely “down-home” until his death. He was a charmer with a quick wit and thick Southern drawl. He cast a spotlight on an aspect of our culture that most avoid while demonstrating that socially responsible architecture can delight the senses, inspire the masses and serve the soul. For his work at Rural Studio, Mockbee received the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in 2000 and was posthumously awarded the AIA Gold Medal in 20.5.

DK Ruth in front of the Rural Studio pods

DK Ruth

July 13, 1944 - August 26, 2009

Dennis "D.K." Ruth dedicated his life as an educator to promoting context-based, socially conscious design. As department head at Auburn's School of Architecture at the time of Rural Studio's inception, D.K. was instrumental in getting the fledging off-campus program up and running. After his friend and colleague Samuel Mockbee's death in 2001, D.K. helped guide Rural Studio through an emotional and uncertain time.

In Auburn, D.K. took his interest in collaboration and hands-on learning further by pioneering a Design-Build master’s program (now known as a Masters in Integrated Design & Construction.) D.K. remained a devoted teacher up until his passing in 2009. For his academic work both with Rural Studio and Auburn's Integrated Design & Construction master’s program, D.K. received numerous teaching awards. Amongst his honors, he was presented with the Algernon Sydney Sullivan award for service to humanity. D.K. is remembered fondly by his numerous students for his generous and genuine nature. He is survived by his wife Linda and four children: Alex, Philip, Shelley, Jeff.

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