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    Black Warrior Architecture
by Audrey Walen
Model of the Butterfly House
Butterfly House
Photo by Tim Hursley
Alberta's Ascension
Samuel (Sambo) Mockbee, "The Architecture of the Black Warrior River," Sept. 9-Oct. 21, 2000, at Max Protetch Gallery, 511 West 22nd Street, New York, N.Y. 10011.

Bound and tied deep in the Heart of Dixie
Hands tied by a Master Knot of Fate
Floating among the graves of the abused
Drifting among the dreams of the neglected
He passes through a Butterfly's Psyche
Walking on water to our rescue, happiness and good fate
The Black Warrior drifts, his ancient liquid light
Flowing toward (you and) the Unknown.

These words are inscribed on Samuel Mockbee's painting, The Black Warrior Drifts (1996). Images of the Black Warrior, a turtle, roosters, doves, a strange figure made from the form of a hand -- all of these recur in paintings by Samuel Mockbee, which are currently on view alongside drawings, photographs and models for his architectural projects at Max Protetch Gallery in West Chelsea.

Mockbee, a recipient of a 2000 MacArthur "genius" fellowship in architecture, helped found something called the Rural Studio at Auburn (Ala.) University's college of architecture. The Rural Studio builds housing for the desperately poor residents of Hale County, Ala., many of whom are descended from slaves and sharecroppers. Mockbee's oddly deconstructivist structures, which can feature steep roofs and asymmetrical proportions, are in fact based on the "vernacular" building methods of the region.

The 1990 census reported that one third of the people in Hale County live in extreme poverty, with a median household income of only $14,508. The Black Warrior River region suffers from the worst of this deprivation; most residents have never had running water. Life near the Black Warrior River has not really changed since James Agee and Walker Evans documented it in their book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1936).

Despite the privation of this isolated rural region (or perhaps because of it), the local people have a quite justified sense of pride in their folklore, culture and sense of place. Many families have been there for 150 years or more. As an architect, Mockbee is searching for a certain morality in his work, and this ethical code is clearly indicated in the flow of artwork to architecture and back. "We try to build something with spirit," Mockbee wrote in 1995. "I tell my students it's got to be warm, dry and noble."

The Rural Studio builds such projects as the Butterfly House to replace the ramshackle shotgun cottages. Mockbee's new buildings are made on the smallest of budgets, using scavenged and recycled materials whenever possible. Butterfly House features a high pitched roof that aids natural ventilation -- a necessity in the hot sticky climate of southwest Alabama -- with a channel to collect rainwater that is then recycled for toilet flushing and clothes washing.

In the gallery, the model for Butterfly House is displayed on a rough-hewn plinth, a clue that this is not your average architectural show. A photograph nearby, apparently an interior shot of a poor Southern family's living room, in fact shows the interior of the actual Butterfly House, which is now the home of Shep and Alberta.

Alberta herself makes an appearance in Mockbee's painting in Alberta's Ascension (1999), where she is resplendent, seated on her wheelchair as if on a throne. The wheelchair rides on the back of a turtle, as the world rides on the back of a tortoise in the ancient Eastern myths. Alberta holds the hand of an ascending angel.

AUDREY WALEN is a book editor in New York.