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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Shelter for the Soul
by Betty Jo Tucker

When thinking of architects, I used to envision artists working on grand buildings for rich clients. After watching Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio, I’ve had to change that stereotype. This enlightening and inspiring documentary focuses on a radical educational design/build program and the man who co-founded it in poverty-stricken Haled County, Alabama. The late Samuel Mockbee was an artist, builder and educator dedicated to inspiring students to improve their community’s quality of life by putting compassion and ethical responsibilities at the heart of their designs.

Produced and directed with great care by Sam Wainwright Douglas, Citizen Architect takes us to a remote location in West Alabama where Auburn University architecture students live and work with their clients, who definitely are NOT rich. In fact, many of them don’t have indoor plumbing or even a home to live in. Scenes showing Jay Sanders, a Rural Studio instructor, and a group of students dealing with the challenge of constructing a house for the destitute Jimmie Lee Matthews -- called Music Man as a result of his obsession for soul music -- are absolutely fascinating. This colorful “client” comes across as more compelling than any character I’ve seen lately in a Hollywood blockbuster. Music Man is charismatic, amusing and optimistic, despite his hardships -- and it’s touching to see a special bond develop between him and the students.

While finding out what Music Man wants and needs, the students must rely primarily on donated and salvaged materials to keep the costs down and to make sure there’s negligible impact on the environment. When we see the almost-finished product, “a shelter for the soul,” it’s a joyful event indeed!

Both praise and criticism of the Rural Studio approach is offered in this fine documentary -- along with a section devoted to follow-up of program graduates and scenes with other architects who have founded similar programs.   

Can architects actually put social and environmental responsibility ahead of money and professional ambition? The thought-provoking and very watchable Citizen Architect makes us believe there’s hope for Samuel Mockbee’s dream to come true.

(PBS will air Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio in the Fall of 2010; not rated by MPAA.)

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