“What more can architecture do?”
It’s a question that has animated MASS Design Group’s celebrated architecture projects around the world, including a hospital in Rwanda built by local hands from local stone and a school in the Congo designed to also protect endangered wildlife. And it’s a question co-founder and CEO Michael Murphy answers in a TED Talk about MASS’s work released online this week.
“Buildings are not simply expressive sculptures,” he says. “They make visible our personal and our collective aspirations as a society. Great architecture can give us hope. Great architecture can heal.”
Healing is the theme of the talk, from that Rwandan hospital — where hallways are placed on the exterior to increase ventilation and decrease the risk that patients will pick up new diseases in stuffy waiting rooms — to a birthing center in Malawi intended to reduce high rates of maternal and infant mortality.
MASS follows a “local fabrication” methodology, what Murphy refers to in the talk as the local food movement for architecture. It has four pillars: hire locally, source regionally, train where you can, and most importantly, says Murphy, “think about every design decision as an opportunity to invest in the dignity of the places where you serve.” Instead of importing furniture for the Butaro Hospital in Rwanda, for example, one of MASS’s local partners began a guild to train people in furniture manufacturing. The project set a goal for half of construction workers to be women.
MASS’s newest project takes on collective healing from collective trauma. In his TED Talk, Murphy points out that Germany and South Africa have both built memorials that reflect on their past atrocities in attempt to find some peace in the national psyche. “We in the U.S. have yet to do this,” he says.
Now MASS is working with the Equal Justice Initiative to design the nation’s first memorial to the victims of lynching. Murphy calls that memorial, which should break ground later this year, “a place to finally speak of unspeakable acts.”
The design — in which columns that originally appear to form a classical pavilion actually turn out to be hanging from the ceiling — is innovative and haunting. But Murphy says good architecture is about more than embracing novel or sculptural forms.
“Why [is] it that the best architects, the greatest architecture, while beautiful and visionary and innovative, is also rare and seems to serve so very few?” he asks. “And more to the point, with all this creative talent, what more could we do?”
Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at jakinney.com.