Today MASS has worked in over a dozen countries on projects ranging from schools to community centers to the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, memorializing African American victims of lynching. It supported the launch of the African Design Center in Rwanda and its leaders have fostered public awareness of the way architecture can heal via lectures and talks.
MASS works primarily in resource-limited settings and begins each project with an immersive research period that identifies the broader needs of the community that each client or partner organization serves. This ensures that the buildings MASS designs aren’t just beautiful and functional, but also that they “amplify” the needs of the community and the mission of the client (often an NGO).
MASS has always been an outspoken advocate for the role of architecture in addressing development issues. Its first project, the Butaro Hospital in Rwanda, began when MASS co-founders Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks met Partners in Health executive director Paul Farmer. Until that meeting, Farmer had not considered architects as necessary or relevant to development work. He invited the MASS team to Rwanda where they observed existing facilities, noting how poor design promoted rather than impeded disease transmission. Farmer commissioned MASS to design the hospital, and they consulted with local healthcare workers, Partners in Health, and the Harvard Medical School faculty to ensure that their design layout optimized patient and staff flow and implemented standard infection-control strategies. The resulting Butaro Hospital opened in 2011, and MASS continues to develop the site, adding a housing complex for doctors and a training center among other buildings. MASS has also consulted with the Rwandan government to improve current regulations for health care structures.
In Haiti, MASS worked with the NGO GHESKIO to use the research it compiled during the Butaro project to rebuild a dedicated TB clinic that was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake as well as a cholera treatment center in downtown Port au Prince. Cholera is spread through contaminated water, so the center included an innovative water treatment component, enabling healthcare workers to bring clean, potable water to the community.
MASS Design uses a sustainable nonprofit business model. By fundraising to cover costs, MASS has found a way to provide services outside of a traditional design practice, such as job training and research, while also helping small NGOs to afford high-quality design.
MASS Design also works to ensure that architectural insight becomes more commonplace in the aid world. At the international level, MASS has collaborated with the World Health Organization and USAID to create an online assessment tool and database to assist architects and health-care professionals working in high-risk areas. And in Rwanda, MASS has partnered with the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology to aid them in creating the country’s first professional school of architecture.
MASS Design’s core belief is that architecture is not neutral. It can either help or hurt. Its values stretch far beyond walls of buildings and into the communities it serves. To acknowledge that architecture has this kind of agency and power is to acknowledge that buildings, and the industry that erects them, are as accountable for social injustices as they are critical levers to improve the communities they serve.