Architectural projects are often a means to an end: they fulfill a need, provide shelter, create space. Beyond the blueprint, buildings have to speak, at least in part, to the people who use them; the job of the architect, then, is to communicate well. MASS Design Group, a nonprofit architecture firm, specializes in building environments for underserved populations. The designers’ new book Justice Is Beauty showcases the range of their international projects that have been completed since the firm’s founding in 2008. The monograph includes a forward from global health advocate Chelsea Clinton, and explores the ways in which a more equitable society is achieved through thoughtful–and intentional–design.
“We’ve come to believe that architecture is in the realm of human rights. Access to a well and purposefully designed environment is, in our minds, in the realm of rights,” says book coauthor and founding principal and chief executive officer at MASS, Michael Murphy. “We live 90% of our lives in planned buildings, we need access to housing and healthcare and public space, [and] the built environment is inevitably intertwined with who has access to public goods and a built environment that serves their needs.”
Embrace the community
An essential part of Mass Design Group’s approach is their integration of users’s needs into the design process. “I think we’re students of a long lineage of ideas around participation and community engagement,” says Alan Ricks, coauthor of the book and founding principal and chief design officer at MASS. “Working with organizations that are deeply committed to community-based care . . . this process of immersion is about being able to listen and hear what the users want out of the building and develop a shared vocabulary of what success looks like–and being able to use that to evaluate decision-making.”
The MASS Design team partnered with everyone from Partners In Health and the Rwanda Ministry of Health to build the Butaro District Hospital, a health center turned 150-bed hospital, featuring a unique structural design intended to reduce the risk of hospital-acquired infections (by placing most of the program on the building’s exterior). Roughly 3,500 local craftspeople were employed throughout the construction of the hospital, which is outfitted with an emergency room, intensive care units, and a pediatric ward. MASS also partnered with the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative to create the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which commemorates victims of lynching in the United States. “Our approach is one of discovery, to come in and learn about the resources that are available and talent in labor like architects and artisans . . . and use those rich resources as form generators that become the building,” Ricks says.
Forget a preconceived aesthetic
While most architectural projects are dictated by a pre-existing goal or prevailing aesthetic a firm may have, MASS lets its partnerships guide the design work. “We’re not really choosing locations, we’re going to places where we’ve been invited by usually a nonprofit organization that has a longstanding relationship in the area and the communities that they’re working with,” Ricks says. For example, MASS Design’s projects in Rwanda led them to set up an office there, permanently; now, the majority of its 80-plus person staff is native to the country.
Tell stories through architecture
For a firm so focused on designing spaces for justice, it’s crucial that the construction of their buildings goes beyond aesthetics, and actually champions equitable narratives through surprising, human elements. Earlier this year, MASS Design debuted a glass memorial to victims of gun violence at the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Through a network of donated items that belonged to the deceased, the team was able to write a narrative not of death but of lives lived. “It is constructed or completed when it’s full of objects that have been donated and contributed by people. I think [buildings] constructed by stories and narratives is a consistent theme across all of our work,” Murphy says of the glass memorial. “For us, we’re interested in the way each building and each block can tell a story, and a story of place. These people, these hands, this environment . . . When people come together and build something, we’re inspired by the history of architecture . . . from the mosques of Mali to Quaker communities, we build what we need and we build what we desire to feed our collective.”
Apply what you learn
The Boston-based architects have worked in places as far-flung as the Congo, where they developed the Ilima Primary School, built partially from custom shingles made of on-site timber, in tandem with the African Wildlife Foundation. But instead of exclusively pursuing international projects, where regulations might be more relaxed and innovative ideas can be easier to execute, the MASS team tries to apply lessons learned abroad to projects at home, stateside. “I think it’s because we just learn so much from people that are coming from different disciplines that engage with these projects in different ways in different places in the world,” Ricks says. “Coming from a U.S. context, we’re really burdened by how siloed architects have become in a [regulatory] environment. We’re working in places where there’s such a hunger for innovation, and we have people doing really exciting, disruptive work that teaches us what’s possible. And we can take that back to our own neighborhoods.”