Can Groundbreaking Architecture Spur Social Change?

Courtesy MASS Design Group and Hank Willis Thomas Studio

One firm set out to do just that.

When Michael Murphy was in architecture school at Harvard in 2007, the highest-profile buildings were all swoops and strange shapes, loudly calling attention to themselves and their designers. Yet Murphy and some of his classmates believed that architecture had untapped social potential, that they could do more than apply novel forms to trophy museums and office buildings. They wanted to redesign the practice of architecture itself, shifting it from a professional service to an enterprise for the greater good. They began to think of a new kind of firm, one that could be, in Murphy’s words, “a participant in a broader agenda of social change.” 

But how to enact that idealism? The opportunity came from Paul Farmer, the Harvard Medical School professor and co-founder of Partners in Health, a global nonprofit. He was building a hospital in Rwanda, and considered its architecture to be a secondary concern. Murphy wanted to persuade him otherwise. “It was a profound realization that there’s this entire other world of people who build for meaning, and build for need, and build for purpose—but without the services of architects,” Murphy recalled recently. As the global economy began to collapse, shriveling the market for architecture, he and a handful of classmates—Ryan Leidner, Alda Ly, Alan Ricks, David Saladik, and Marika ShioiriClark—formed a nonprofit collaborative, the MASS Design Group, an acronym for Model of Architecture Serving Society. 


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When the Butaro District Hospital opened in 2011, it became a cause célèbre: an aesthetically astonishing building, in an unlikely place, by an unheard-of firm. Just as striking as the design was the sustainable way the hospital was constructed: using local materials and local workers, who were divided into six teams, to multiply the number of people employed and invested in the project. The finished product kept patients healthier through increased ventilation, with outdoor corridors and operable windows. And the process of its engineering and construction created a cadre of trained workers, ready for new projects in Rwanda. MASS had a notion that “justice is beauty,” and the hospital in Butaro had proved it. 

“Architecture can remind us of who we are and give us tools to choose a future we want to be a part of,” says Murphy, 39, sitting in MASS Design’s Boston office, which is decorated with Rwandan Imigongo art. Their Kigali office is now the largest full-service design firm in Rwanda, and one of the largest in Africa. Globally, the company has a staff of more than 110 and $150 million of projects under construction— more hospitals and universities and an educational campus for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (funded by Ellen DeGeneres). The goal of all their work is to advocate for justice and dignity. “Architectural decisions are never neutral,” Murphy says. “They help people, they hurt people, they influence the world.” 


Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

A few years ago, MASS began to think about how this idea might work in the United States. Murphy approached Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, which was working to memorialize the legacy of racial lynchings in the South. MASS Design began to collaborate with Stevenson on what was to become the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. The match of ambitions became clear. “To fight for their mission he was compelled to build a space of pilgrimage,” says Murphy. “That’s a really powerful statement about what MASS should do and can do—and not just, you know, build a slightly better, more beautiful and tasteful house.” The memorial, which opened in April 2018, has more than 800 CorTen steel slabs etched with the names of lynching victims and suspended from the ceiling. For its power and originality, it has been compared to Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. 

A second memorial is in the works. Collaborating with the artist Hank Willis Thomas (see page 128), MASS submitted a design to a contest organized by King Boston, a nonprofit working to preserve the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King’s time in Boston. Their winning entry consisted of a house-sized reflective bronze sculpture called The Embrace, to be installed on Boston Common. Loosely based on a photograph of Coretta holding Martin after he won the Nobel Peace Prize, it is meant to invoke the “radical commitment to the love of another, even in the face of great resistance and hatred.” In today’s Instagram age, it will inevitably inspire hugging selfies—but Willis Thomas is planning for the long term. “We have to presume that smartphones are going to go away and that there’s not going to be a need for us to take pictures and share that way,” Willis Thomas says. “I want to imagine that people really see beyond the surface, to think about the work and what it means on the timeline of generations.” 

For MASS, it is a part of the ongoing commitment to social justice. “We’re starting to reveal the histories that we’ve buried for a long time,” Murphy says. “To remind ourselves of how far we can fall in order to advocate for how far we can rise.”