Ask anyone who works at MASS Design Group about how they joined the Boston- and Kigali, Rwanda–based nonprofit design firm, and you’ll hear tales of discontent with the architectural establishment and searching for deeper purpose in design. Take junior associate Bethel Abate, who, sitting in MASS’s board room overlooking Boston Common, offers a politely devastating takedown of American architectural education. Abate, who grew up in Ethiopia and came to the U.S. to study architecture, says that “it was hard for me to translate what I was learning in school back to my culture or what I was used to.” She pursued a summer internship at MASS in 2015 after a professor at Virginia Tech showed her the firm’s work, and was so impressed by the mission of using design to enact positive social change, in Africa and elsewhere, that she joined full time after graduating.
Senior director Sierra Bainbridge got involved early in MASS’s history, doing landscape design on the firm’s first project, but breaks her no-nonsense demeanor to laugh at the notion that there was any formal arrangement for the pro bono work she did for MASS during her off-hours from James Corner Field Operations in New York. The agreement, she says, came together in “a very late-night conversation over dim sum.” Her interest was piqued because, she says, “Socially oriented work is what I always did at school.” Bainbridge felt so strongly about the mission of the fledgling firm that she left one of the most high-profile urban landscape projects in recent history: Two weeks after finishing construction administration on Phase I of the High Line for Field Operations, she went to Rwanda to see the MASS project for the first time. A month later she moved there to oversee construction.
Christian Benimana, MASS’s Rwanda programs director, spent his childhood in Rwanda drawing houses, and went abroad to study architecture at Shanghai’s Tongji University, in part because there was no avenue for studying architecture in his home country. While Benimana was abroad, MASS helped shape the country’s first program, the Faculty of Architecture and Environmental Design at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, which Bainbridge then chaired. Benimana returned home in May 2010 to teach there. Six months later, Bainbridge brought him on as a full-time staff member at MASS.
Restlessness toward the status quo may be a common sentiment among MASS’s current crop of 75 architects, designers, landscape architects, researchers, and engineers, but they are not pessimistic. Far from it, if the buzzy, purpose-filled vibe of the Boston office—a warren of light-filled, colorfully decorated rooms in a well-worn Beaux-Arts building—is any indication. The team that has come together over the years is fueled by the conviction that they’ve found a better way to do things, regardless of project type or location.
So it should come as no surprise that dissatisfaction with the architectural status quo was the very basis for the founding of the firm. In 2006, Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks were students at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, and united in their dismay at the industry’s focus at the time. “It was the heyday of formalism—everybody was running to the Middle East or China and building the most radical things we’ve ever seen,” says Ricks, now MASS’s chief operating officer. “There was very little conversation going on about the public interest and serving the majority of communities that don’t have access to design.” That didn’t sit well with the two. “I think most people get into architecture with the idea of improving people’s lives through the built environment,” Ricks says. “But architects got caught up in this new freedom, where you could build anything.”
A desire to change the prevailing order drives the MASS origin story, which has been told so often it’s nearly legend: After attending a lecture by Paul Farmer of Partners In Health (PIH), a global organization focused on providing healthcare for marginalized people, Murphy reached out and offered to help design a new rural hospital the nonprofit was developing in Butaro, Rwanda, since many such projects relied only on contractors and engineers. Farmer agreed, and out of that initial opportunity, in 2008, MASS was born.
Murphy, Ricks, and some like-minded cohorts researched the mission of Partners In Health and the needs of the community before sitting down to design. “The simple fact is, these facilities would be built anyway, without an architect, and without asking fundamental questions like, ‘Is design improving outcomes or is it making it more difficult to be successful?’ ” Ricks says. “We weren’t proposing new or radical ideas. We were just asking pretty basic questions to try and uncover different ways of doing things.”
The Butaro District Hospital, completed in 2011, was built with local labor, materials, and techniques. By using rotating shifts of part-time construction workers and craftspeople, the project engaged nearly 4,000 area residents during construction, injecting money into the community and fostering partnerships that still flourish. MASS continued its research after the building was complete, interviewing doctors and community members about what worked and what didn’t.
This approach, of engaging in immersive, context-driven research during the pre-design phase; relying upon local labor and building practices during construction; and following through with post-occupancy studies after completion—in essence interacting with projects long before and after many other firms do—has become the model for how MASS handles projects to this day. The approach also fits the firm’s rarely mentioned full name: MASS stands for Model of Architecture Serving Society. The acronym stuck instead, Ricks says, in part because early on they were self-conscious about sounding too self-aggrandizing, in light of the fact that “we hadn’t built anything yet.” Over time, though, the firm’s portfolio and influence has grown to match the full moniker.
Working with groups such as the Clinton Global Initiative in Africa and GHESKIO in Haiti, along with a host of governments and community organizations, the firm has now completed 23 projects, in a range of typologies such as schools, healthcare facilities, and cultural buildings—a remarkable number for a firm that only officially incorporated in 2010.
With its projects and partnerships, MASS has become an international leader in the rapidly expanding subdiscipline of public interest architecture. Murphy, now the firm’s executive director and a charismatic standard-bearer, gave a 2016 TED Talk that has been viewed online more than 1 million times. Ricks, a pragmatic intellectual powerhouse, was tapped in 2014 as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, an honor shared by the likes of Charlize Theron and Mark Zuckerberg. In the firm’s Boston lobby, a wall is lined with more than 40 framed magazine covers touting them and their work, including not just the design magazines one would expect, but also consumer titles such as Forbes. And as this issue of Architect went to press, MASS was named the winner of a 2017 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in Architecture Design.
Despite the accolades and rather meteoric rise, the firm’s core philosophy still holds true: “The question is: ‘Does architecture have an impact on people’s lives, and can we design to shape and improve people’s lives?’ ” Murphy says. After less than a decade, MASS has grown restless again, this time looking to expand its already considerable scale of operations, both in terms of project size and social impact.
How It Works
One thing that sets MASS apart is that it has won few projects through traditional competitions or RFPs. “The way that we get to projects is unique,” says David Saladik, MASS’s director of design. “Often it’s through a desire to support great partners or to work with specific individuals. We reach out and say, ‘How can we support you?’ and offer services to people who haven’t worked with architects and haven’t really thought about their needs. Helping them through early planning gets them to the point that an architecture project can start.”
MASS’s operating budget comes from a trifecta of sources, Ricks says: half from fees, a quarter from donations or philanthropy, and a quarter from grants. “The grants, as a generalization, support research, the fees cover the projects, and the philanthropy goes toward what we call our ‘catalytic’ projects, where we’re jump-starting, seeding, and subsidizing the process,” he explains. Every year, the staffs in Boston and Kigali each go on a retreat where the teams are given information about the firm’s budget and resources and then crowdsource ideas about potential initiatives for communities, building types, or issues of interest. The senior staff turns the ideas into organizational goals for the year and decides how to allocate funds. The firm reaches out to nonprofits and other groups in the of-interest sectors to see if design can help. The process gives agency to even the lowest-level staffers: “Everyone on the team really has a voice in how the office is run,” says Abate, the junior associate. “It’s not top-down.”
MASS teams up with many local architects of record, and it has a strong relationship with London-based John McAslan + Partners, a firm that also has a strong social bent. McAslan’s office invited MASS in 2014 to design a national archive for the records of the Rwandan genocide trials, and last year the firms collaborated on a competition entry for the U.K. Holocaust Memorial. MASS’s approach has left an impression. “There is a danger that young architects do philanthropic work as a stepping stone to other things,” says Hannah Lawson, John McAslan + Partners’ director of education and culture. “MASS goes so far beyond that. It gives every project the right to great architecture, and really questions what architecture can do, and it does that with responsibility, accountability, authenticity, and evidence-based solutions. That is a process that can travel the world over, regardless of culture, budget, or client. It’s a mature model for delivering extraordinary projects.”
MASS’s projects do help clients—facilitating better care at hospitals that treat everything from cancer to tuberculosis, for instance, and improving teaching and learning conditions at schools. But because the majority of the work has been located abroad in developing regions, the firm has faced its share of criticism. “There are certain questions we get about ‘Is our work a colonial act?’ ” Ricks says. “But we think it is actually about decolonizing the way things are built by fostering locally produced modes of design and construction—not just importing methods. We are coming to places that we are invited, and working deeply with those communities and finding local people to partner with.”
Making It Bigger and Bringing It Home
A major focus of the firm as it matures is increasing the size of its projects, in order to effect change on a larger scale. The strategy is bearing out already with projects like Redemption Pediatric Hospital in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia. After helping the country’s ministry of health develop healthcare design standards for post-Ebola recovery, a small project has morphed into a $15 million hospital implementing those standards, funded in part by money that MASS helped secure from the World Bank.
But the firm’s expansion plan isn’t just about square footage, it’s about continuing to push the profession to engage on a broader scale, and, according to Murphy, to get architects to realize their power to enact change. “We make decisions as designers that affect the sociopolitical and cultural makeup of a place, whether we want to or not,” he says. The hands-on approach that MASS has developed is relevant not only “to a rural context in Rwanda, but to communities here in the U.S.,” Murphy says, and the firm is making a concentrated effort to take on more work here and demonstrate the wide applicability of its methods.
One of the firm’s recent projects, the offices of Boston Healthcare for the Homeless Program, spurred the team to investigate how design can help combat a growing epidemic in the U.S.: opioid addiction. MASS is working with community groups looking at conditions along Boston’s “Methadone Mile,” and Patricia Gruits, MASS’s director of research, is leading a studio at the Rhode Island School of Design on the topic. Back at the office, the firm is sponsoring four research fellows from Boston Architectural College. The hope is that this contextual analysis can uncover solutions to create healthier, safer spaces in the region.
In Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Murphy’s hometown, a shuttered planning department and bankrupted city services have gutted support organizations in the downtown core. MASS worked with local group Family Services to develop conceptual designs for a center that would co-locate youth groups, healthcare nonprofits, and social services such as a Planned Parenthood, mental health services, and a homeless day shelter in order to share resources and minimize overhead. The project allowed MASS to deploy its model in a way that has citywide implications, but it also served as a helpful reminder, Murphy says. “What architects do well is bring a perspective that’s based on a range of outside experiences,” he says. “If we do that with sensitivity and empathy, then we can partner closely with those that have hung in there to try to change peoples’ lives, often with very limited resources. Inevitably they need to build something, and that’s when architects can provide a valuable service.”
Spreading the Word
For a firm that resists complacency, habitually challenging both its own practices and those of the architecture profession, it’s a mixed blessing that its mission is aligning with the zeitgeist. The discussion of how good design can be an arbiter for positive social change is louder now than ever before—especially with young people. “I definitely think there’s a paradigm shift happening: Students all over hope that architecture can effect significant social change,” Murphy says. “The risk is that we are at an apex of interest and the pendulum will now swing back to the autonomous argument of architecture—that we as a discipline will allow a 50-year cycle of ‘Does architecture affect lives, or is it an art form?’ That doesn’t get us anywhere, and, most importantly, it hurts young practitioners and paralyzes them from actually being able to practice.”
With that in mind, the firm is training the next generation of practitioners in East Africa in public-interest practice with an initiative called the African Design Centre. “We have had opportunities to test our model for creating impact with design, and we are formalizing how we pass that on to new architects and designers and support them as they use that model to create impactful projects in their own countries,” Benimana says. The two-year program embeds fellows in MASS’s Kigali office while they take on a design/build project. The experience will help them learn how to source funding, work with local groups and construction teams, and conduct post-occupancy research so that the approach to design can continually be refined. The first class of 11 fellows from eight African countries convened last September, and they will break ground on a primary school in June.
MASS’s leadership believes that transparently sharing their practices, mission, and processes—a rarity in a world where a firm’s secret sauce is often closely guarded—can only increase how design thinking can make an impact on the greater good worldwide. “That way,” Benimana says, “we are able to replicate solutions at a larger scale than just MASS alone can cover.”