MASS Design Group: “Architecture needs to be the locus of the reconstruction of community itself”

Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks talk about the monograph “Justice is Beauty”, the first by MASS Design Group, showing off their research and philosophy of an architecture of justice and dignity.

With the launch of their first monograph, ‘Justice is Beauty’, MASS Design Group reflects on ten years of practice and research. The journey begins with a group of architectural students in the United States who go to Rwanda to work on a hospital in rural Butaro. Their first building, with a brief evolved onsite, would become the model from which standards are derived for all district hospitals in Rwanda. Domus spoke to the authors, Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks, about the need for reimagining practice and their philosophy of an architecture of justice and dignity.

As a group of young architectural students at the time of the global recession of 2008, you were facing changing economic and societal conditions. What did you feel you were up against that led you to Butaro in Rwanda, where you would continue to work for the next ten years?
MM: When we were studying it was really the apex of the ‘starchitect’, when architecture was being lauded and replicated and spoken about in a certain way. When we started working in Rwanda, I don’t think we set out to start a practice or to criticise architecture, what we encountered was a desperate need and an existential demand for services. In trying to address that issue within one organisation, we unravelled a structural condition of our industry and of our world, that architecture is serving very few and yet there is increasing demand for architecture that serves a much larger portion of society.

Cover of Justice Is Beauty, MASS Design Group. Authors Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks. Foreword by Chelsea Clinton. Photography by Iwan Baan. Publisher The Monacelli Press

As students, you would have had a relative lack in experience, but this is portrayed in the book as a strength: that limited reliance on architectural precedent and that allowed you to look beyond the hospital typology. You describe this as a process of ‘unlearning’.
AR: Areas like healthcare are seen as domains that you can only participate in if you have depth of expertise, built up over decades in an evolution of western healthcare design. One has to question this evolution and how optimal this is for another place, time, and climate, and to look at what the next iteration could be, rather than to start from scratch.

Since ancient times architectural knowledge has circulated in conversation, with the role of the architect as a manager of the building project, working with artisans. In Butaro, you did not have a product catalogue but worked with a network of artisans, with knowledge retained and transmitted through local guilds. What did this form of practice bring? What has been lost in the arrangement of architectural work in corporate practice?
AR: I think there was something about the reduction of options that allowed us to weigh our decisions with circumspection, and what this opened up is sight of the full transparency of the process: where do materials come from, where are they extracted, how are they manufactured, how are they transported, who is assembling them, what is each decision along that entire supply chain, and how does one use those opportunities for greatest benefit?

MM: So there has been a long tradition of wrestling with this fetishicisation of our practice and of our ‘work’ in the Marxist sense. The end condition of hyper-optimisation has become a goal in itself, which is in some degree the way in which a neoliberal capital marketplace of architecture has forced us to consider scale as within optimisation and efficiency, whereas we might have found in Rwanda and other work that the role of the architect is in hyper-attention and attenuation of the narrative of the place. This has led us to enquire what the decisions of a hyper-localised place might teach us about the lack of attention to the built environment around the world.

We do have to change the way that we practice to reinsert the public benefit into the centre of our value proposition in our world, instead of the maximisation of profit or the maximisation of capital

One of the consequences of recognising the need for new modes of practice was that you needed to design your practice. What has the non-profit structure enabled you to do differently?
MM: The architectural business model itself is in a kind of moment of existential reconsideration. It is clearly not serving the vast amount of need that is out there for it, there is a lot of very poor design in our built environment, there are environmental and social implications of a lack of careful thinking in our built world, there are fewer and fewer architects that are being hired, as deficiencies in the systems of coordinated optimisation reduce the role of the architect increasingly. All of that is having residual effects on our built environment. And so we do have to change the way that we practice to reinsert the public benefit into the centre of our value proposition in our world, instead of the maximisation of profit or the maximisation of capital. That is where we might suggest that any practice reorient itself and we’re just suggesting one possible way to do that.

AR: One of the things that we are concerned about is the very small amount of R&D that happens within architecture, and why is that? Because there is no profit with which to subsidise that work, so it is really limited to academia where you are interrogating new typologies and technologies that are not making their way into practice because they are purely theoretical. So our work that we are able to fund philanthropically is a way to do that needed research to show the value architecture can create.

MASS Design Group, Gheskio Cholera Treatment Center. Photo Iwan Baan

The first architecture school in Rwanda was founded more-or-less at the time that MASS began working in the country. What changes have you witnessed with the growth of the architectural community in Rwanda and has this had broader impacts?
AR: I would expand it beyond architecture, in the last ten years there has been an incredible emergence of young, creative talent that is giving rise to whole new industries, not only in architecture but the arts, theatre, music, fashion, photography, film, and food, that is exponential and that is inspiring to see, and that I would say is largely driven by people under-25. Just in the last five years it is astounding to see what has emerged, become global – where you have artists, architects, filmmakers travelling around the world showcasing Rwandese work, and you have an increasingly international marketplace in the design sector as well, with international competitions from Asia, Europe, different parts of Africa and the US wanting to work in Rwanda. You have David Adjaye and Norman Foster working in Rwanda – that’s the concentration of opportunity that people see, that’s a fount of innovation, and where construction is going to be happening over the next 50 years.

This monograph is a reflection on ten years of projects, and also ten years of practicing in Rwanda. As a country, Rwanda is reflecting on 25 years of rebuilding. The narrative that is driving development in Rwanda’s major city, Kigali, of a clean, green, futuristic, and smart city, takes a very different approach to the way that your projects are conceived – has there ever been an instance where you have encountered these two visions as being in conflict?
AR: I think that building and the planet are necessarily in conflict. That is just inherent. It is basically impossible to leave a positive imprint on the climate and planet, so I think that within rapid development in Kigali or anywhere else, there is significant tension. It is easy to have this revelation of how much damage Western societies across the world have done, and then ascribe that onto now industrializing, rapidly developing countries – so I would be very reluctant to do that. I think that when you hear the government leading initiatives around principles of ‘one health’ and ecologically sensitive redevelopment, reforestation, trying to actually bring some of these policies into place far earlier in their development life than in the United States, I don’t think I would be in a position to be critical.

MASS Design Group, Ilima Conservation School. © MASS Design Group

In the conclusion of the book, there is an image of the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali and another of the King’s Hut in Rwanda. You use these to make the point that by revealing the vulnerability of architecture, its reliance on society is made explicit.
MM: The Great Mosque and King’s Hut reveal to us a way of building that is inextricably linked to the people that make it; in fact their entire construction and form are bounded by the process of making and remaking. The more that we optimise and make efficient the need for architecture, the more that we are pretending that architecture can live permanently, untouched for hundreds of years, that it’s fixed in time. Whereas the Great Mosque of Djenné in its very form, requires the annual ritualized reconstruction of it, and its beauty is not just in the form but in the resolution of that remudding. But it is also the collective act of rebuilding that reinforces community identity. Communities and their infrastructures are of necessity linked, and when we unlink them, when we say that you can get a plan from a book and it has nothing to do with the people that are there, we forget all of the deep historical knowledge that we’ve left behind, we forget the way that societies have been. Architecture needs to be the locus of the reconstruction and ritualisation of community itself.

What message have you for the next younger generation of architects looking to reshape the profession?
MM: The business model of architecture has to be constantly redefined and redesigned to challenge the way in which it’s operating. It is by definition our responsibility to serve the public good as an architect. I would say that nearly all the architects that I’ve ever met chose to go into architecture because they want to have a positive benefit: to affect the society around them, to be a part of the changing and evolving condition of the public realm. And I think that is a true intent and foundation of anyone that thinks about becoming an architect. And I think we need more models that harness that and deploy it into places, realms, and ways of working that are different to what we have now.

Justice is Beauty
Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks, MASS Design Group
Chelsea Clinton
Iwan Baan
The Monacelli Press

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