Conversation: MASS Design Group

“Architecture, if done well, can produce value in things.  It can transform a basic product into something that is then valued at a higher rate. We thought of it as a kind of engine.” Michael Murphy, MASS Design Group

Today I met with Michael Murphy, founding partner of MASS Design Group and 2007 Hart Howerton Fellow.  The opportunity for the firm’s first project, Butaro Hospital, grew out of Michael’s research in Rwanda that began with the fellowship.   Michael recently completed his Master in Architecture program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.  MASS Design Group believes that ‘humanitarian architecture’ is architecture, and that the social and political are integral, not optional, aspects of design. 

One of MASS Design Group's renderings of proposal for PS1 courtyard installation

Q: How did the ideas of MASS Design Group translate to an academic thesis at the GSD?
A:  The underlying question of the thesis was:  what is the hybridization of architecture called “social architecture?” It traced the ontological discussion about the theory of architecture, but through the lens of those people who question the political.  There were several key players who have been thinking about this question for some time.  The idea was to understand social issues, and the social agenda, through that lens.  The thesis was a paper based theoretical one.  Had it been a design thesis, it might have manifested as something like MASS Design Group’s entry for the MoMA PS1 Young Architects Competition.

Q:  MASS Design Group’s entry for the MoMA PS1 competition was chosen as one of five finalists.  What was the concept behind the proposal?
A: One fundamental question was, how do you add value through architecture? MASS was able to achieve this in Rwanda, but mapping that concept onto Queens presents new questions. There are key differences between a post-industrial and pre-industrial economy, and the value-add should to be thought of in different terms. One way of doing this is through the material choices; for PS1 the entire project wasto be recyclable.  This included 55,000 bottles that would be suspended to create a canopy, and later reformed into chair.  All of the other elements were recyclable as well.  The chairs could later be sold (with profits going to local area non-profit organizations). It is rethinking what it means to recycle; it is not just reusing but actually adding value. Architecture, if done well, can produce value in things.  It can transform a basic product into something that is then valued at a higher rate. Something as impermanent the PS1 courtyard installation can have a more permanent impact.

Q: The winning entry, from Interboro Partners, also addressed how the materials purchased for the installation could later be repurposed and benefit the community.  Was there a design brief from MoMA that suggested this kind of thinking?
A: There was no explicit prompt, but the fact that they were both chosen shows that MoMA recognizes the contemporary shift in architecture. It is a new questioning about our relevance and our value-add.  What is our ethical commitment? What is our social responsibility? What are the implications of our design decisions for a community?

The design proposal is shown in this animation:

Q: Is the concept of social architecture being explored in the academic world?
A: They are having more conversations about it within institutions, but perhaps still having the wrong conversation. It is still seen as an option.  Oftentimes, people talk about social architecture as if it was a trend, a hyphenated form away from capital A, typical, or this rarified art form we call “architecture.”

Q: In projects abroad, how did you incorporate local building practices, spatial ideas, and materials?
A: One compliment MASS received for Butaro Hospital was that is looked very vernacular, while at the same time very modern. The goal is to create a sensible, responsive design that is also contemporary. There are, of course, issues with being overly sensitive to vernacular, because it is not just about the form, but more about contextual responsibility.
When resources are scarce, sometimes it is cheaper to import than to use local materials. For example, concrete from China is often cheaper than local building materials.  So that material becomes the building material of the poor. The poor housing in Rwanda looks similar to the poor housing in Haiti. It isn’t necessarily the right answer, or what people want, but it is what they have. To change that is an imperative political act of the architect.  There is also the question of what the local builders are familiar with. There is a law in Rwanda saying all buildings made of mud must be demolished and rebuilt in concrete. Architects can show how better construction techniques using mud could be beneficial.
In Rwanda, we were able to incorporate some very locally sourced volcanic rocks, which turned out beautifully. We worked with the local masons to train them on construction of a new wall type. In our project now in Haiti, we are looking at incorporating more local materials.

Q: What does MASS stand for?
A: It stands for a “Model of Architecture Serving Society.”


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