Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks
It is a right for us to have something that improves our lives: housing that is sufficient, clinics and schools that are dignified and that work well. That is a right, not a luxury.
By Heidi Legg
This summer I heard about MASS Design from MaryAnn Thompson, one of our earliest interviewees who recently designed the newly opened, incredibly beautiful Pavilion at Walden Pond in Lincoln, Massachusetts. In the spirit of Thoreau, it is quiet, sustainable, and one with nature and not to be missed. Thompson told me that MASS Design was doing incredible things: building in impoverished and war-torn areas as well as here at home, using LoFab material, and a non-profit model encouraged by Paul Farmer of Partners in Health, committed to how the built environment impacts a community. Little did I know when I made that first request for an interview that I was going to sit down with a team of architects who are about to become a household name. I think we will be hearing a lot more from this collaborative design team who are committed to how we build and impact a community through architecture and use buildings to heal.
Sitting down with Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks is also a study in collaboration. TheEditorial.com has now interviewed 90 individuals who bring us emerging ideas and work that changes how we live. But we also value collaboration and the energy two or more people can bring to an effort. I asked Alan and Michael how they work together and stay in sync in a moment when the demand for MASS Designs’ work seems exponential. Walking into their very light and open space on a top floor of a traditional Beaux Arts building, a stone’s throw from the Public Garden, is like walking into a hive of ingenuity.
Your collaboration intrigued me. How did you come together to create MASS Design?
Michael: We sat across from each other as students at the Graduate School of Design (GSD) at Harvard and the experience of being in an architecture studio is sometimes described as being in a group that's climbing Mount Everest. It's quite immersive and intense. You get to know people quite well because you're living in the school, basically full time. When this first project came about to work with Partners In Health and Paul Farmer in Rwanda, Alan and I talked about it across the desk and said whatever we could do to make this happen, let's make it happen.
Other colleagues at the school were also eager to support the project and, in the early stages, we were a collective, volunteering and trying to figure out how to support an organization like Partners In Health. Over time, we grew into an organization where we really worked collaboratively on all these projects. Alan and I worked out an effective way to take on a multiplicity of tasks and build an architecture firm, but we also figured out how to grow a team and manage an organization. Those things we certainly didn't learn in architecture school.
Where did this idea of architecture and philanthropy begin? Are other architects doing this in other places?
Alan: I think we both came into it interested in seeing what societal role architecture could play in improving people's lives. We were both caught a little off guard at the disconnect between that ambition and what we saw in the status quo of focus on form, the biggest and most radical buildings being built, but really only serving the richest. That caused us to question what role architecture could play and it was meeting Paul Farmer and learning about other social justice organizations like Partners in Health that gave us the opportunity to think about architecture a little bit differently.
We saw that the infrastructure and design played a fundamental role in the ability for these organizations to provide services like health and education and yet there were really no architects helping support them. That was the beginning of a journey. When we volunteered to work in Rwanda with Partners in Health, we uncovered this huge opportunity for architecture to play more of an impactful role.
Did Paul Farmer have a mandate for this? Or did you simply start building and then the money arrived?
Alan: With the very first project, I think people believed that design could help but they weren't sure to what capacity. As volunteer architects, we spent 25,000 hours of donated time proving that design matters, that it can make an impact, it can be cost effective, and it can be beautiful and dignified all at the same time. It was a way to open new opportunities where maybe people would be willing to cover those costs.
We think most architects believe this, as well, but the current market doesn’t really afford the full scope of services that we believe in. This early phase is what we call "immersion" where we're really doing research, working hand in hand with our clients and the communities they serve to both understand the challenges they face but also uncover opportunities to leverage the process for impact. That's not really afforded in a typical model.
Once a building is done, we have to evaluate it. Did it succeed in delivering on those core goals, amplifying services, having a positive impact in the community, on the environment, on the economy? Nobody is really funding you to do that type of monitoring and evaluation in architecture. But as a nonprofit, we have been able to break the mold and we're able to find philanthropists and foundations that are willing to support that more expanded model that includes the upfront immersion and the post occupancy evaluation.
Collaboration is hard. You've expanded quickly. How do you manage to work together?
Alan: It was a conscious decision early on to call the organization MASS and not by our names, and I think it's because it really is a collaborative. Part of the way we've grown is not only by our peers joining us, but that doing this type of work has attracted people that have a wealth of knowledge and experience. We've developed a very global group who are bringing a range of experiences to help us, not only figure out how to build innovative projects, but how to build an innovative business model.
Michael: I would also say the notion that the architect is the auteur of our built world is something we are trying to disrupt. Architecture is a collaborative discipline. It takes teams of people to develop and build buildings especially large public projects and we see MASS as a platform. We see it as a collaborative effort where we want to attract the best and the brightest to work on the most impactful projects around the world, and that itself is a challenge to be able to get those funded. We have been humbled by the folks who have come to us and said, 'this is exactly what I want to do and can I commit my entire career to working on projects that are of high quality design and have incredible social impact on people's lives.”
How do you come together on a project and make it work when you hit points of tension?
Alan: I think it's a great question but it's not really only among us as the core designers, you have the entire project team, you have the client team, and a big part of what we have done is bring this early pre-design process where we establish a kind of vocabulary by which we evaluate decisions. Beyond thinking of what the mission of the project will be, we ask what is the impact? What is the behavior change we seek? What are the metrics we're going to use to evaluate that? And then when we have to make a decision, we come back to that matrix and that, more often than not, allows us to make a decision that everybody's bought into.
Michael: The process of design sometimes takes a long time to get to a place where you know it's the right answer and the entire team knows that you hit that note. It's so clear when we get to the design solution. There's very little argument to make and if we can get to that place, both with the team and for the partners that we're working with, it is a true service of architecture. The problem is that for organizations that are non-profits, that are working for poor communities, and that have very little resources, they very rarely have the opportunity to engage designers through the full process. That is a disservice in society that we're not serving the communities that most need this work.
Do foundations or communities come to you saying, 'we have a problem' or 'we need a building?'
Alan: Sometimes they do come to us saying 'we need a building,' and we encourage them to take a step back and to evaluate the process that they went through to get to that position. We ask them ‘is this going to be the most effective, most impactful, most efficient way to get to your ending?’
As we guide them through a participatory process, we know what we're trying to accomplish and can create a roadmap of what it's going to take to get there because many of our partners have never done this before. They haven't built a building before. They're not real estate developers. It’s important to evaluate that what they're going to build is going to be effective and sustainable.
You write: "Architecture is never neutral. It either heals or hurts." Would you describe the healing that your projects facilitate?
Alan: It's intended to be a provocative statement. It means not only the kind of physical building but also the process we’ve created. You have the building as artifact but you also have this huge investment of time and capital to get these projects built and we ask, what impact can that have? When we talk about healing, you can literally think of it as healing the body and a lot our projects focus on health care. In the United States, you're more likely to die from being in a hospital because of infection or medical error than you are from a car crash, breast cancer, or AIDS combined. Hospitals are scary places and we've seen even worse examples of that when they're poorly designed in places like South Africa. But we've also seen the reverse is true – that you can design to limit the risk of infection. You can create a view to nature, which can improve recovery times. You can create myriad ways of literally improving health.
And so we also talk about healing on a larger scale. How does it affect the community? Every design decision is an opportunity to affect the economic, educational, environmental, and emotional health of the community. It changes not only the way we design but the way we build.
Michael: I think for us the notion that architecture and the built environment shapes behavior is a truth. When we think about what behavior shapes, we are quickly shown the ways in which architecture has shaped behavior or people's lives in a negative way. Look at the prison. Look at the hospital. Look at public housing projects that have been poorly designed. Unintended consequences have come about where the building has played a role in hurting the inhabitants we are trying to help.
In the case of some prisons, we are really torturing people and making spaces where people are suffering. If that's the case, if that's the truth, then the opposite must be truth – that spaces can also heal, they can improve people's lives and, maybe, we can go further and actually do something that significantly improves or amplifies their life, improves it, affects change.
The question for us is what change are we seeking to achieve? And the notion of improving people's health is pretty clear, so we started to look at hospitals and we started to look at the public space and saw inequitable cities.
What's the focus? More light and air – are the tenets simple?
Michael: Architecture is so complex as it is that we have an ambition to simplify the building to its essential elements and ambitions. The material that we choose, the place that we choose to put the building, and the outcomes we seek to achieve all play a part. We work really hard to refine those into a clear mission statement for the building.
How did that work on the Rwanda hospital or the birthing center you designed and built in Malawi?
Alan: A core part of our philosophy is what we use Locally Fabricated (LoFab) materials and in contrast to "prefab". Prefab has become very popular today, but it's based on a labor and cost equation where you're trying to minimize the amount of labor on site. We often see that people want to import what may be appropriate here in Boston, but in the places we work, equitable costs of labor are much lower. Instead of trying to minimize the amount of labor, we want to maximize the amount of labor. As a result, in these communities there are jobs created that are not just flat packing and then using a helicopter to bring in materials that are then erected. Rather we see it as an opportunity to create new industries, new skills, new sustainable building materials that can be manufactured locally and be scalable and replicable.
What is LoFab to you and does it represent a movement?
Michael: For us, LoFab is an ethos of thinking about how we customize our built world for appropriate use and for optimal use, and it also suggests that we're not coming in with a pre-baked solution of what you need. There's an investment as designers into your humanity, into your community, into your culture that is going to drive the solution that we find. There's no principle that we reject solutions that are out there already – they might be appropriate – but it does suggest that architects do an incredible service when they come in and say, 'what is the maximum impact we can have for this project? What is the maximum investment that we can make into the communities we're serving? How do we make decisions on materials and labor and local culture that affect in the most positive direction the places in which we're investing and creating a piece of infrastructure?' That is a series of questions that I think have been forgotten in favor of cheap and fast prefabricated, off the shelf, pre-baked solutions, which universally don't serve anyone specifically.
Another way to think of it is like the Slow Food movement for architecture. Slowly over time, chefs and restaurants have invested in articulating the very farms from which the food is coming. The commitment to investing in local farmers and movement to high quality product and to healthy organic food has grown into an understanding in our world that we have to be cognizant of where our food is made. I think we need to do the same thing with our built environment. We have to think about where you're sourcing these bricks and where this wood has been harvested and who are the people that built them? We have to tie that back together in order for us all to make more ethical decisions about our built world.
What materials are you introducing to these projects you’re doing in Africa?
Alan: When we think about brick, most of what is perceived as modern is the kind of concrete block which is not a very sustainable material. So we explored other types of technologies like press stabilized earth bricks – basically dirt and sand and water that are pressed with a smaller amount of cement and they can be sourced locally. This way, you're not using wood in areas that are largely deforested, you're not creating emissions and you're not using cement, which is one of the most kind of environmentally hazardous materials. Beyond building our project, we're able to teach people the skills to build with these materials safely, often in areas that are prone to earthquakes.
How has your material knowledge improved from that first project in Rwanda?
Alan: We get a great deal with this immersion, living on site in these places. We bring some ideas to the table to work with local craftsmen and contractors to see what has worked for them historically and to prototype new things. In Rwanda, where we've been for almost ten years, we now have an extensive network of collaborators on each project, and we're trying to push things a little bit further. Today we're looking at the wood industry. How could we sustainably harvest wood that's not coming from outside the country? How could we use it and develop skills to dry it and use it in new ways? How can we build without having to import steel, for example?
Can you transport this learning to US cities or is it too idealistic given the costs of labor and expediency expected here?
Michael: I think it's already happening in America. I think many designers and contractors and builders want to be able to make more ethical decisions about their own communities. They want to be able to source material from the local hardware store, but they end up having to go to Home Depot. They want to be able to invest in the local businesses, to value this even if it's not the cheapest cost because it has a deeper social meaning if they can afford it. We're seeing that sustainable harvesting of materials should be a fundamental component of any building and I think there's a real understanding of that in the world. We just have to push people to go one step further and say it's not only the environmental footprint, it's the human handprint of our built environment that we have to think about in order to make a more sustainable, socially engaged, and ethical built world that we all live in.
How big is your team now?
Alan: We have about 75 people in total between our two principle offices in Boston and Kigali, Rwanda, and including our teams out in the field in the ten different countries, depending on what projects are under construction. The research team on any given day can ebb and flow between six and ten people.
Is there a public opinion you'd like to change?
Michael: I think the fundamental thing that we want the public, and that includes all of us, to embrace is that great architecture is not a luxury – it's a human right. For those who think about and design the built world for the communities they serve, architecture is a service that can fundamentally improve people's lives or hurt people's lives.
It is a right for us to have something that improves our lives: housing that is sufficient, clinics and schools that are dignified and that work well. That is a right, not a luxury. The biggest work we have to do is to remove architecture from the rarified, self-important version of itself into social good that everyone deserves.
What are you trying to create as a body of knowledge with the white papers you are writing?
Alan: We're trying to create a body of evidence that can point to the true value of what design can do. Ultimately the people that are creating these projects, whether it's the government or individuals or organizations, have the ability to power this process we’ve designed, to bake it into the request or the briefs for architects, and we want to be upstream. Speaking only to the architectural community would be speaking to the choir. They already believe in these principles. What we need is to shift the societal demand for what services architecture is providing and what is afforded to provide.
Would you give us an example of where your research is being adopted?
Alan: Rwanda is perhaps the clearest example for us. When we first started working there, architects weren't involved in designing hospitals. There wasn't even a word for 'architect,' and over the past decade we've worked closely with the government to actually create policy, to create standards that demand something better for all hospitals that are built there.
Michael: I've even seen a huge demand for the quantification of the value of architecture from other disciplines, especially in the medical community. There is increasing interest and investment in the social determinants of health. When you get into shelter as a social determinant of health, you're starting to get into the world of architecture and the spatial disciplines. Unfortunately, we have very little data. Very little research has gone into the ways in which space, very deliberately, very specifically, and very quantifiably, affects health. It’s going to take a generation of research to really find and to isolate the specific ways in which the built environment is shaping our everyday lives, our social behavior, our physical health, and our community behavior. We can all turn to points in our life where we've seen it. But the data doesn't exist and what we've seen is that there has a been a dearth in research away from the quantifiable, which is greatly diminishing our ability to articulate why it's valuable.
If a hospital were being built somewhere in the world today, how hopeful are you that your ideas will influence its design and construction?
Michael: Hospital design is its own conundrum. It is one of the most challenging built forms to develop and to build because hospitals are always under construction. They're built and then they're rebuilt and they're added to, and they're amended because hospitals are one of those building types that directly respond to the services that are provided within it. Every time health care changes, hospitals change. They have to be a very adjustable building type. Yet if it's overly flexible, it doesn't serve the specific needs of those people at that period of time, and so designing hospitals is very complex and challenging.
What has been lost is they've been overly engineered and the humanity of the buildings has been removed. You go into some of the best hospitals in the world, be it China, be it the US, be it Europe – and you wonder where is the humanity? Where is the integrity and beauty and the solace of these places where people come every day to bring life into the world and to die and to lose family members. These incredibly dramatic and intense pivotal moments of people's lives are happening every single day in hospitals, and I've been struck by how little design is actually in there at all.
In existing big cities, this type of change feels colossal, whereas in Haiti/Africa you have space and less expensive labor. How do you bring this thinking in how we design and build to the developed world?
Michael: It's a huge challenge. We spend 90% of our lives in buildings. These are integral to our daily lives and to start to imagine them as participating in our daily health as individuals is an exciting and overwhelming challenge.
I think we, as an organization, hope to have an impact in making a call for an increase in research, an increase in measurable outcomes to show the behavioral science of architecture. And if that data then informs the buildings that we're able to build, our hope is that those buildings act as examples through which we can rethink our cities and rethink our built environments. We don't expect ourselves to change a city, itself, but we do hope the movement of both students and practitioners towards a more socially just and valuable architectural discipline will change the future of cities. That's very much what we're interested in in investing in our African Design Center. These students will be designing cities. They will have great responsibility and to arm them with data and with deeper questions about proof and value and impact and justice, we hope will have a massive impact on the kind of built environment of the future.
What is the African Design Center? Is this a way to share your ideas of architecture with the world or do fill a need?
Michael: The African Design Center Project is doing both of those things certainly. There is a dearth of professional designers working on the continent right now - something like 25,000 licensed architects and planners in all of Africa compared with 125,000 in Italy, alone. There's a giant need to invest in academic programs which train high quality designers and architects and planners on the continent, period. Or else all of the projects are going to be happening from outsiders.
The second thing we are facing is the largest building boom we will see in the next 50 years. The population increase on the continent of Africa is projected to be over a billion people by 2066, which means cities that we haven't even imagined will be popping up. Millions of housing units will have to be built. Hundreds of thousands of clinics and schools and basic primary infrastructure are going to be taking place on the continent over the next couple of decades with very little locally based input in many of these places. That's a huge problem. That's a problem not only for having a kind of sensitivity to the way these places can be and should be built, but it's also a problem for the kind of thoughtfulness that needs to go into the future of design based around climate change, based around public health issues that we see in our cities, based around material sourcing with depleted resources.
This is really the future of architecture. It has an impact on the places we live and it's going to be based on a depletion of resources, a need for more high skilled and available labor. The African landscape of the built environment is the final frontier of where we might see the most innovative, the most sustainable, the most highly impactful, the most socially just building types, and we believe it will be the place where we're all focused on learning from in the future.
Given your thinking, what do you see as a solution around the crisis with camps full of refugees. Do you have any ideas?
Alan: It's obviously a hugely pressing issue and I think space and the built environment does play a role. In so far as MASS has really focused on long term investments in infrastructure and as we have increasingly seen that these refugee camps become more permanent pieces of infrastructure, we have wondered what role we could play. It's a topic we've discussed with our team in Boston and then when we brought it up in Rwanda, I think it revealed an opportunity as some of our colleagues grew up in refugee camps during the genocide and have a unique perspective. They also would like to think about how we intervene in these types of places. We'll likely start to work with organizations working with those communities in the border areas of Rwanda and to try and uncover how we can effect change. Hopefully that would illustrate some lessons that might be more globally applicable.
Michael: It is certainly one of the great spatial challenges of our era and of our generation and it reveals, again, a fundamental misconception about architecture and between the temporary and the permanent. As Alan points out, it’s not enough to build tents with people living in camps for ten years or fifteen years.
Add to that that these people are traumatized…
Michael: Correct. The design of the 'temporary' must allow for what we might call the medium term. Even if we can't invest in the long term, we can start to think about infrastructure that is on a twenty-year life span. That's still pretty permanent infrastructure and it forces us as architects, but also as a public, to rethink what we expect buildings to do and how long they should survive. It makes it a little less precious.
If we can think about great buildings that survive for ten years or twenty years, serve their purpose and then, as one of our friends talks about, melt back into the earth when their use is no longer needed – that's a different building than a temporary tent but not the same as a 200-year-old cathedral. There's somewhere in between. That is architecture of the middle period, of the middle term, which I think we as a discipline have yet to fully understand how to build. The design minds would add great value to this giant challenge we're all facing around the world.
What were you like in high school? Was becoming an architect obvious?
Michael: I was very annoying in high school and my pathway to being an architect is circuitous and fraught. I had no idea that I was inspired by architecture until I went to college. When I reflect back on what moments really inspired me as a student in high school, I grew up in an amazing community called Poughkeepsie, New York and it was a very poor community. The public city high school that I went to was fraught with issues of poverty and racial injustice and immigrants and I saw firsthand as a freshman the injustice around our nation.
I think questions of justice have always triggered a response from me but I didn't know how we could activate that through work that I could do until I found the built environment as something that was both incredibly inspiring and dignified and also incredibly unjust. I then saw architecture as a pathway where I participate and as something that I could do as an individual to have impact.
Alan: It's interesting to hear that story from Michael because I think it is a shared experience. We both grew up in urban, poor, really diverse public school systems and I think I didn't fully appreciate the value of that diversity until I went to college and graduate school, which was a much more segregated place. I think it has made me increasingly value that high school experience but also look at the world through that lens of lack of access to opportunity. I think it's through this work that we feel a renewed connection to be able to play a role in supporting issues of diversity and justice and social value.
Art and design has always been a part of my life. My mother was an artist. I did graphic design and other type of art and majored in photography in college and I was always attracted to creative process. The opportunity that architecture provided was to translate that into a way of looking at the world and a way of problem solving that could have a larger impact. I didn't exactly know where I was headed, but I think ultimately that's the kind of genesis.
Are there projects the team is very excited about?
Michael: We've been fortunate to be pulled into a number of very exciting projects. Here in Boston, we're working with Nuestra Communidad and Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), two amazing organizations that are committed to affordable housing and we're working with them on a new incredible affordable housing project in Mattapan, right near Mattapan Square. We hope this to be a real exemplar for a socially just and LoFab way of building for affordable housing.
Will that be your first project in Boston?
Michael: It will be our first “new built” project in Boston. We had been working with Boston Healthcare for the Homeless in helping them fit out their interior space over near Boston Medical Center and it will be LoFab and community built.
We're also recently working on an amazing project with mural arts in Philadelphia and the artist Hank Willis Thomas on an installation where we showcase the writings that prisoners all over the world have written to bring voice to the voiceless. This installation will travel around Pennsylvania to bring attention to the incarcerated, and we're very excited about it as a series of projects around the question of justice.
We're also very excited about working with the Ministry of Health of Liberia where we've been working closely with them on their new national hospital after Ebola. There are virtually no hospitals that are designed with infection control principles that would help stem Ebola transmission.
Where do you go to refuel and relax?
Michael: I shouldn't say the departure lounge at Logan, should I? We've had the good fortune of being able to travel so much. To be honest, I love being in New England and I've particularly fallen in love with the region when I started being able to travel up to Maine with my girlfriend and her family. It is amazing to be there and to be by the coast. That’s the great luxury of living here: Maine and New Hampshire, Vermont, going out to the Berkshires. Having the ability to really see all of New England has been wonderful and a big change in my life – to actually be able to have a weekend and also use it to go somewhere. I also go to the Charles River to sit and to run. I think that's a really amazing asset in this city.
Alan: I have been able to go to amazing places with this work, the city of Port-au-Prince for example, and in all of them, no matter how intense, it is still gratifying for me to experience these other places. Here in Boston, probably my roof deck. It took four years to get built… toughest project I've ever undertaken. It’s relaxing to finally get up there and watch the sun set and have friends come over to enjoy the Boston skyline.
Michael: Probably The Gallows Restaurant on the South End (Alan agrees) and I think one reason for that is when we started our office, it was in the South End. We were stuffing twenty people into an artist loft in one of these old factory buildings and we didn't have enough space for everyone to gather, so we would end up at the Gallows for poutine and beers most Fridays. I really came to love the staff there and the space. I find myself there quite a bit.