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MASS Design Group Proves Architecture Is a Catalyst for Social and Environmental Healing

June 8, 2021

Boston-based MASS Design Group demonstrates the power of architecture to be a positive force for social justice and healthier, more sustainable communities.

Architecture is never neutral. It either heals or hurts.

This assertion is more than conceptual for Boston, Massachusetts-based MASS Design Group—it’s an intrinsic value that guides the firm’s leadership and design teams in daily practice. It challenges assumptions about architecture’s detachment from the people and the places it is intended to serve.

One of the key beliefs held at MASS is that architecture has the power to heal and that all spaces shape behavior in both subtle and unsubtle ways. 

“We think of architecture as a mechanism that projects its values far beyond a building’s walls and into people’s lives and communities,” said Michael Murphy, founding principal and executive director of MASS Design Group. “To acknowledge that architecture has this kind of agency and power is to acknowledge that buildings, and the industry that erects them, are as accountable for social injustices as they are critical levers to improve the communities they serve.”

To become an uncompromising model of service, Murphy says architects need to question the building system at every stage and then pilot new methodologies to orient it towards its most useful and productive social and environmental outcome. “This includes the design of our practice, which remains our first, largest and longest-running project,” he noted. 

‘A New Social Awakening’

While the non-profit firm has been on mission to advocate for communities through its architectural practice since 2008 when it was founded by Murphy and co-founder and chief creative officer, Alan Ricks, its transformative work could not be timelier. Endemic issues like gun violence, systemic racism and inequitable communities continue to tear at the fabric of our society.

Yet, a tipping point is approaching, Murphy observed, and MASS is doing its part to ensure architecture pushes us past the fulcrum point toward justice and equity.

“Our nation is in the middle of a new social awakening,” Murphy said. “History is often written by the winners and when that history is challenged, it can cause physical and emotional fissures,” as evidenced by the widespread and recurring protests to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others.   

Jha D Williams, design associate at MASS, noted there is a responsibility in the built environment to constantly challenge whose narratives are being shared, whose stories are being told in the public realm and how architects can expand on what historically has taken place. 

“It goes without saying that our team was very much inspired by the work that we were able to do for the National Memorial for Peace and Justice [in Montgomery, Alabama] with the Equal Justice Initiative and Bryan Stevenson, and really understanding how important it was to tell that larger story of racial terror and racial injustice related to lynching in this country,” she said. “And being able to see the impact of a project like that really fortifies for us the importance of the work that we’re currently doing.”

MASS Senior Architect Jonathan Evans believes social justice is intrinsic to the firm’s mission. “It really gets to the core of our firm as an organization—the idea of, how do we convey and demonstrate architecture’s agency to actually be a positive catalyst in the built environment?” he said. “[It’s] the idea that architecture, we often say, isn’t neutral; the idea that we—in terms of what we choose to design and how we should design it—have the ability to choose which stories get amplified and can actually be a catalyst for change.”

Murphy rejects the notion that MASS is “a social architecture firm,” however, a label that assumes it can exist outside of a social and political context—“that architecture either has an autonomous form or a social purpose. This is a false dichotomy,” he said. 

Rather, he describes the firm as a research and training lab where the team uncovers and evaluates new best-practice methods, and trains architects and designers to grow the next generation of builders in the regions in which they work. “We believe that the best results occur when a project is built with purpose—grounded in a clear and strategic mission that informs design decisions, with a scope that matches what its organization can afford to build, operate and maintain,” he said.

Following are just a few notable examples of MASS Design Group’s extensive work and the stories behind them.

Gun Violence Memorial Project

MASS Design Group’s efforts to help heal communities is perhaps most conspicuously expressed in the work it continues to do in designing national memorials and monuments across the country. The Gun Violence Memorial Project (GVMP) is a perfect example.

There have been 147 mass shootings in 2021, according to the Gun Violence Archive, and nearly 20,000 Americans died from gun violence in 2020, more than any year in two decades, according to the Washington Post. With the GVMP project, Williams said the design team faced the daunting task of humanizing volumes of statistics rattled off by the media and bringing them down to a more intimate, empathetic scale. 

“Immediately, the design team was faced with this challenge of representing both the intimate and the infinite,” she recalled.

The GVMP consists of four houses, each built with 700 glass bricks—a reference to the number of people in the U.S. killed by guns each week. Over time, the bricks will continue to be filled with remembrance objects donated by immediate family members of loved ones taken by gun violence. The houses currently hold hundreds of artifacts that reveal the personal narratives of each victim. 

Williams explained there were several reasons why the design team opted for glass houses as the memorial’s architectural language. First, the house is a familiar form that is inviting, but secondly, it communicates a layer of domesticity to the epidemic of gun violence. More importantly, the transparency of glass allows visitors to see not only the artifacts that have been contributed, but also, the reflections of themselves in the glass.

“It was very important for us to create a memorial that went beyond a listing of names, went beyond a static, engraved monument and instead was something that really actively required the participation of those who have been impacted by gun violence,” Williams said. “The memorial does not exist necessarily without the contributions of these family members. And so, being able to work very closely with organizations across the country to spread the word about the opportunity to contribute an object is actually how we’re memorializing these loved ones.”

The GVMP is part of the Justice is Beauty exhibition on display at the National Building Museum through September 2022. It was developed by MASS in partnership with conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas; gun violence prevention organizations Purpose Over Pain and Everytown for Gun Safety; and other nonprofits, survivor networks and community allies.

King Boston Memorial

Another landmark memorial project underway in Boston honors the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King. King Boston, a non-profit organization working with the city to celebrate and advance the work and life of the Kings, put on a design competition for a new memorial to be erected in Boston Common to honor their legacy. 

MASS collaborated with Thomas once again to conceive the winning design titled, The Embrace, which was inspired by an iconic image of the Kings enfolding one another as they walked arm-in-arm during a civil rights  march. The 22-foot-high bronze monument is an abstraction of the photograph that conveys the powerful message that love is the ultimate weapon against injustice. 

“One of the things that’s exciting is that King Boston does not see their work as being just a memorial, and I think that’s definitely in concert with how we approach the idea of memorial work in that it is not just about creating a sculpture, but it’s really about, how did that sculpture become part of a larger narrative around action and actually getting people to feel something [in order] to do something?” Evans said.

“It is about bringing the story of the Kings to the front door of Boston, which is at Boston Common, but also having an impact directly in the communities that Martin and Coretta were advocating for and creating that tangible link from the communities to the Common as part of this project,” he added.

The landscape around the memorial will remind visitors of the power of collective action, according to a design statement by MASS. The 1965 Freedom Rally Memorial Plaza is accessed by peace walks that pay tribute to Boston activists for civil rights  who supported the Rally, inviting people to continue marching together against social injustice. Sitting along a historic desire line in the Common, the design responds to the State House, Black Heritage Trail and Parkman Bandstand. 

The Embrace will sit in the center of the circular plaza displaying a star quilt pattern that spreads throughout the site, symbolizing unity and collectivism.

Family Health Center on Virginia

MASS has spent the last decade working with government ministries of health and nonprofit organizations, trying to expand access to high-quality care by leveraging the built environment and design. Its work with Family Health Center on Virginia in McKinney, Texas, was a natural transition from that global experience. The area around East McKinney, located about 30 miles north of Dallas, has grown quickly over the past 20 years; however, much of that development has been in the western part of the city, while health and income disparities amongst the rest of the community have deepened.

Through an immersive research and design process, MASS hoped to diverge from histories of inequity in healthcare access by leveraging collaboration and careful listening. 

[Related: Improving Native American Healthcare Through Design]

“We talked to patients, providers, community groups to outline what needs the clinic could serve and visited Community Health Care Center’s facilities in Wichita to meet with staff and understand their operations, what was working and what they hoped to improve in the new clinic,” Murphy recalled.  

“What came out of those conversations was the understanding that people were looking for a space that is familiar and welcoming," he continued. "Our goal was to be embedded into the community, to create a design that felt more like a home than a clinic, and to exceed expectations of what a community health center can look and feel like."

The Family Health Center’s design incorporates distinct buildings for different health services, allowing visitors to experience the services individually, while remaining united through shared social spaces inside and out. It reflects a core tenet of MASS’s work: that a built environment can improve health when done well. 

“Until this past year, people weren’t thinking about their health being impacted by architecture, but it’s central to what we hoped to accomplish with this project, by building on the links between health, connectivity and sustainability,” Murphy said.

Poughkeepsie, New York

Murphy’s hometown of Poughkeepsie is one of many industrial cities across the U.S. that have been forgotten, with infrastructure falling into disrepair, little to no capital investments made in decades and populations on the decline as a result. MASS has adopted Poughkeepsie as not only a design project, but also a research and advocacy endeavor that brings the building process closer to the end user. 

The firm’s approach is driven in response to observing some of the detrimental effects of top-down urban planning initiatives like urban renewal and their lack of sensitivity to the idiosyncrasy of place and individual values, according to Justin Brown, design principal at MASS.

“We approach our work here as a kind of testing ground for a philosophy of practice that could be deployed, not just by us, but by many to transform all of the liabilities that presently exist—infrastructural liabilities for which the cities are not receiving tax revenue, infrastructure that’s literally crumbling and collapsing—how we can, from an environmental perspective, get those things online again before we start building new things in major urban centers,” Brown said. 

Chris Kroner, principal at MASS, noted that the way architects need to work in these blighted communities that are in crisis is different. “If we’re upstairs working away from the community that we serve, it’s all isolated thinking,” he said.

Murphy added that “getting proximate is necessary to understand the unique constraints and opportunities, uncover questions we didn’t know need to ask, build relationships and develop a shared vision for how design can achieve the project mission.”

As such, MASS opened a studio in Poughkeepsie in early 2017 in a century-old building formerly occupied by a cosmetology school that it rehabilitated with the help of a local developer. Occupying the front corner of the building with glass on both sides, the design team put itself out in the open as a means of initiating dialogue with the community. 

“We’ve actually taken this front space […] and we've reserved that as a community gallery space, which we use as a means to showcase ideas and projects,” Kroner said, adding that it is a way to threshold idea-making for those who have them. 

In the process, he said the firm realized the best ideas to improve the city already exist—they aren’t new because its citizens have been thinking about them for a long time. “What we offer might be a series of tools or maybe a polyvalent strategy of tools to get those ideas brought into a vision,” Kroner explained. 

Since 2017, MASS has become involved in a series of projects sprinkled throughout the City of Poughkeepsie by working with city officials, schools and grassroots organizations to create an understanding of projects and need from every facet of the firm’s work.

One of many examples in Poughkeepsie is Maple Street Housing, a workforce housing project organized around a new north-south public pedestrian street that seeks to reconnect downtown Poughkeepsie to the larger city. Pocket parks that extend from the street are accessible to residents and the larger neighborhood alike, promoting greater safety and community. The site is adjacent to the 1757 Glebe House, the oldest remaining house in the city, and the inspiration for the project’s defining saltbox roof.

“Maple Street fits into the vision for any city redevelopment in two creative ways,” Murphy explained. “First, it is workforce and affordable housing, so that is needed everywhere. But second, it takes a really awkward, interior ‘flagpole’ lot and reimagines it anew. So, it creates some density where it wasn’t available or possible before, and also encourages a reconsideration of awkward parcels to be part of a development agenda of affordable housing.”

Bound to Something Greater

MASS Design Group utilizes building as a methodology, Murphy said, but its reason for being—that which binds the firm and its team to something greater—is the profound impact it has on the planet, place and people with which we live. 

“Buildings, and the process of building, are the medium through which we reveal our aspiration for a society we one day hope to be,” he said. 

This mode of practice requires commitment to three fundamental beliefs, according to Murphy. First, to invest in our planet, protecting it from environmental destruction and restoring its natural functions. Second, to make the places we inhabit purposeful to those who live there. 

“Places enable and restrict access to our rights as citizens of this world,” he noted. “Purposefully designed places can reveal those barriers and—ultimately—overcome them. Third, and most importantly, we are architects to awaken the links that bind us inextricably to one another. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called this last idea the ‘single garment of destiny,’ the ‘inescapable network of mutuality’ which binds us all together. Whatever affects one of us affects us all,” Murphy concluded.

Read next: Wellness Is the New Black (But Is It Classist?)

About the Author

Robert Nieminen | Chief Content Director

Robert Nieminen is the Chief Content Director of Architectural Products, BUILDINGS and i+s, sister publications of Smart Buildings Technology. He is an award-winning writer with more than 20 years of experience reporting on the architecture and design industry.

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