MASS Design Group has become famous for good reason. I mean, what’s not to like? The optics, as marketers say, are fabulous. By bringing architecture to clients in low-income countries—a school in Rwanda, a hospital in Haiti—MASS is as feel-good as it gets. The resulting projects, despite being built with limited means and in relatively primitive conditions, are beautiful and humane. The process engages local workers, who earn fair wages and learn valuable new skills. Founders Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks are committed, thoughtful, and telegenic, and they are fittingly self-aware, as white Americans, that they operate in hazardous territory between altruism and colonialism. The kudos are warranted.
But I hope history will remember MASS for another, equally praiseworthy, and potentially more far-reaching accomplishment—presenting the profession with a compelling, scalable alternative to the conventional business model. Sure, there are other important groups that support the less fortunate through architecture: university design/build programs such as the Rural Studio, 501(c)(3) developers of the Make It Right variety, and commercial design firms that do pro bono work. But as a practice that’s incorporated as a nonprofit, MASS is a rare specimen, and worthy of imitation. So it’s great that the firm’s leaders are trying to propagate its philosophy and methodology more broadly, under the name The New Empowerment.
More power to them, I say.
To more fully understand MASS’s modus operandi, read my colleague Katie Gerfen’s profile of the firm, the accompanying portfolio, and the manifesto its leadership wrote specifically for this issue. In brief, MASS believes, with just cause, that the definition of social architecture should encompass all architecture, not just projects for the poor. Building design and construction are innately political acts that have broad impact, the firm maintains, and architects should undertake every commission with due forethought and a sense of long-term obligation.
In these tumultuous times, the profession must embrace utopian thinking and experimentation, in the renegade spirit of the early modernists. As the fragility of the status quo and the limitations of neoliberalism become increasingly apparent, architects and other experts are received with increasing skepticism by the general public, and technological advances and new financial pressures put many legacy industries, including architecture, in unprecedented adapt-or-die situations. Entrenchment is not an option.
It’s one of the great problems of the age: the search for the next economic paradigm, one that will direct the digital revolution toward more equitable outcomes, replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources, shift the material culture from consumption to conservation, distribute authority and responsibility as fairly as possible, and prioritize human health, security, and dignity. An intemperate pursuit of profit, heedless of effects on collective prosperity, runs counter to these imperatives. To reverse the global backslide into civil unrest and authoritarianism, new, more inclusive and sustainable models will need to take hold in business generally and in architecture practice specifically. We should be grateful to MASS for showing us a way.