The MASS model of community-focused architecture

A project in Rwanda convinced a group of Harvard-trained architects to rethink their building methods, material and labor sources, and the end-use of their buildings.

A new model of architecture
A new model of architecture 13:36

We Americans spend 90% of our time inside of buildings, yet most of us give little thought to the role architecture plays in our lives and our health.  Tonight we bring you a story about a group of award-winning young architects who have set out to create a new model of architecture -- not a particular style of building, but a way of thinking about how to build, who should build, using what, and for whom.  

Their nonprofit firm, based in Boston, is called MASS -- short for Model of Architecture Serving Society. And though they trained at Harvard, they say they learned the most important lessons of architecture during their time spent in -- of all places -- Rwanda. 

Rwanda is a country many people know for one thing -- the 1994 genocide that killed more than 800,000 people.  Today Rwanda is at peace -- a bustling nation of 13 million working hard to lift its population out of poverty. There are construction projects all around the country, several of them being designed by MASS. Though started by Americans, the head of its team in Kigali today is Rwandan architect Christian Benimana. 

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  Christian Benimana

Lesley Stahl: I heard that when MASS started, there was no word for architect in your language.

Christian Benimana: And there is still no word for architect. You have an expression.

Lesley Stahl: Meaning?

Christian Benimana: Expert in the creation of buildings.

Benimana told us he dreamed of creating buildings even as a little boy, but with no school of architecture in post-genocide Rwanda, he had to study in China, in Mandarin. Michael Murphy, MASS' executive director, had a very different path to architecture.

Michael Murphy: I studied English literature.

Lesley Stahl: Well, that's gonna get you far in architecture--

Michael Murphy: Yeah.

Murphy's life took a sharp turn after college, when his father was diagnosed with cancer, given just a few weeks to live. Murphy rushed back to Poughkeepsie, New York -- to their old home that his dad had spent weekends restoring.

Michael Murphy: I said, "What can I do while I wait here on death watch? So I start working on the house. And after three weeks, he was still alive. Six weeks, we started working together. After a year and a half, I'd fully restored the building, he was fully in remission. And he said, "You know, working on this house with you, it saved my life. It healed me."

Lesley Stahl: Whoa. Wow.

Michael Murphy: And then I said, "Well, I have to be an architect now."

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  Michael Murphy

Alan Ricks: And he came in wearing these silver cowboy boots.

Alan Ricks and Murphy became fast friends as first year students at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. But as they dove in, both found something wanting in the curriculum. 

Michael Murphy: We were learning about the heroism of architecture, the beautiful sculptures, the names of the famous architects.

But not so much about how architecture could help people and communities. During first semester, Murphy went to a talk by one of his idols, Dr. Paul Farmer, who had founded the nonprofit Partners In Health to provide medical care for the neediest populations around the world. 

Michael Murphy: He said, "We're building hospitals. We're building clinics. We're building schools." And so when I went up to him afterwards to ask, you know, "Who are the architects that you're working with?" He said, "You know, architects have never asked us how they could be of service to what we're doing, so we often have to do it ourselves."

Lesley Stahl: Why weren't architects attracted to working with you? I mean a lot of them care about the poor.

Dr. Paul Farmer: They certainly do. But the way the incentive structure is set up is, "Hey, you give us money, we'll design something for you."

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  Dr. Paul Farmer

So when Murphy offered to volunteer on a Partners In Health project in Rwanda the following summer, of 2007, Dr. Farmer said bring it on.

Dr. Paul Farmer: We gave him some very humble projects. 

Lesley Stahl: You're smiling. (LAUGH) Must be pretty good.

Michael Murphy: He asked me if I would design a little laundry building.

Lesley Stahl: A laundry building?

Michael Murphy: (LAUGHS)

Lesley Stahl: Well, how did the laundry look?

Dr. Paul Farmer: It looked pretty good. It still looks good--

So good he called Michael Murphy a few months later and asked if he could help design a brand new hospital for a remote district of 350,000 that didn't even have a doctor.

Lesley Stahl: You're still a student.

Michael Murphy: Still a student. So I looked around my classmates and said, "This crazy call came in. Can anyone help me?"  

Lesley Stahl: You said, "Yes," right away, without hesitation.

Alan Ricks: Yeah, I mean, who-- who wouldn't?  What an opportunity.

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  Alan Ricks

But when Dr. Farmer said their first design looked like an army barracks, Murphy decided to take a year off and move to the site, called Butaro, where Farmer gave him three challenges he says have defined MASS' work to this day: the hospital should be beautiful; building it should help as many local people as possible; and it should have natural airflow to prevent the spread of diseases like tuberculosis that often ran rampant in enclosed wards and waiting rooms.

Michael Murphy: Let me show you this image...

Murphy showed us the design they came up with to move fresh air naturally through each ward.

Michael Murphy: That's simple physics, where air moves from a lower to higher area.

Beds would go in the middle, giving every patient a beautiful view.

Michael Murphy: Beauty matters. Spaces around us that are designed with beauty say that we matter as individuals.  

Lesley Stahl: If I were a doctor, wouldn't I say, "I care about beauty, but I want a heart monitor first."  

Dr. Paul Farmer: Why make this a choice between a heart monitor and beauty? Surely, we can have both. 

What they couldn't have: heavy equipment like front-end loaders that were too costly to get to the site.

Michael Murphy: And so we asked, "Could we dig it by hand?" And we dug the foundation by hand. Employ more people. And-- you know, shocker: we did it faster and cheaper than-- than if--

Lesley Stahl: Than if you had the big--

Michael Murphy: --than if we had the front-end loader.

Lesley Stahl: How many people actually worked on this project, total?

Michael Murphy: Over 4,000 people worked on the project.

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The hospital with the facade made up of volcanic stone that was thought to be a nuisance in the area.

And instead of trucking in materials, they decided to use volcanic stone that farmers here consider a nuisance, because they have to clear it from their fields.

Alan Ricks: You see the stone everywhere, but normally it's just piled up. And we thought, this would be a really valuable material in-- in the U.S. You know, could we use it in a different way? 

They designed the whole hospital façade with it, hiring dozens of local masons, and spawning a new industry.  One woman, who trained at Butaro, is now a forewoman with a team of masons she trains.

Christian Benimana, back from Shanghai, was impressed by the thought given to the process of building -- and by giving so many people work, improving the local economy.

Christian Benimana: It is critical for us to have  prospects for a better future.  

Lesley Stahl: And give people pride in Rwanda.

Christian Benimana: That's very important to me, because I-- make me proud as well.

He joined the team, and helped design housing for doctors at the hospital.

Alan Ricks: Very quickly we had a lot of work, because there weren't many other people doing this. 

They decided to become a nonprofit architecture firm, to work on projects that otherwise couldn't afford high-priced designs. They've built a maternity care center in Malawi, a cholera hospital in Haiti, schools, all with the same principles of air flow, beauty, and creating jobs. A decade later, they have a staff of over 200, more than half of them Rwandan.

We visited Butaro hospital this summer. Its central courtyard felt part medical center, part public gardens. And its covered outdoor waiting room and hallways, in this time of COVID, felt prescient.

Michael Murphy: This entire hospital is designed around that simple idea that air flow, air movement, are the basic premise that we should design our buildings around, and in particular our hospitals so that patients don't transmit airborne diseases to each other.

Four hours to the south, we went to see MASS' largest project yet -- a 69-building campus for a brand new college of agriculture funded by American philanthropist Howard Buffett.

Alan Ricks: This space is-- really we wanna create a hub.

Lesley Stahl: It's spectacular.

MASS is pushing its philosophy to the limit with the project. As Alan Ricks showed us, just about everything here, from the earthen walls to the furniture, is being made locally. Under Christian Benimana's leadership, MASS started a furniture division to collaborate with local artisans on creative designs, instead of ordering from a catalogue.

Christian Benimana: It's one thing to go to Dubai and Turkey and China and Europe and pick a chair from a showroom, put it on a flight and bring it here. It's another thing to figure out a system that can create more opportunities for growth.

And if you're thinking MASS' model could never work in the U.S., Michael Murphy wasn't sure either, until he was challenged by a community leader back home.

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Michael Murphy: He said, "You're doing all this work in Haiti and Rwanda. When are you gonna come back to your hometown and work with us in Poughkeepsie? We need a lotta help."

Poughkeepsie, like many once-thriving industrial cities, had seen factories close, its downtown choked off by highways, its storefronts boarded up. To top it off, its creek flooded during Hurricane Irene.

Michael Murphy: We had just been in one of the most rural places in the world, and we had seen a hospital change the economy. I said "Why can't we do that same thing here in Poughkeepsie?"

So MASS opened a small office on main street and got to work -- converting the city's old trolley barn into an art space and designing housing. It's helping turn one old building into a food hall. And converting a long-abandoned factory into a new headquarters for the environmental group Scenic Hudson.

Michael Murphy: If you look up, you can see that this whole opening was once a window.

Lesley Stahl: That was a window?

Michael Murphy: --that was all a window.

Lesley Stahl: Oh my goodness.

Murphy says old buildings like this were designed to let in fresh air, but with the invention of air conditioning, big windows became a liability, so we shrunk them and sealed our buildings air-tight.

Michael Murphy: This is a sort of devil's bargain, because it has made all of our buildings have really limited air flow. And hence, during COVID we were all very vulnerable.

Lesley Stahl: We saw it with the nursing homes.

Michael Murphy: And the prisons.

Lesley Stahl: Do you think that COVID will change architecture for everybody?

Michael Murphy: Everyone around the world is going through a shift in their understanding of the buildings around us. That they may make us sicker, that they could make us healthier if they were better designed. 

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MASS' new design will reopen the windows, and -- like a cutting-edge version of the hospital in Rwanda -- use a solar-powered system to heat and cool air at each window, eliminating traditional air conditioning and heating entirely. And they have a plan to transform that flooding creek that has become something of a garbage dump.

Sierra Bainbridge: Some gutters. We get shopping carts.

Lesley Stahl: What is that, an air conditioner?

Sierra Bainbridge: Mm-hm.  Mm-hm.

MASS landscape architect Sierra Bainbridge came here with ideas about widening the creek to help with flooding, but also...

Sierra Bainbridge: If you're taking a holistic view of the problem, then the solution also begins to be a holistic view. 

MASS came up with designs to turn the blighted creek into beautiful park space that would run all through Poughkeepsie.

Sierra Bainbridge: Each project has to not solve for that one thing. We have to be thinking about how much can we make design have the biggest possible impact.

It's a lesson MASS believes can apply in many American cities. They have projects now in Cleveland, Birmingham, and Santa Fe. And their gospel of architecture serving society has reached inside that ivory tower whose teachings they once found lacking. Last spring, Murphy taught lessons he learned in Rwanda, back at Harvard.

Michael Murphy: There's some clear simplicity to it. There's things we have to build. There's people we have to hire. There's materials we have to use. And if you think about the whole thing as a design project, you can have a lot more impact.

Produced by Shari Finkelstein and Braden Cleveland Bergan. Broadcast associate, Wren Woodson. Edited by April Wilson.

  • Lesley Stahl
    Lesley Stahl

    One of America's most recognized and experienced broadcast journalists, Lesley Stahl has been a 60 Minutes correspondent since 1991.