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Why a nonprofit architecture firm is staffing-up with filmmakers

MASS's Film Unit
Why architecture firm MASS Design has a film unit 04:49

Thatcher Bean recalled the spontaneous assignment that changed his life with a mix of nostalgia and excitement for the future. 

It was September 2013, and Bean, an emerging filmmaker, received a call from Alan Ricks of MASS Design Group. The co-founding principal architect of the Boston-based nonprofit had been invited to give a TED Talk but was uncomfortable being the only voice to speak on behalf of the firm's projects.

MASS, an acronym for Model of Architecture Serving Society, had recently worked with the nonprofit Partners in Health to design and build Butaro Hospital in Rwanda. Ricks thought those who contributed to the project should be included in his lecture, but he needed a filmmaker on short notice. 

Bean became that filmmaker and three days after learning about the assignment, was on the ground in Africa recording testimonials.

The footage from the seven-day trip changed Ricks' vision for how the firm communicates and plotted a new narrative path for MASS. 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl profiled the firm on Sunday's broadcast.

MASS co-founder Alan Ricks walks with Lesley Stahl at the Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture one of MASS's many Africa based projects.

"We figured out very early on that talking about the process is talking about people, and you can't do that with just a drawing," Ricks told Stahl. "You can't tell the story of an end user without talking to them, quite literally."

For the last eight years Thatcher Bean has told many of those stories and now oversees a team of nine filmmakers that work for MASS.

"I think that just in terms of media and form, architecture is often told by photograph of an empty building, and that communicates that it's a sculpture, it's not this changing, living thing over time, that really impacts people's lives," Bean explained to 60 Minutes Overtime. "You can't tell that story just with a photograph… That's why we've invested so much in film."

Thatcher Bean oversees the global filmmaking unit at MASS which includes storytellers based in Boston, Kigali, and Barcelona. MASS Design Group

Despite being the son of an architect, buildings and designs were not always in Bean's plans. At 19-years-old, the Colorado native moved to Uganda to pursue a career as a professional white-water kayaker. After about a year Bean decided it was time for a new challenge and followed his passion into filmmaking. He holds a bachelor's in fine arts and has become integral to MASS's efforts to recharacterize how society thinks about building. 

"The goal isn't to make architecture. It's to solve problems," Bean told 60 Minutes Overtime. "And so that was exciting because it opened up a ton of new opportunities for film as well, like how we could actually use film as a research tool early in the architectural process to help the architects figure out what the project needed to do."

Research for MASS often includes interviewing people who will interact with the final project while it is being developed. The stakeholders vary as greatly as the locales and projects the firm takes on. The firm has built universities in Rwanda, hospitals in Haiti, and landmark memorials in the United States.

MASS Design Associate Noella Nibakuze (far left) is interviewed by filmmakers Nailla Simbi (seated) and Tracy Keza while. sound technician Xavier Nsengiyumva operates the boom mic. MASS Design Group

"I think it's about telling the stories of why these projects matter, of what is possible when we think about things through this lens of economic, environmental, social impact, health impacts, that you want to hear from the builders, you want to hear from the patients and the doctors, and that it can't just be told through architecture alone."

As for Thatcher Bean, he hopes that in the near term his team's work will change how people think about architecture as a "mechanism to create change."

"We hope, through storytelling and changing that narrative, we can change the awareness of what it [architecture] can do…" Bean said. "Hopefully people start demanding something different from the buildings that they live in, or that their organizations are investing in."

The video above was originally published on October 31, 2021 and was produced by Keith Zubrow and Sarah Shafer Prediger. It was edited by Sarah Shafer Prediger.  

Additional footage and photos courtesy of MASS Design Group and Ariadne Labs & Mount Sinai Health System.

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