MASS Model of Community-Oriented Architecture

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. We are proud to present a story on a team of young, award-winning architects. They have created a new way to think about architecture. It is not about the style or type of buildings, but how they should be built, for who, what to use, and why.

Their nonprofit company is named MASS, short for Model of Architecture Serving Society. Although they were trained at Harvard, the pair say that they gained most of their architectural knowledge from 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. MASS has many construction projects in the country. Despite being started in America, Christian Benimana is the Rwandan architect who heads its Kigali team.

Christian Benimana

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

Christian Benimana : There is no term for architect. There is an expression.

Lesley Stahl: Meaning?

Christian Benimana is an expert in building creation.

Benimana said that he dreamed about building buildings as a child. However, there was no school for architecture after the genocide in Rwanda. He had to learn Mandarin Chinese in China. Michael Murphy (executive director of MASS) had a different route to architecture.

Michael Murphy: I studied English literature.

Lesley Stahl: Well, that’s gonna get you far in architecture–

Michael Murphy: Yeah.

Murphy was devastated to learn that his father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only a few more weeks of life. Murphy ran to Poughkeepsie in New York to reunite with his father, who had spent weekend restoring their home.

Michael Murphy : “What do I do while I am waiting here for death?” The house was my first priority, so I started to work on it. After three weeks, he was alive again. After six weeks of working together, he was fully recovered. He was completely in remission after a year-and-a-half. He said that he was glad he had worked on the house together. That was the best thing that ever happened to me. “

Lesley Stahl: Whoa. Wow.

Michael Murphy : Then I said “Well, now I need to become an architect.” “

Michael Murphy

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

Alan Ricks met Murphy as a first-year student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Both found something lacking in the curriculum as they dived in.

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. Murphy attended a lecture by Dr. Paul Farmer (one of Murphy’s idols) during his first semester. Partners in Health provides medical care to the most vulnerable populations in the world.

Michael Murphy said that we are building hospitals. We are building clinics. We’re building schools.” So I asked him, afterward, “Who’s your architect?” His reply was, “You know what, architects never ask us how we could be of any service to our work, so it’s often up to us to figure that out ourselves. “

Lesley Stahl – Why aren’t architects interested in working with you? They care deeply about the poor .

Dr. Paul Farmer, they do. The incentive structure works like this: “Hey, give us money and we’ll make something for you.” “

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 said that we gave him some humble projects.

Lesley Stahl: You’re smiling. It must be quite good.

Michael Murphy asked me to design a small laundry building.

Lesley Stahl – A laundry building?

Michael Murphy: (LAUGHS)

Lesley Stahl: Well, how did the laundry look?

Dr. Paul Farmer said it looked 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: Still a student.

Michael Murphy is still a student. Then I saw my fellow classmates and thought, “This is a crazy call.” I need your help.

Lesley Stahl : Without hesitation, you said “Yes” immediately.

Alan Ricks : Yes, that’s right. This is a great opportunity.

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 – This is simple physics. Air moves in a straight line from one area to the next.

Beds will be in the middle of each patient, providing a stunning view.

Michael Murphy – Beauty is important. The beauty of the spaces around us is a sign that we are valued as people.

Lesley Stahl – If I was a doctor I would say that I care about beauty but first I need a monitor for my heart.

Dr. Paul Farmer – Why should we have to choose between beauty and a heart monitor? We can surely have them both.

What they didn’t have was heavy equipment such as front-end loaders, which were prohibitively expensive to transport to the site.

Michael Murphy : So we inquired, “Could it be done by hand?” We dug it 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 worked on the project?

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

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 can see it everywhere but most of the time, it is just piled up. We thought that this material would be very valuable in America. Could we do something with it?

They designed the entire hospital’s facade using it. This led to many local masons being hired and creating a new industry. A Butaro-trained woman is now a Forewoman, with her team of masons.

Christian Benimana returned from Shanghai impressed by the way people thought about building and the impact it has on the economy.

Christian Benimana says it is crucial that we have brighter prospects.

Lesley Stahl : To give Rwandans pride.

Christian Benimana said: It’s important for me because it– makes me proud.

He was part of the design team and designed housing for the doctors. Alan Ricks : We had to do a lot quickly because we didn’t have many people who were doing it.

They decided to start a non-profit architecture company to help with projects they couldn’t otherwise afford. Their work has included a Malawian maternity center, a Haiti cholera hospital, and schools. All were built using the same principles: air flow, beauty, creating jobs, and providing health care. A decade later, they have a staff of over 200, more than half of them Rwandan. We visited Butaro’s hospital in the summer. The central courtyard was part hospital, part park. Its covered outdoor waiting area and corridors felt prescient in the era of COVID. Michael Murphy – This hospital was built around the simple idea of airflow and movement. Hospitals should be designed so patients do not transmit diseases.

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 says this space really is a place we want to create a hub.

Lesley Stahl : This is amazing.

MASS has taken its philosophy to new heights with this project. Alan Ricks demonstrated that almost everything in this project, including the walls and furniture, are made locally. MASS established a furniture department to work with local craftsmen on innovative designs instead of buying from a catalog.

Christian Benimana : It is one thing to fly to Europe, Turkey, China and China to pick up a chair. Then you can bring it back home. But it’s quite another to create a system that will allow for more growth.

If you think that MASS model is impossible to work in America, Michael Murphy was not sure until being challenged back home by a leader from the community.


Michael Murphy: He said, “You’re doing all this work in Haiti and Rwanda. What date are you going to return home and join us at Poughkeepsie. There is a lot of help needed. “

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

Michael Murphy : We were just in one of most remote places on the planet, where we saw a hospital transform the economy. My response was “Why don’t you do the same thing in Poughkeepsie?” “

So MASS set up a small office in main street to convert the old trolley barn of the city into an art gallery and design housing. One old building is being transformed into a food court. It also transformed an abandoned factory into the new headquarters of Scenic Hudson.

Michael Murphy : You can see the entire opening as a window if you look up.

Lesley Stahl – That was a window.

Michael Murphy said that it was all just a window.

Lesley Stahl: Oh my goodness.

Murphy explains that old buildings such as this are meant to allow in fresh air. But with air conditioning being invented, large windows were a problem. We shrunk these windows and made our buildings water-tight.

Michael Murphy : It is like a devil’s bargain because all our buildings now have very limited airflow. We were therefore all extremely vulnerable during COVID.

Lesley Stahl : It was the nursing homes that we saw.

Michael Murphy : The prisons.

Lesley Stahl – Do you believe that COVID is going to change architecture?

Michael Murphy – Everyone is experiencing a change in how they see the architecture around them. They may be making us sicker but they can make us more healthy if they are better designed.


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. They also have plans to change the flooding creek into a dump.

Sierra Bainbridge: Some gutters. We get shopping carts.

Lesley Stahl – What’s 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 designed a plan to transform the creek from a blighted area into beautiful parks that could run through Poughkeepsie.

Sierra Bainbridge – Each project must not address just one problem. It is important to think about what we can do to make design impact as much as possible.

This is a lesson MASS thinks can be applied in many American cities. There are projects in Santa Fe, Birmingham and Cleveland. Their gospel of architecture for society now reaches inside the ivory tower, whose lessons they used to find lacking. Murphy shared lessons from Rwanda that he had learned at Harvard last spring.

Michael Murphy – There is a clear simplicity. We have things to make. We have people to hire. We have to make use of certain materials. You can make a bigger impact if the entire thing is viewed as a design project.

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

(c) 2021 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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