polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Three Questions: Michael Murphy of MASS Design

by Andrew Wade

As part of the Polis Three Questions series, we interviewed Michael Murphy, executive director and co-founder of MASS Design Group. The not-for-profit firm's design for Butaro Hospital in Rwanda was a poetic argument for the merging of design and public health. Motivated by the idea that "Design is never neutral — it either helps or it hurts," MASS worked with Partners in Health on the project, which aims to mitigate the transmission of airborne disease. By approaching design holistically and seeking to make use of local materials and empower local communities, MASS demonstrates the potential social impact of design.

Butaro Hospital in Rwanda.

Can you tell us what you're particularly excited to be working on at the moment, and what lies ahead for you?

We have been working on a few projects in Haiti since a year after the earthquake that are exciting on several levels — both for the growth they bring to MASS as an organization and for their impact in community health. In particular, we have a center for cholera treatment currently under construction that continues our research in identifying the "direct" impacts of the built environment on our health. We have seen evidence of the incubation and transmission of tuberculosis due to poorly designed buildings, but cholera is really about a failed sanitary system — one that once infected can perpetuate outbreaks. To combat infection, our new cholera center will offer a micro-solution to wastewater treatment on site. We hope this inspires a dialogue about investment in better buildings and infrastructure as a health argument.

Also on the horizon in the coming year, we will be starting a few projects in southern Uganda which seek to address the problem of "brain drain," combating the large-scale emigration of skill capacity.

GHESKIO Cholera Treatment Center, during construction.

Rendering of the GHESKIO Tuberculosis Hospital.

What do you consider the most pressing issues we face as a society today, and how should we go about addressing them?

I think it’s becoming publicly evident that our poorly constructed built environment is an urgent and growing concern. As seen in rising sea levels, in Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, and most recently during Hurricane Sandy, cities are not built to absorb change and catastrophe. Buildings shouldn't exist simply as commodities; they need to be rethought and redesigned in such a way that keeps the residents’ health and safety in mind. The only way to achieve this is to invest more heavily in design research and in our infrastructure at both the local and national level. Our design schools need to reprioritize their emphasis, and new practice models need to be sponsored to offer market solutions to this serious global crisis.

What do you find inspiring?

I am inspired by entrepreneurs, tinkerers, designers who find a way to innovate within the calcified systems, while also maintaining a perspective of the entire system itself. I'm inspired by health innovators like Dr. Raj Panjabi of Tiyatien Health in Liberia and Josh Nesbit at Medic Mobile — both of whom are making a really incredible impact on public health.

I also met an amazing actor, Bryan Doerries, who runs an organization called Theater of War. He uses classical plays to help communities cope with tragedy and disaster, and his method of effecting change is completely unique.

I am in awe of material scientists and building experts like John Ochsendorf, and altruistic curators like Courtney Martin and John Cary inspire me daily with their belief in the sharing of ideas with the public. We all owe them a lot.

In terms of design and architecture, I have been in awe of TAM Associati in Italy, the genius of Francis Kéré and the work of TYIN in Norway.

Credits: Images from MASS Design.

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