A partner in design: MASS Design Group

Posted on Feb 9, 2011


The view from the hilltop of Butaro Hospital.
Photo by Adam Bacher

On January 24, Butaro Hospital opened in rural northern Rwanda.  This state-of-the-art flagship facility was built by a committed partnership of individuals and organizations, including MASS Design Group, a young design collaborative committed to building high impact, socially valuable architecture in resource-limited settings. MASS Executive Director Michael Murphy recently reflected on the founding of his organization--on the very hilltop where the future hospital would stand.

In the Summer of 2007, when [PIH co-founder] Paul Farmer asked me--then a young architecture student--to move to a hilltop in Rwanda and accompany his infrastructure chief on the design and construction of a new hospital, my immediate realization was that 'Architecture' as we know it was not what this district required.

The site chosen was a military camp, nestled on a steep hillside and perched high above the valleys of Butaro, which eyes the final peaks of Rwanda before fading into Uganda. Transferring the military to the medical speaks to more than the confidence of a war-ravaged country to demilitarize; it showcases the priorities of a government committed to deploying the symbolic resonances needed to serve its people better.

Like the hillside, the facility was a symbolic capstone to the infrastructure that the district demanded--an infrastructure not simply of roads, water and electricity, but of the laborers, economic opportunities, educational programs, and material markets required to make this hospital built completely of and by the district of Burera.

The priorities, however, were greater than simply drafting a set of plans to hand off to a local contractor. It was the construction of dignity that was required to accompany this new Butaro hospital. And as Dr. Paul Farmer accurately mentioned in his speech [at the hospital opening], this was why, on this hilltop, that MASS Design Group was formed.

The story of the hospital is not simply about architecture or design. It is about the iron-clad will of a country committed to emergence, healing and rebuilding.

We realized that what was required was more of a holistic model of architecture. One that could accommodate the design of an appropriate, state-of-the-art hospital while also fully choreographing the process of construction to employ and instill dignity in a district depleted of the most fundamental of resources: hope. 

[…] This is just the beginning. The plans, the partnerships, the execution succeeded. MASS Design Group grew from a single idea and one employee, to a current team of fifteen architects (seven in Rwanda, eights in Boston) working to prove that architecture is once again relevant. Now that the Butaro Hospital is finished, the goal is to replicate this model across multiple sites and for a spectrum of clients. Working 25,000 pro-bono hours on Butaro Hospital was only the beginning of this amazing team's commitment to proving that better design can reduce poverty and embed dignity into communities.

Read Michael’s full blog post.

Butaro Hosptial

Dr. Paul Farmer sharing a friendly moment with one of his staff.

Paul's Promise

As we mourn the passing of our beloved Dr. Paul Farmer, we also honor his life and legacy.

PIH Founders - Jim Kim, Ophelia Dahl, Paul Farmer

Bending the Arc

More than 30 years ago, a movement began that would change global health forever. Bending the Arc is the story of Partners In Health's origins.