It would be a fair guess that Boston-based architectural firm MASS Design Group takes its name from its home state. It would also be wrong. It’s an acronym for an ethos: Model of Architecture Serving Society, and its many projects around the world bear that out. With the Jan. 13 unveiling of “The Embrace,” the memorial to Coretta Scott King and Martin Luther King Jr. that the firm made in collaboration with the artist Hank Willis Thomas, MASS’s social justice-driven work has come home with a signature project literally down the street from their downtown offices. “The Embrace” fits neatly into the firm’s longstanding priorities. Here, a sample of some of its more prominent works.
The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Ala., 2018
In 2010, the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative began to enumerate a gruesome tally: More than 4,400 racial terror–driven murders of Black people in America — or, more bluntly, lynchings — in the years between Reconstruction and World War II. In the South, where a significant majority of those killings took place, the dominant public memorials in cities and towns were statues and monuments to Confederate soldiers; very few acknowledged the violence suffered by enslaved people, or by Black Americans generations later during the civil rights movement. When the EJI began its effort to build just such a memorial, and in Alabama, the heart of the old south, it hired MASS to conceive a monument that would meet the gravity of its purpose. The result, a 2,800 square meter (around 30,140 square feet) memorial compound, honors the dead by name: Inscribed into 800 steel blocks — one for each county where the murders took place — are the names of the county, and the victims killed there. They lie in rows on the manicured lawn and, chillingly, suspended above the viewers’ heads in a memorial hall. The gesture is both an indictment and an invitation: The counties named are invited to claim their monument and install it in their own communities as memorial to the victims. Should that never happen, MASS and EJI made sure this land was their land, too: They collected soil from the site of each of the killings and transplanted it here, to a final resting place.
Rwanda Institute for Conservation Agriculture, Gashora, Bugesera District, Rwanda, 2022
According to the United Nations, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 saw more than a million people murdered, the vast majority of them Tutsis, in a little over three months. With the help of the international community, Rwanda has managed to rebuild as a leader in both innovation and entrepreneurship. Case in point: MASS’s Institute for Conservation Agriculture is what’s likely the world’s first carbon-positive university: It pulls more greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere for reuse than it emits. In a country like Rwanda, one of the African continent’s densest, with nearly 14 million people inside a territory the size of Vermont, tragedy has given way to an urgent understanding of the scarcity of resources and the need to deploy them wisely. MASS’s ethos offers a holistic approach with building priorities that respect the earth, air, and water. The Institute is one of many projects the firm is involved with in Rwanda, including health care centers, schools, housing, and conservation centers.
The Gun Violence Memorial Project, Chicago Architecture Biennial, 2019
The relentless frequency of gun violence in America can leave us inured to it and reduce its impact to abstract data. Partnering with the gun violence prevention groups Purpose Over Pain and Everytown for Gun Safety, MASS and Hank Willis Thomas, the firm’s frequent collaborator, conceived a strategy to make those numbers less abstract. For the Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2019, the team built four houses of 700 glass bricks, with each brick representing a life lost to gun violence in America every week. If that remains too impersonal, consider the invitation the team made to families of the victims to share objects, inside the houses, belonging to their lost loved ones — a homecoming for those who will never come home again. The memorial is currently on tour at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.
African Leadership University, Kigali, Gasabo District, Rwanda, 2021
Founded in Mauritius in 2013, the ALU was envisioned as an innovative education solution for a continent expected to double its population by 2050. In Rwanda, which has risen from the ashes of a devastating genocide in 1994 to become a hub of innovation in Africa, MASS was commissioned to build a 70,000-square-foot campus to accommodate the quickly changing needs of several generations of leaders-to-be. Replicating the Western model of higher education would have been too costly and slow-footed, so the scheme, conceived by its founder Fred Swaniker, was designed around a model of collaborative and online learning. The ALU’s Rwanda campus speaks to exponentially growing demand for leadership tailored to the continent’s needs. Students declare not an academic major, but a “mission” aimed at addressing one of Africa’s most urgent issues.