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From Rwanda to Boston Common: the humanitarian mission of MASS Design

“Justice is Beauty,” at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., explores the African origins of the architecture firm behind ‘The Embrace’ — and offers a powerful lesson in context

GHESKIO Cholera Treatment Center, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.Iwan Baan

WASHINGTON — The National Building Museum is an understated institution in a city that tends toward the grandiose. A red-brick facade four blocks back from the National Mall conceals thoughtful exhibitions on subjects like affordable housing, architectural photography, and the US/Mexico border wall. And, through March 7, the museum is celebrating the 15-year career of MASS Design Group, the Boston architectural firm that realized its first major project in its hometown last month: “The Embrace,” the memorial to Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.

Hank Willis Thomas, the artist who conceived the centerpiece of the Kings’ entwined arms, has drawn most of the attention, both vitriol and accolades. But the project began with an invitation from MASS Design Group to join its entry for the memorial, and the piece’s presence on the Common is a result of their partnership.

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Though MASS’s office, on Chandler Street, is a half-mile from “The Embrace,” the vast majority of the firm’s work over the past decade-plus has been half a world away.

A little context goes a long way. At the National Building Museum exhibition, which opened almost two years ago, “The Embrace” is tucked in a far corner, alongside MASS’s stirring National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, a monument to enslaved people murdered in the South. High-profile memorials garner headlines, but the foundation of the firm’s work is in Africa, building accessible health care facilities designed to foster dignity and trust.

At "Justice is Beauty," an exhibition of the work of MASS Design Group at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., stacked boxes in each section highlight the firm's efforts to further new ideas in the field through continuing research projects. National Building Museum/Elman Studio

“The Embrace” celebrates a legacy of justice writ large. In Rwanda, Malawi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, MASS makes buildings with immediate, practical purpose: to bend architecture to the task of caring for patients, soul as well as body. It’s a rare thing in its field — a nonprofit architecture firm. Its name is at most a wink to its home state; “MASS” is an acronym for Model of Architecture Serving Society, and the work in Africa is the fullest expression of that.

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The Butaro District Hospital in northern Rwanda. Iwan Baan

The firm’s work has grown to include education and housing, infused with the same ethos. In Massachusetts, it has several projects in development, including a master plan around the intersection of Boston’s Mass and Cass neighborhood, which has flared into a homelessness crisis during the pandemic; seniors’ affordable housing in Lynn and Boston; and a mixed-income housing study in Mattapan.

But Rwanda is where MASS was born, in 2008, and the exhibition is a brisk, readable overview of the evolution of the firm’s mission. Paul Farmer, a co-founder of Partners In Health, the Boston-based nonprofit with a global mission to improve health care access for people living in poverty, issued the challenge that became its catalyst.

In the aftermath of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, Farmer had become a key consultant for the Rwandan government as it rebuilt its health care sector with equity and innovation as priorities. When MASS co-founders Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks were still students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, he put a challenge in front of them: Could architecture embody the fundamental human right to health care? Farmer had identified a district in the Burera province, near the northern border with Uganda, that had no access to a doctor; the MASS team went there to live in the community and help problem-solve the issue from the perspective of their particular expertise.

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"Justice is Beauty," an exhibition of the work of MASS Design Group at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., is organized by five themes that represent the firm’s approach to design and its body of work: engaging, healing, fostering, conserving, and marking. National Building Museum/Elman Studio

The team observed that cramped spaces meant patients who came in with one issue often left with others, namely respiratory illnesses like tuberculosis; that led to the development of an expertise in building ventilation, which in turn made MASS much in demand right here at home as the pandemic took hold in 2020. (The firm consulted on mitigation strategies with organizations including New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital and the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston.)

Solving practical issues is only the skeleton of architectural practice; how to solve those issues in a way that inspires positive human experience is its substance. MASS’s first project, the Butaro District Hospital, finished in 2011, is a cluster of low-slung buildings nestled into a Rwandan mountainside and centered around a massive umuvumu tree. It grounds the hospital in its spectacular environs, an anchor to the natural world. Built on a foundation of the lava rock that lies underfoot, the hospital orbits a lush central courtyard and draws in views and natural light from the surrounding valley, a reflection of verdant, biodiverse vibrancy.

The exhibition includes requisite architectural models and renderings, but more importantly, photographs of MASS’s various buildings in full use: In 2015 in Kasungu, Malawi, the firm completed a maternity clinic modeled on villages where Malawian women would travel to give birth. Here, modern medical care is housed in structures that echo village life, an effort to sow comfort and trust in a population where, a little more than a decade ago, the country’s maternal mortality rate was almost 80 percent higher than the global average, the exhibition notes. One photograph, of expectant mothers resting outdoors under a canopy of roofline held up by pale timbers, conveys a communal serenity.

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Kasunga Maternity Waiting Village, Malawi.Iwan Baan

A tenet of the MASS philosophy is that beauty is not only for those who can afford it, regardless of budget, and its African experience has been a proving ground for this model. A 2014 project in Haiti, the GHESKIO Cholera Treatment Center, was a crisis response with aesthetic grace. After the devastating earthquake of 2010, Port-au-Prince’s only water filtration plant was non-functional, allowing the disease to proliferate. The permanent clinic MASS built there — with its sawtooth peaks clad in metal scrims that dapple the interior with filtered light — speak a visual language not of disaster response, but of sensitivity and care.

The exhibition is full of photographs of people, unusual for a display of architecture, which typically relies on cool digital renderings to convey its formal discipline. At either end of the space, grids of the firm’s partners on various African projects — from engineers to construction workers to design interns — tile the walls. Their presence is a powerful illustration of what’s at stake, and what the firm holds close to mind: Buildings are for people and can have deep implications for their state of mind and body.

Memorials, ideally, work that way, too; if they work as they should, they evolve in the civic landscape as magnets for collective emotion.

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Back in Boston on a frigid February day, I went to “The Embrace,” where I found a mound of frozen flowers topped with a pair of skateboards in a makeshift tribute for Tyre Nichols, the young Black man who died after being beaten last month by Memphis police. On the spot dedicated to the social justice activism of the Kings, it was grim evidence of “The Embrace” performing as intended — as a gathering place for shared emotion, whether joy or grief. The memorial, like MASS’s buildings, is as much an invitation as a structure: to come inside, and be at ease.

JUSTICE IS BEAUTY: THE WORK OF MASS DESIGN GROUP

Through March 7. National Building Museum, 401 F Street NW, Washington, D.C. 202-272-2448, www.nbm.org.


Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him @TheMurrayWhyte.