Huddled above Butaro hospital in Rwanda, MASS’ elegent housing units are emblematic of the positive impact architecture can have in the developing world
While the role of the architect may be vigorously debated and the status of the profession in flux, the term itself is safely established, carrying cultural cachet and enshrined, one way or another, in law. But beyond the developed world it’s a different story. In 2008 there were fewer than 10 architects working in Rwanda and no word for architect in Kinyarwanda, the most widely spoken language in the central African state. It was into this setting that US practice MASS, whose cluster of houses for rural physicians takes third prize in this year’s AR House Award, cut their teeth.
MASS started life as a small group of young designers, not yet out of Harvard. A conversation after a lecture by healthcare pioneer Paul Farmer led to an out-of-the-blue commission to design Butaro Hospital in rural Rwanda with Partners in Health (PIH), an NGO founded by Farmer with an annual operating revenue of $100 million. Despite their inexperience, the team used the remarkable appointment to deliver a building that significantly reduced infection rates, withstood seismic activity and became a much-cherished landmark in the region. This baptism of fire catapulted fledging MASS onto an international stage and further projects quickly followed.
The lure of metropolitan city life tends to draw medical professionals away from rural areas after short placements, so the four split-level houses which make up Healing Hill are an attempt to reverse that flow. The houses encourage doctors and their families to spend longer living and working in Butaro, serving the region’s most vulnerable inhabitants. In doing so the scheme, which cost $800 per square metre, addresses seemingly contradictory challenges. On the one hand, MASS is altruistically fighting the consensus of the free market and the extreme inequality it instigates by bringing good design to those normally unable to access it. But simultaneously they concede a need to appeal to the aspirations of the educated middle-class doctors the hospital hopes to attract. In a carefully judged balance that sets it apart in the field of ethical design, MASS’s architecture both confronts and draws strength from the consequences of social inequality. Its pragmatism defines a clear philosophy: it is not enough to carry worthy values into the field of design, you must make informed compromises, measure and weigh impacts, and ultimately play the long game.
Such a calculated approach might suggest an architecture that is utilitarian: functional but pared-back and aesthetically frigid, but the opposite is true. Though modest in scale, the Healing Hill houses are beautiful. Elegant tubular light fittings painted black with exposed bulbs could slot comfortably into the hippest coffee shop. Windows, subdivided into grids of glazed panels, are arranged Mondrian-like into pleasing asymmetrical compositions.
Pitched concrete portal frames which bookend each house’s twin volumes mark generous porches and act as icons − visual shorthand announcing domesticity, security and home. The placement of the four dwellings around the east-sloping site is itself picturesque, like a compact village overlooking the hospital below, drawing the scheme together into a coherent whole. While MASS’s press release is laden with figures and statistics demonstrating social return on investment, this is a scheme with visceral qualities of beauty, light and texture at its heart.
Beauty is central to the MASS thesis and business model. ‘Beauty is critical’, argues MASS co-founder Alan Ricks. ‘Beauty means a building will be loved and that a community takes ownership of a project. That is the surest form of sustainability.’ For Ricks, architects have commodified beauty and packaged it as a luxury. By championing an attention to beauty even in extreme environments, such as post-earthquake Haiti or the poor regions of Rwanda, MASS can not only create buildings that serve deprived communities but also unlock new markets, persuading governments, development agencies and institutional clients to invest in architecture where they would not have done previously. It’s old-school philanthropy coupled with new-school entrepreneurialism.
Another way in which MASS is challenging stereotypes of conscientious architects working in the developing world is their discerning take on the vernacular. The grey volcanic rock, from which walls of both the doctors’ houses and the hospital they overlook are built, is quarried locally from the Virunga Mountains, but the techniques of shaping and slotting the irregular stones together like three-dimensional crazy paving are foreign. The overt import of Western ideas and aesthetics into African communities is often criticised, conjuring uncomfortable images of naive wealthy designers parachuting in like missionaries to deliver the local populace from their misfortunes.
However, by cultivating an unromanticised relationship with vernacular wisdom, MASS has seized the opportunity to broaden the impact of their architecture far beyond the finished building. By specifying non-local masonry techniques they inculcated new skills in teams of workers who will be able to trade their services as specialist stonemasons across the region. By using an Indian-made earth block press to fabricate bricks of compacted soil on site, they introduced a cheap and sustainable practice that performs well in Butaro’s seismic instability. And by engaging local women as well as men in the construction process, the architects challenged social norms helping to address economic gender inequality.
Kinyarwanda now has a word for architect. Umuhanga Muguhanga Inyubako was officially inaugurated into the language by the Rwandan parliament last year and is, in part, a testament to the work MASS and many others are doing in the country which has seen phenomenal societal change since the devastating genocide of 1994. Not all architects can form partnerships with organisations as trusting (or as well funded) as PIH, but the strategies of putting building process on a par with built product, of calculated pragmatism and of fighting for beauty in every locale illustrate how architects who choose to can have an impact for the better on many lives in the developing world and beyond.