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Architecture is Never Neutral:
The Work of MASS Design Group

Opening Spring 2020

Front entrance to the Butaro District Hospital in the Burera District of Rwanda. Credit: Iwan Baan
Front entrance to the Butaro District Hospital in the Burera District of Rwanda. Credit: Iwan Baan

Can a well-designed school enhance learning? Can the floor plan of a hospital improve health outcomes? Can a memorial promote healing within society?

MASS Design Group is a non-profit architecture firm whose work seeks to answer questions such as these, committed to the idea that architecture is never neutral. It either heals or hurts. Founded in 2008 by six students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the name of the firm is derived from the motto “A Model of Architecture Serving Society.” MASS Design Group’s body of work reflects the belief that design can—and should—improve people’s lives.

Over the last decade, MASS Design Group’s projects, from schools and hospitals in Rwanda, a cholera treatment center in Haiti, a healthcare center for homeless people in Boston, and a “waiting village” for pregnant women in Malawi, reflect its mission to research, build, and advocate for architecture that promotes justice, healing, and human dignity. In 2018, the firm made headlines for its first major project in the United States: The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, which commemorates more than 4,000 victims of racially-motivated lynching. The Wall Street Journal included the project on its list of Best Architecture of 2018, while the Dallas Morning News acclaimed it “the single greatest work of American architecture of the 21st century.”

MASS Design Group operates under the view that good design can be a long-range tool for improving communities. The firm conducts preliminary research to inform building and site plans, and remains present after construction is complete, allowing for post-occupancy evaluations. This model allows MASS to measure the success of its design strategies and discover improvements to incorporate into future projects; the firm pursues design and research to improve humanity.

The 3,000-square-foot exhibition will introduce MASS Design Group’s extraordinary portfolio, including completed buildings, proposed projects, and applied research initiatives. Photographs, videos, renderings, and models will convey the firm’s ground-breaking approach to their architectural projects examining how the firm’s non-profit status enables it to take on ambitious projects that traditional design firms might not, and how its collective organizational structure supports its mission to address society’s most challenging problems through socially-conscious design strategies. Based in Boston, the firm also has an office in Kigali, Rwanda, supporting its ongoing work in several African countries, and a third office in Poughkeepsie, New York, supporting its initiatives to revitalize small and mid-size American cities.

The Gun Violence Memorial Project

As part of the exhibition Architecture is Never Neutral: The Work of MASS Design Group, the National Building Museum will host the Washington, D.C. debut of the Gun Violence Memorial Project, designed by MASS Design Group in 2019. Four glass houses represent the many gun-related deaths that occur over a single month in the United States. The installation combines architecture with memory, advocacy, and objects donated by families who have lost loved ones to gun violence, creating both a memorial and an archive.

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