Men's Journal

Michael Murphy is Saving Lives Through Better Buildings

 Bryce Vickmark Photography


In May, when I met Michael Murphy, the architect, in his Boston office, he had just returned from a weekend in Orlando, that counterfeit paradise where escapism gleams beyond the turnstiles. It is about the most incongruous place you can imagine for a man who has made a career of bringing artful, functional design to the world’s most neglected places—Rwanda, Haiti, Liberia. But Murphy wasn’t there for the rides. He was speaking, alongside Michelle Obama, at the American Institute of Architects’ annual conference. And even the title of his keynote, delivered to a packed house in the exorbitantly air-conditioned Orange County Convention Center, jarred with the locale: “Design That Cares.”

“Many architects shy away from problem- solving,” says Murphy, who, at 37, is a pup in architect years. “They’re afraid to admit they might cause unintended problems. But I disagree that architecture is not a problem-solving discipline. I think it fundamentally is.”

A decade ago, Murphy and a half-dozen straight-out-of-school 20-somethings, full of verve and altruistic purpose, founded the architectural firm MASS Design Group. MASS is a nonprofit, a rarity in the design world, and its name is an acronym for Model of Architecture Serving Society, which is good shorthand for the type of work Murphy and his team take on: a cholera treatment center in Haiti, wrapped in a blue steel facade, that looks more art museum than medical facility; a modular maternity “village” with soaring timber roofs, set around shaded courtyards, in Malawi; a mountaintop clinic in rural Rwanda that serves 400,000 people and has the serene dignity of the campus at a liberal arts college. All were made primarily from local materials, and relied on local laborers and artisans.

In Orlando, Murphy told the stories of these purposeful, people-focused designs, which stand out in a world where buildings are too often simply displays of extravagance. “If we just relegate architecture to the realm of sculpture and art form,” says Murphy, “then we’re really only speaking to a very select group of people: those who can pay for it and those who can admire it. The rest of the world doesn’t get to benefit from that.”

It’s this way of thinking that has made Murphy and MASS one of the most refreshing, perhaps even revolutionary, design forces in years. “There’s a myth,” the architecture critic Paul Goldberger told me, “that social responsibility and attention to formal inventiveness are a zero-sum game, and that the more you do of one, the less you must be doing of the other. Nobody has done as well as MASS at building an entire practice around this kind of work.” 

Murphy’s approach to architecture was a gradual awakening. In his early 20s, he quit a publishing job in New York and moved to Cape Town, South Africa, to poke around as a journalist. This was a decade after the fall of apartheid, but many of the physical signs of oppression remained visible: massive ghettos of plywood and corrugated-tin homes, cut off from their adjoining cities by walls, still stood.

“Race and justice and injustice played out really clearly on the streets, in the development of buildings,” he remembers. He began writing a story he called “The Aesthetics of Razor Wire,” inspired by a town where leery homeowners shaped barbed-wire gates into baobab trees to make them look less sinister. He abandoned the draft in February 2005, when he learned his father had found a can- cerous lump and doctors had given him three weeks to live. Murphy hopped on a plane and moved home to Poughkeepsie, New York. Unsure of what to do while he waited for his dad to die, Murphy took up tools and began restoring the family home. His dad joined him.

Three weeks turned into a year and a half. 

“He told me that working on the house with me had saved his life,” says Murphy, who knew then that he had to be an architect.

He arrived at Harvard in 2006. The first semester was grueling, but the work was make-believe: dreaming up eccentric shapes that could pose as buildings in the megacities of China and the Middle East. It was hard to tell if he was there to be an architect or a fantasist. Then, that December, he heard a talk by Paul Farmer, a doctor who’d devoted his life to healing the global poor through his nonprofit, Partners in Health. In communities of great need, Farmer said, architects are scarce. His own clinics were haphazardly designed; in 19 years he’d never used an architect, and it showed. 

Murphy mulled this over during the holidays in a hospital room in New York City. His dad was sick again. Sitting there, smothered by fluorescence, Murphy thought of something: What if hospitals weren’t so awful? What if the buildings themselves were their own kind of medicine? He wrote to Farmer, who invited him to Africa for the summer and, the next year, Farmer asked Murphy to design a hospital in Rwanda. Murphy convinced Alan Ricks, a classmate and friend, and a few other Harvard students to go with him. 

“I assumed failure, but I was no longer terrified,” he says. By then, his dad had died of cancer. “I was willing to leave everything I knew.” 

What Murphy and Ricks were after was a design that not only looked good but also did good, that was beautiful and functional. So they shadowed doctors, got to know locals, and staked out the building site by hand. Four thousand people helped erect the hospital, dig- ging the foundation, fabricating furniture, and constructing, from volcanic rock, a magnifi- cent wall that rings the compound. The result, Rwanda’s Butaro District Hospital, is full of practical, and elegant, ingenuities. Hallways run outside of the buildings, a clearheaded way to mitigate the contagion that lurks in airless corridors. Inside, the rooms are breezy, window-filled, unbeholden to the stuttering power grid for light and cooling.

The 150-bed facility opened in 2011 (Mur- phy still hadn’t graduated) with an emergency room, a surgical suite, and an ICU. Kids now go there to take their graduation photos. Couples have gotten married in the courtyard.

Including Butaro’s hospital, MASS has now constructed buildings that have served 217,530 people—patients, students, community members—created 15,765 temporary or permanent jobs, and relied on local materials 78 percent of the time. (Yes, they counted.) The firm—a team of 75 roughly split between the Boston and their Kigali, Rwanda, offices—earns half of its revenue from fees. Grants and philanthropy make up the balance. At MASS’s Boston office, photographs of its work line the walls. There’s the Ilima Primary School, which MASS built, bricks and all, in a remote corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo. There are the two projects in Port-au-Prince. The firm built the first, a tuberculosis hospital, after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when disease surged as miasmic camps and slums overflowed. The second, the 100-bed Cholera Treatment Center, stands opposite a slum; it fights a disease that spreads through foul water by doubling as a waste-treatment facility. 

Absent, though, is a picture of a major building in the U.S. For many years, serious designers, and some critics, saw MASS’s practice as a novelty—an approach better suited to the developing world than the land of plenty. But this year, MASS won the prestigious National Design Award for Architecture Design. It was the clearest sign yet of its acceptance. 

“The next big shift,” Ricks told me, “is to show that this philosophy of architecture is applicable here in our own backyards.” 

MASS’s first major stateside project, construction of which begins next year, is a 135-unit affordable-housing complex in Mattapan, one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods. Murphy and his team have proposed building college dorms in Colorado out of beetle-ravaged pine trees and hiring female ex-cons to construct them. They want to work with the people of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, the first in the country forced from their homes by climate change, and they hope to bring superior health care to Native American reservations, where the life expectancy can be as low as 48. “We’ve even started looking at the public space,” Murphy says, with a mind to designing interactive memorials. He believes our values as a society are visible in what we build, and the privilege to build is the greatest privilege of power.

 “We’re in a unique moment of time in the U.S., where infrastructure is again being weaponized,” Murphy says. “Architects are going to be asked to choose: Will you be complicit in the system of power, which can cause great injury, or are you going to fight for what you believe in?” For Murphy, there is no longer any doubt.