2022 Architecture Firm Award
Every year, the AIA recognizes one firm that has produced notable architecture for at least a decade.
Since its founding in 2008, MASS Design Group has worked tirelessly to ignite systemic change in the built environment through its mission-driven process. As a nonprofit interdisciplinary collective comprising more than 200 architects, engineers, researchers, and even filmmakers, MASS has provided design services worth millions of dollars for projects around the world. Always committed to ensuring its architecture addresses the world’s most pressing social issues, MASS continually demonstrates that a healthy built environment is crucial for supporting communities as they confront history, heal, and explore new possibilities for the future.
MASS’ mission is embedded in its name, an acronym for Model of Architecture Serving Society. It was founded during the design and construction of Rwanda’s Butaro District Hospital. The small team has grown considerably since then, evolving to include MASS.Made, a furniture design and fabrication team, and MASS.Build, a construction company that employs more than 2,000 people. Throughout all of its work, MASS leverages the lessons it learned in Rwanda to shape a framework that allows the firm to inform policy development, emerging research, and projects that address inequality. MASS’ unusual model, which includes discrete governance and leadership groups, ensures the firm can adhere to its core mission of delivering architecture that serves society.
“I admire MASS’ commitment to equate justice and beauty in our built environment. Too often we experience the opposite in the architecture profession, where beauty in design is privatized for a select population,” wrote Rahul Mehrotra, chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at Harvard University Graduate School of Design, in a letter supporting MASS’ nomination for the Architecture Firm Award. “MASS proves through each project, however, that this assumption is neither equitable nor empowering. In fact, their team displays that a mission-driven design process guided by communities themselves is both attainable and necessary.”
MASS’ work throughout the world is perhaps best characterized as a portfolio of beautiful and functional buildings that expand the idea of what conventional architecture is. In the U.S., projects such as The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, and the traveling Gun Violence Memorial Project are physical manifestations of the firm’s design philosophy: Justice is Beauty. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors more than 4,400 historical victims of lynching in the American South, was heralded as “the single greatest work of 21st century American architecture that will break your heart” by the Dallas Morning News.
In addition to the dignified environments it creates, MASS is deeply invested in the local communities it serves. When the firm began in Rwanda, there was an extremely limited community of professional architects in the country. Today, MASS’ Rwanda office includes 80 design professionals, more than 72% of whom are from Rwanda. MASS is now the largest architecture firm there, and its team continues to design and build critical infrastructure throughout the country. Among its members are the first female Rwandan landscape architect, the top graduate of the Kigali Institute of Science and Design, built in 2009, and a growing body of female architects and engineers.
“The legacy of their work clearly demonstrates a marriage of exemplary design and professional services to the kind of local participation that stakeholders—foundations, NGOs, public, and private agencies, among others—are eager to embrace and engage,” Craig L. Wilkins, AIA, associate professor of architecture at the University of Michigan, wrote in support of MASS’ nomination. “Within their various offices as well as among their many and diverse collaborators, theirs is truly an exemplar of a people- and purpose-centered practice.”
MASS’ social investment in the U.S. is evident in its Design Labs initiative, which inserts the firm into topic areas where design is not generally seen as an agent for change. Its successful projects in this arena facilitate cross-sector collaboration, evident in the Sustainable Native Communities Design Lab, for which the firm recruited Indigenous architect Joseph Kunkel, and its Public Memory and Memorial Design Lab, overseen by spoken word artist and architect Jha D Amazi. MASS expects to expand this important area of its work this year.
Additionally, MASS has established two fellowship programs that seek to elevate the next generation of design leadership in Rwanda and the U.S.: the African Design Centre and the Space & Society Fellowship. These two opportunities provide pathways for young architects in search of a practice that will allow them to harness their design skills for the betterment of society. MASS also hopes that this vital training will imbue the profession with an enhanced culture of optimism.
“MASS is well-positioned to lead a new approach to design practice by example,” Kimberly Dowdell, AIA, NOMAC, wrote in support of the firm’s nomination. “Their work not only facilitates beautifully built spaces and environments, but MASS also critically strives to share valuable tools and resources with their project stakeholders. It is through this active and constant collaboration that empowers design to be both beautiful and just.”