As we well know at VMI, modern architecture is both an artform and a functional process that holds a valuable place in the development of our world’s landscape.


Michael Murphy gave a TED talk, back in February 2016, entitled Architecture that’s Built to Heal. In his talk, Murphy poses the question: ‘Why is it that the greatest architecture is so rare, and seems to serve so very few?’

With so much creative talent in the world of modern architecture, surely there is more scope for widening the bounds of great architecture in a way that benefits even the very poorest communities, Murphy states.

So, with that in mind, this is precisely what he set out to do. After hearing a talk by leading health advocate for the global poor, Dr Paul Farmer, his mind was made up. He was going to help build smarter hospitals in the developing world.

Modern Architecture for the Developing World

In 2007, Murphy co-founded MASS Design Group straight out of his Architecture degree, along with fellow student Alan Ricks. Their aim was to create a new model of modern architecture that would source both materials and labour locally to the construction site, which would boost community involvement, and providing valuable employment opportunities.

Before they’d even graduated, Murphy and Ricks set off to Butaro in rural Rwanda, to work alongside Dr Farmer on creating a hospital that encapsulated their vision. There, they met a Rwandan engineer, who taught them about the concept of “ubudehe”, the idea that “community works for the community”. Despite a lack of heavy machinery to build a foundation for their project, hundreds of local people turned up with shovels and hoes to get the job going.

The whole community came together on the job site, people from all backgrounds, men and women alike. It was a community in the process of healing from the mass genocide that had taken place there during the 1990s. As such, the hospital represented not just a building for the sick, but a healing of the whole community spirit.

Modern Architecture for Health

There are many health challenges specific to the subtropical African climate. This has much to do with the cost of electricity, but the design of the hospitals are also a factor. In the hallways, for example, the design traditionally used actually encouraged the circulation of airborne disease. So, for their design, the architects moved the hallways to the outside of the building. It’s an example of how low tech design solutions can actually beat high tech infrastructure.

Butaro Hospital Exterior Hallways | Modern Architecture that Heals

Butaro Hospital Exterior Hallways – Licensed by Iwan Baan (Image linked to original source)

Local Fabrication

The walls of the hospital were locally sourced from volcanic rock, which is often seen as a nuisance by local farmers. Removing them from the fields where they were causing problems for the farming community, and using them in their “locally fabricated” (or “lo-fab”) building construction, removed a substantial amount from the cost of the building’s construction. One of the other major benefits, Murphy notes, is that “I know that hands cut these stones, and they formed them into this thick wall made only in this place from rocks with this soil”.

Butaro Hospital Stone Wall | Modern Architecture that Heals

Butaro Hospital Stone Wall – Licensed by Iwan Baan
(Image linked to original source)

Of course, the project was very labour intensive, which goes against what we consider to be received architectural building practice. Nonetheless, Murphy is confident that this strategy could be replicated worldwide, changing the status quo, and opening doors to good architecture across the world – both rich and poor.

The hospital itself wasn’t the only construction that the team worked on in Rwanda. In order to attract the kind of high quality medical staff the hospital needed, MASS also designed a housing complex for doctors on the hospital campus. These houses were constructed by local workers once again, who were taught to make compressed, stabilised earth block walls. The houses are beautifully designed, formed from two narrow rectangular structures on split level, which are joined by an atrium.

Butaro Staff Quarters - Modern Architecture that Heals

Butaro Hospital Staff Quarters – Licensed by Iwan Baan
(Image linked to original source)

In addition, for these doctors’ quarters, a local artisans’ guild was formed, to design and make everything in the homes, from lighting to furniture and doors.


MASS has also helped create community-serving architecture in Haiti, where they built a state-of-the-art cholera centre. They also worked in Malawi, where they designed and built a health-conscious birthing centre to combat the region’s globally highest infant and maternal mortality rates. In Montgomery, Alabama, they designed a memorial to those who lost their lives to racially-motivated lynchings in the US between 1877 and 1950. This will be opened in 2017.


Whilst at VMI Studio, we tend to focus on the luxury, high-end market for our architectural CGI, we are always conscious of how architecture is progressing at grassroots level. We applaud MASS for their visionary work, ensuring that good architecture that benefits everybody, is available across the globe.