Michael Murphy of MASS Design Group on Social and Political Implications of Architecture

Design:ED Podcast is an inside look into the field of architecture told from the perspective of individuals that are leading the industry. This motivational series grants unique insight into the making of a successful design career, from humble beginnings to worldwide recognition. Every week, featured guests share their personal highs and lows on their journey to success, that is sure to inspire audiences at all levels of the industry. Listening to their stories will provide a rare blueprint for anyone seeking to advance their career, and elevate their work to the next level.

In this episode, host Aaron Prinz speaks with Michael Murphy, Founding Principal of MASS Design Group. He discusses how MASS operates as a non-profit, the social and political implications of architecture, and how they founded MASS Design Group. This episode was recorded in partnership with the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture.

This episode is available via iTunes, Spotify, and iHeart Radio.


MASS Design Group is really focused on the social and political effects of the built environment. There are not many firms that go out of their way to make this their mission statement. Why has that been so instrumental in your firm and how have you been able to maintain that level of success? (1:50)

“For the purposes of the social and political aspects of the built environment, I don’t think that they can be extracted from architectural decisions. One might argue that any architectural decision has social and political implications. One of the challenges is that when we do get pulled into a market driven process of both, responding to and making architecture, a lot of those decisions that we fight for as designers get separated from our control. I think architects become architects to make a positive impact on society and communities, not just for their own protection or the monuments of their own genius. The problem is in the marketplace. We have to jettison some of those ambitions in order to meet the requirements of the project description or the RFP where our agency is extracted from the discipline. I think one of the things that we are trying to do is to re-empower the discipline, as well as, re-empower the practice model so we cannot have the luxury to jettison those social and political ambitions and goals that we may have as designers and actually embed it within the project itself…”   

There are a number of smaller firms that share this view of having a positive social impact on the built world. What has allowed MASS Design Group to scale in the way that it has and receive that level of notoriety that is has had? (3:33)

“This isn’t a new thing. The history of architecture has always had practices or academics or young practitioners that emerge attempting to influence the built environment for the betterment of society. The challenge has always been, how do they continue that as a practice model, and how do they work within structures that are inherently about hording power instead of distributing power? Our firm from the outset had asked a question… Is it enough to be a size where we can only influence certain small projects? Which we have great respect for those firms that do that, but we also asked if we could do that at a scale of the national project or compete with standard for-profit practices with the model of a non-profit? That question at the outset has driven us to look for larger scale projects, more institutional size projects in order to make the argument that as a non-profit, we can still compete within the marketplace. We just have different structures in place that force us into a more accountable position…”    

You originally went to school for English literature before going on to study architecture at the GSD. How did your previous background influence your architectural thinking? (26:20)

“When I studied at the University of Chicago, we were looking at Renaissance poetry, I was reading John Dunn… I think from that experience, I wondered where the relevance of my studies before could be applied to the conditions of today. Especially in a kind of political condition. When I had the privilege to study in South Africa with some amazing anthropologists from the University of Chicago. They really showed how the changes in the government at that time. Towards the end of apartheid, around 2001, was manifesting itself in the build environment very rapidly, and it occurred to me that the decisions that were being made in the political domain were manifesting really clearing in the architecture world. I saw there a very clear connection between the effects of power as well as the design decisions on power. A seed was planted there that there was something deeper in the political domain through the built environment…”    

Can you take our audience through the early days of how you founded MASS, and what were the type of projects that you were working on? (10:30)

“The early days were a bit different. We didn’t set out to start a firm. We set out to work on a project for this amazing doctor and non-profit. The doctors name is Paul Farmer, the non-profit is called Partners in Health and they were working directly for the Ministry of Health of the government of Rwanda, among other governments, but Rwanda was where they were investing a lot of resources. When I met him, he talked about all the work that they were doing, and I asked him who were the architects that he was working with. Assuming then that we could link the school of architecture with the school of public health. He said, ‘very few architects had reached out to ask how they can be helpful. We are just finding out ways to do it with our own resources by ourselves and I challenge you to find a way to connect these pieces together.’ I thought that was an amazing and surprising prompt. Here is someone that in the world of social justice and activism is a legend, and in school we were still focused on this object driven architecture. There was a sense the pursuit of design in architecture was itself enough. I think Dr. Farmer gave a sense of purpose to what an architecture project might be. I started working with his organization, and he came back in my second year of school and said ‘Would you help us with this next hospital project?’ I then turned around to my collogues, and the school, my friends and said would any of you help? Do you know how to do this? That’s really what began our project was, how do we work for this incredible organization to think about a new medical facility? I think in the process of trying to answer that question, and doing whatever it took as a service, we built in our own minds, an understanding of what practice needed to do to answer some of these last mile questions…”   

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Cite: Design:ED. "Michael Murphy of MASS Design Group on Social and Political Implications of Architecture" 03 Oct 2019. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/925859/michael-murphy-of-mass-design-group-on-social-and-political-implications-of-architecture> ISSN 0719-8884

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