"Architecture Can Heal": MASS Design Group's Katie Swenson on Building Equity Together

More inclusive, equitable futures are grounded in how we design for justice and the human condition. Katie Swenson is a Senior Principal of international non-profit MASS Design Group, and she has spent her career building social equity and advocating environmental sustainability. At the heart of her work is a thread of collective optimism, a knack for bringing people together to create healthier communities that promote human dignity and joy.

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Katie Swenson. Image

As a nationally recognized design leader, researcher, writer, and educator, Katie leads by example. Before joining MASS in early 2020, Swenson was vice president of Design & Sustainability at Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit organization that invests in community development, as well as an Enterprise Rose Fellow and Loeb Fellow. In addition, she founded the Charlottesville Community Design Center to bring together designers and community planners. In an interview with ArchDaily, Katie explores her background and career, as well as what it means to design for more equitable futures today.

Why did you choose to study comparative literature and architecture?

Comparative literature provides an incredible way to study the world. Any time you learn a new language, you are learning a culture. Its eclectic and interdisciplinary approach to social and political issues appealed to me. It also gave me a chance to spend my junior year of college in Paris, studying literary theory at the University of Paris. The academic work was amazing, as was meeting other members of my program from universities across the US, an incredible group of people in the film, media, literature, and journalism worlds. I loved walking the city, giving me exposure to the cultural dynamics and urban texture of Paris and fueling my love for cities. 

I hadn’t had exposure to architecture as a profession as a child, but one of my close friends in college was studying architecture at the UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design. I loved the studio environment, but I thought that it was too late for me to study architecture. Now I realize that architects have long careers, and you don’t have to start at 18!

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Family Health Center on Virginia. Image © Iwan Baan

After college, I moved to New York City to be a modern dancer. Dance took me all over the city, to different neighborhoods, rehearsal studios, and performance venues. It was the early 90’s and space was more available, and I lived in wonderful lofts where we built rehearsal space. Dance is a spatial art. In addition to working in restaurants like many aspiring dancers, I also worked with designers of all kinds - from architects, graphic designers, metal workers, and more. I decided to study architecture because I saw it as integrating so many things I loved: travel, cities, spaces, making, critical thinking, and home and home making.

Writing has continued to be an incredibly important part of my life. I heard someone say recently, “I don’t know what I think until I write it.” Thoughts and ideas are sometimes amorphous until you write or draw them. Like designing and drawing, the details and clarity don’t resolve themselves until you really dig in. Architecture and comparative literature are both ways to explore the world. 

MASS Design Group is a practice that is redefining how architecture can promote justice and human dignity. Why were you interested in joining, and what is your role?

I first encountered MASS in 2010 at a Structures for Inclusion conference at Howard University. Michael Murphy presented the Butaro Hospital work, which was then under construction. From 2000, when I entered the profession, until 2010, there was a lot of energy and momentum around public interest design. But when MASS arrived on the scene, the ideas behind social impact design accelerated. MASS embodied the ethos we were calling for, but they were doing it at a new and very exciting scale.

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Butaro Hospital. Image © Iwan Baan

I became a friend and ally to MASS, and later a member of the Board of Directors. It’s hard to underestimate how exciting the growth and development of MASS has been.  MASS has modeled a new way how architecture can serve society. Watching MASS put theory into practice, again and again, and continue to expand its ambitions has been thrilling.

Coming to MASS in 2020 as a Senior Principal has allowed me to part of the question facing the firm, “OK, what’s MASS 2.0?” How do we look ahead over the next 10 years to not only design projects, but to design a firm that can constantly deliver on its mission to research, build, and advocate for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity.

As a senior principal, I am leading the Narrative and Advancement teams who work together to pursue seminal projects for the organization, bring in the resources to underpin our ability to provide design resources to partners regardless of their ability to pay, and to engage in critical thinking and external communications about the larger project of MASS. I am also engaged in our Affordable Housing practice, near and dear to my heart.

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Butaro Hospital. Image © Iwan Baan

You have an extensive background with the Enterprise Rose Fellowship, including your own experience as a member of the second class. Can you tell us more about the Fellowship and how it has evolved over time?

Rose Fellows are designers, architects and artists dedicated to social justice who work in partnership with local, community based nonprofits to bring their design and planning skills to the benefit of the community. The fellows work on affordable housing and community facilities, community planning processes, open space and recreation, transportation and economic development issues. They are designers, translators, instigators, supporters, cheerleaders and spokespersons. They bring hard work and good humor, passion and energy to their work and learn as much from the community, and from each other, as they contribute. The fellowship is sponsored by Enterprise Community Partners, a national nonprofit that invested over $43.6 billion in community development.

I joined the Rose Fellowship as a fellow in 2001 in Charlottesville, Va., In 2006, I became the director of the program, until I made the transition to MASS Design Group in 2020. The core mission of the program - forging lasting partnerships between community members and design fellows, learning and sharing lessons and best practices to amplify the opportunity for design excellence, and nurturing the next generation of design leaders - has remained consistent over the years. The program has become more comprehensive and supportive for fellows and communities, and more diverse in its personal composition, programmatic goals, and project types. It is now thriving under the leadership of Mark Matel, a Rose fellow alum, and supported by a robust National Design Initiatives team at Enterprise.

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Design with Love: At Home in America. Image © Harry Connolly

On the 20th anniversary of the Rose Fellowship, we wanted to lift up the stories of the fellows, inspiring a new generation of civic-minded leaders and the communities they serve. We released Design with Love: At Home in America (Schiffer Publishing) in the fall of 2020. Our goal was to share the stories of the passionate community advocates, who are working every day on behalf of their neighbors, in diverse communities across the country. I wanted to show the tenacity, creativity and dedication that everyday people bring to the work of community development and partnered with photographer Harry Connolly to bring the stories - and people and places - to life in vivid color and beauty.

As our interviews and travels wrapped up, we began poring over transcripts and notes, we noticed that people described their work in remarkably similar ways. It became clear that the most-successful communities—and fellows—were those that share the same core elements: a clear commitment to their mission, a common understanding of the philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of their work, and the tenacity to meet their community’s goals. Chief among these core values was love. That’s right, love. Love is not a word often used in architecture circles, yet it has enormous implications for the work of architects and designers. People find their purpose and express their culture in different ways, but in each community I found a deep passion for work and that compassion for each other guides the work. It’s been a pleasure to share these stories. 

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Design with Love: At Home in America. Image © Harry Connolly

What are some recent projects you’ve been working on? 

A collective of architects, designers, artists, and engineers, MASS Design Group works from the understanding that architecture can heal. Our mission is to research, build, and advocate for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity. In areas of health, education, housing, conservation, culture and memory, we leverage mission-driven design processes to create impactful projects that respond to community needs. To date we have 30 projects built or under construction across the globe, including the Butaro Medical Campus in Burera District, Rwanda, the GHESKIO Cholera Treatment Center in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and a Maternity Waiting Village in Kasungu, Malawi.

In addition to the significant project work, MASS also has created a Labs initiative to be able invest in researching critical questions and developing and sharing a point of view in critical topic areas. The labs focus on food, sustainable Native communities, fringe cities, and restorative justice. With recent support from the Mellon Foundation, we started a “Public Memory and Memorial Lab” to advance research and work with thought leaders who are seeking to imagine, design, and build new monument projects across the nation. Worldwide, memory and history in built form—memorials, monuments, museums, street names, plaques, historic preservation markers—carry a responsibility to communicate complex histories and provide spaces for healing. Public memory and monuments, in their constancy and variety, encourage us to explore our individual humanity in connection to our society as a whole. We will provide direct support to organizations on projects that engage memorialization, collective memory, and truth-telling.

Changes due to COVID-19 have been swift. How do you think the pandemic will shape design?

We are living through a time of collective transformation, brought on by the immediate threats of COVID-19 as well as the structural inequities that shape our culture and built environment. Building on MASS’ 10 years of experience in designing to prevent the spread of infectious disease in medical and non-medical environments, MASS created a COVID-19 Response team, working on a series of of spatial strategies for medical environments, housing, restaurants, carceral environments and asking the question, ‘What is the Role of Architecture in Fighting COVID-19.” 

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Family Health Center on Virginia. Image © Iwan Baan

In our guide “Designing Senior Housing for Safe Interaction,” we outlined a number of ways that housing should be designed to keep people safe and healthy, including suggestions to make spaces breathe better, sequence flows through spaces, reduce pressure on high traffic places, and encouraging people to get outdoors. We also suggest designing housing into ‘villages’, by clustering people with a small group of neighbors, and paying attention to the threshold spaces between them. Embedding technology into each unit is a must to to create equitable and easy access to information and services

Being quarantined is teaching us how much our spaces affect us: how much the places we live shape us, support family life, function as a workspace, and impact our health. In this time of the global pandemic, when access to the office, schools, places of worship, restaurants, and stores has been temporarily suspended, we are learning what’s truly essential and what is not. The spaces we require for survival are actually very few: a safe home, space outside for fresh air and exercise, and, when necessary, a hospital or other medical facility. 

We have been working to apply these lessons in a number of design projects with community development groups in Massachusetts and New York and are finding that leveraging these design principles has multiple benefits. 

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JJ Carroll Redevelopment. Image Courtesy of MASS Design Group

The J.J. Carroll Apartments, a redevelopment senior housing project in Brighton, Mass., is one purpose-built project that exemplifies the Safe Interaction guidelines.. Community for many, including seniors, is a top priority. Loneliness and social isolation are two of the top health hazards for aging adults, associated with a variety of poor mental and physical health outcomes and a higher risk of mortality overall. Designed in partnership with 2Life Communities, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing and managing safe, affordable, and dignified housing for older adults, MASS worked diligently to create connection and community among residents, and residents highlighted their love of the micro-communities they’ve found there within the larger community. We designed an approach to maintain intimate connections and community while increasing the capacity to more than double the units on site. We created a series of “neighborhoods” made up of apartment clusters between 5-8 units each, and connected them to a grand, singular corridor programmed with shared community spaces.

As you look to the future, are there any ideas you think should be front and center in the minds of architects and designers?

In this most vulnerable time, when we are more aware than ever that home is the basic, essential platform for a good and healthy life, architects can expand their notion of what it means to work in the domestic realm. Without a home, everything else falls apart. There are nearly 40 million people in America who are housing insecure, including over a million who are without homes at all, and others who live in fear of eviction, or otherwise on the edge. How will we commit to ensuring a home for everyone?

A mural in the Point neighborhood of Salem, Mass., reads, “Knowing your neighbor will transform love into power.” Why does love matter in cities? Love is what makes us commit to solving hard problems, to shelter and protect each other. Love may be the only force powerful enough to ensure that every member of our society has a safe and secure home that is connected to the other necessary amenities of life, including recreation space, healthy food options, and transportation to work, school, and medical care. 

I believe America has a future where everyone has a place to call home—not just any place, but a place that promotes health and is environmentally friendly, a place that provides not only shelter but dignity, identity, and grounding in a community.  To do that we need to commit to a national housing policy that reflects our deepest care for each other. The right to housing is recognized in many countries, and in the universal declaration of human rights. The US must create a federal housing policy that ensures equitable access to high quality housing. But, as we know, love starts at home, and states and cities must do the policy work to ensure that federal dollars are invested in housing that reflects the cultural and ecological values of diverse communities. Community development corporations are among the place-based organizations who advocate for the well-being of their neighbors and translate their love and concern into dignified, secure, healthful housing in their communities. To make housing home, we need to agree on a vision of a country where every person has a home, and that starts by knowing your neighbor.

This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Interior Wellbeing. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.

About this author
Cite: Eric Baldwin. ""Architecture Can Heal": MASS Design Group's Katie Swenson on Building Equity Together" 04 Mar 2021. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/957969/architecture-can-heal-mass-design-groups-katie-swenson-on-building-equity-together> ISSN 0719-8884

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