Unlocking Architecture’s Potential to Invest in Future


Engin Ayaz and Christian Benimana of MASS Design Group discuss how architecture should function, as well as looking into the facts of social design in Africa

Engin Ayaz talks to Christian Benimana from the MASS Design Group in an interview for XXI discussing how architecture should function, as well as looking into the facts of social design in Africa through the office’s projects.

Engin Ayaz: We say we only do architecture when there is no other option. Because it is such an expensive thing with so many limitations; it has a lot of impact if it is done right, but it shouldn’t be done just because it’s the only way to solve [a problem]. I think sometimes, it is one of the worst ways to solve [anything].

Christian Benimana: Yes, exactly; if you are not ready to invest fully in it. And basically I totally agree with you. What you just described is the narrative that has been pushed onto the architecture profession for the last 150 years; where it has basically become this product that only the wealthy can afford. And it is only consumed in a pure artistic form that only the rich ones can understand. That is the type of narrative we are try to fight here. We are trying to argue that: one, architecture solves problems—real problems—and it should be used to do so. And two; people have to invest in it; people have to pay for it. Not only should they invest in architecture; but they have to invest in all these other disciplines that without [which] architecture is not really effective. Like web design and planning, etc. …

EA: Great, it’s exciting to feel likeminded. I really love the way you, in your design section, you describe every building with a question; almost like a point of view. “Can a building heal? Can a building help resist an epidemic?”… How did this come about? Was it like this from the first day, that you had this approach for talking about projects; or did it evolve into it?
CB: It evolved. Basically because I think the questions we were asking with our first project, were to say “how many solutions can we provide with one single project?” I think that was the initial question. I do not know how familiar you are with our hospital project; where the idea was to have a hospital in a rural district in Rwanda. In most cases usually, when that is the case; what we architects do is to design the facility, then we hire a contractor, and we are out. With our hospital, I think the question was that this was one of the most important regions of the country and they never had a doctor before. But we also had the incredible opportunity to work with an incredible person called Paul Farmer; whose whole life mission is to advocate equality in healthcare. He says if it is healthcare that you don’t deserve, then nobody else deserves it. That is his philosophy. I think we got an expression from Paul Farmer, saying, “What is the most we can give back; or can liberate to provide opportunities and adequate solutions? And that went with thinking how district hospitals are built, and how they are designed and laid out—basically moving away from the typical colonial hospital with school-like blocks that are linked with walk-ways; and try to see how we could make this [like] a welcoming environment. Like the most beautiful hospital [which] takes away the grief and suffering that normally goes with people who are seeking healthcare, because they do not feel well. So all of that [makes up] the success of the Butaro Hospital—[which] is going to become the basis for new national standards for district, rural hospitals. It is actually possible to always try to figure out what envelope you want to push, and how much you want to push it, before you get to the drawing board and you start drawing the building. So we call that “mission finding”; and it’s an exercise we now do for all of our projects. And basically the question with our project is always a result of this exercise [directed at] finding what our mission is with that particular project.

EA: I think that is really clever, and it also distinguishes each project, and defines a success criteria. Because usually buildings are defined without KPIs. [Deciding] when this project is successful, basically.
CB: That brings me to—maybe I will jump a bit on one of the questions you asked—talking about house evaluation and research, and that was exactly why it came about. If we are going to say that we are outlining the mission for a particular project, then it is important that we evaluate at the end of it how well we did, or how poor we did it. We argue that that part also has to be an integral part of the design process. Otherwise architecture will always stay unaccountable for all the mistakes and the flaws. There is always a chance to say, “Okay, maybe we did not achieve this mission but these are the reasons.” Either we see them for the next project, or we see what remedies can be undertaken, like immediately pausing the completion of the project to change its course. Because we argue that, down the road, if architecture is not done well, it ends up hurting.

EA: Do you have a project where you had a serious learning [experience] that happened, as an unanticipated thing, which really transformed your next projects, or made you regret some decisions?
CB: I wouldn’t say that [there is] a particular project where we have learned a massive lesson, but all of our projects have been learning platforms for us. I say the most important lesson we had, we learned in projects we do not realize. We outlined our mission and the organization was growing, [when] we had these revelations that when most people come to see us, think that we would work for them free or for barely any money for these ambitious goals they had. One of the things with money is to also bring the partners we work with, or the clients—I call it confronting the truth—to talking about “What do you want to do?” Or [to ask] “do you really understand it?” Let’s go through the exercise together and find out what it is you want to do; and being realistic about what it is going to take, for you. And if you understand and you are still willing to do it, we are happy to support you [in] going all the way and getting it done. I think that it the biggest lesson that we have learned. Not everybody knows what they want. It is up to us to help them find out what they need and work with them. If you understand architecture the way we understand it, it is important that the people we work with also understand it, and are willing to invest in it.

EA: Do you charge for these pre-research phase, or do you usually have to do it at no cost while you are trying to convince them?
CB: It depends on the type of the partner or the person who is approaching us. There are obviously organizations that we really feel like their mission is aligned, and their cause—and [at times] you are really convinced that there is no way they can afford the time up front. We are a non-profit architecture firm, but that does not mean we want to undercut the market and do the work for bono. Because we say that that is also one of the problems of the market; that it basically kills the industry by undercutting the professionals working in it. We are arguing that the professionals should be paid, yes, but the professionals should do more. When there are such organizations that cannot afford to pay that up front, that is for our not-for-profit [instances]. With our catalyst funding, we are able to support them and to front all of this work. With the hope, and the mission, that this is going to yield an economic return which will be [something] like full project fees that we realized together, or an emotional return, or an environmental return, or something that can contribute to changing policies, or [impact] how such organizations set budgets for their projects. Maybe we get the next one—but it’s appropriately thought about. So we have different metrics of measuring, and it has to be better every time we have such partners.

EA: Specifically for healthcare and education, were there some behavioral insights that you have learned, [something] like—a hospital only works with 150 people, because after that people start not knowing each other; or in classes, you need a certain type of [situation]. It can be even small things, as long as they are kind of specific, and that people will be like “okay, if we have this insight, then we probably have ten others.” There is no room to share all of it, but sometimes the anecdotes stick better than generalizations.
CB: There are these things we are basically discovering. For a long time hospitals have always been thought as these very generic clinical spaces. But when you go deep down into conversation with the doctors, they start telling you how these parts that make up the hospital have these different requirements. And they cannot all have the same sterile, clinical requirements. When you go around to hospitals, you can see that there is recognition for some of these. Whenever you enter a pediatric quart you always see the attempt to soften the space by painting cartoons on the wall, or things like that. Why can’t the architect design for pediatric patients or for children? Or when you talk about maternity services, and when you talk to the doctors, [there is] this narrative that a pregnant woman is not a patient [that], which comes on again and again. We have been treating them like patients, because in the history of medical treatment, for one reason or the other, the professionals have been pushing for C-sections, because that is how hospitals make money, and doctors can control their schedules. So basically, [they are] forcing women to become patients. While a woman who is pregnant and gives birth normally is basically, not really a patient. So how do you design that space that supports that type of a journey, and the life [it brings] and the pain she goes through; [while] not making it [seem] like she is sick; and [which] removes the stigma that associates childbirth with being sick. This is also reflected in U.S. economy policies, paying woman less because when they have babies, they become a burden to the company. You start from this notion and look into how it affects your work and how it affects the work of other people, and policies; and hope to change that.

EA: For instance in the maternity projects; there is the Maternity Waiting Village, and more. So how did that affect the design in these cases?
CB: Basically for the maternity waiting home—it is a home, it is not a ward. So that is why we say the way it existed was not adequate. It looked like a hospital ward, but they needed a home; because it is a place where they are in transition before they give birth. So they need a place to live. It is a home, not a hospital. That is why we designed them as a unit, as a home, as a village.

EA: Even that word changes %80 of the project anyways.
CB: Exactly.

EA: You criticized the undercutting of the industry with bono. What do you think—because you are in the field—about what the editor of the magazine called “a slum porn in the architecture media”? Do you also feel like people are also abusing this, as an attention grab? Of course not everyone is, and some are sincere. But are you ever becoming victims of it, or are you using this type of cynicism as an advantage?
CB: I want to ask you what you meant by that.

EA: It is basically the externalization of the moral question. The media in the west feels better about publishing about a refugee camp. Because they feel like they contributed. But in reality, what they can do is far more, and on the other side; some practices are maybe using this type of marketing to push themselves to the front. I don’t think that is ever the case with MASS. Because you have such consistency with your projects; and it is right in the center. It is in your centroid. But for some others, they are like projects for the rich, where [they say] we have also done this inflatable refugee camp and it is exhibited on designboom. You know what I mean.
CB: I think you are absolutely right. One of the major things we criticize again is that coming and doing one project, and leaving afterwards, and to say that we finished our job. We are arguing that we need not only be invested in these things, in these communities we work with, and these places; but we have to make sure that all of our actions are leading to what we call a systemic change. And I totally agree with you. So getting one project and doing it very well—I do not think that is a bad thing. Assuming that because the project is done and finished, and that you can get recognition for it; I don’t think that is also a bad thing, but I do not think it gives enough power to architecture design—which it deserves.

EA: Jumping to collaboration, you mentioned mission finding. That is obviously one method. When we are trying to do it here, we first try to make sure that the participant list is as good as it gets. We spend a lot of time making sure that everyone who has to be around the table is around the table. Is it also the same for you? Do you find it sometimes politically difficult to get all the decision-makers around the table at the same time, so you get the right mission set?
CB: It is a constantly changing thing. We make sure that, like you say, the people are there when you are having these discussions. Because even when we start arguing which wall has to go where and what color we have to paint the walls--when those arguments start getting heated—we can always step back and say “actually, which of these arguments are worth having before starting the mission?” And then [we look into problems to see] if there is a need to include things—or maybe [if] we have overreached with the timeline we have… and a lot of these things. So it is a constantly evolving thing and we find it difficult sometimes that people who are supposed to understand these things claim they know what is to be done. And then they do not have time for [the exercise] and [they ask] if they really have to be there, and have the patience, and take part in these exercises. And more projects prove that this model works [better]—so more people will understand and change their minds.

EA: Do you have other methods of collaboration with the wider stakeholder community? How do you go about? Do you interview doctors and patients, or do you work with ethnographers or do you usually do it in your team as architects? What’s your method for it? Not the client’s side, but the future users’ side in a way?
CB: On all our projects, before we start, we go through a long immersion; where we basically have to go that community and be a part of it, understand it, and meet as many people as possible and do interviews, meetings... In addition to that there is another component that we hold dear too—and that is observation. So we do not believe in community meetings where we sit and take notes on what people are telling us; we also feel like sometimes we can keep quiet and listen, also observe and see these things. That is pretty much how we have been doing it.

EA: And you do it yourself, not with social scientists, right?
CB: No, we do it ourselves.

EA: I guess that also answers the next question. How do you draw out the shared values and priorities and decide whose [values] matter more? So that’s like a prolonged process, right? Not like [they] immediately come up, but as you observe and discuss you just let things emerge, it seems to me. It seems [to me] like you observe and discuss, and big issues rise to the top over time—versus following a more strict methodology of sorts.
CB: We make a point to, let’s say, step outside of those circles. For instance, we have our clients who are coming to us with all these amazing projects. And then we have to step outside the circle and see what the local government is thinking, what the central government is thinking, what are the [other] players who are doing the same thing—so you do not duplicate them, etc….

EA: Do you usually run into problems [when] it starts with big ambitions, but whenever you propose a new material, a construction method or something else; there is this inevitable conversion to the average where people say “why don’t you use this brick, it is already available.” Or you know this ex-version or this contractor…?
CB: People think that they know what we do. And they seem to think they do so better than us. Yes we face those problems all the time. People say, “we built this project for this amount of money, so you should build it for the same amount.” You should not explore anything; you should not push any standards. You should basically draw what we have in our minds. I do not think it is going to go away any time soon.

EA: But do you feel like with the portfolio you have, you have more gravitas to say “let us do our thing, you have already engaged us because you want something different.” Because sometimes I feel when you have a more arrogant tone, you can get things done easier—in a sad way.
CB: It is my hope that we will have that power to be able to say that—let us do what we want. We have proven it so many times but unfortunately, it is still not the case at the moment, we still have to have this conversation with the people we work with, and tell them how much impact they can create if they work with us.

EA: Jumping to the ethics side of the questions, you use dignity a lot. Do you have a definition for dignity? What defines it really?
CB: No, we don’t have one single definition, I guess. But anything we do that gives us, and the people we work with, a sense of pride and honesty, the sense of being accomplished, of having contributed to something great—I think that is the dignity we talk about. In addition to things like we were discussing earlier, one thing was [the narrative of] the pregnant mother as a sick patient... There are varying ways you can define dignity. In our case, it is just to do as much as you can for, and with, the people you work with.

EA: This [next one] is probably the most philosophical of all questions and therefore probably a bit trickier to answer. I do not know how I would answer it myself. Should the means be justified in the end, or should the means have to be just as well? And maybe as an applied question of this is: I am sure you are doing these large projects in Africa. I don’t want to assume anything. I have never been to Rwanda. I traveled in Africa for three months in other places. There is a sad history of corruption in most of the states because of the initial western influence and how everything is ingrained. And that corruption I am sure extends itself to any large project where there is this budget that has to be managed, or this site to be transformed... These projects are noble at the end but sometimes, do you feel like you have to face and accept the small unethical steps in between that you witness; which you do not enact yourself?
CB: Obviously that happens but I think there is no single answer to that question. And we must all adjust our judgement based on the situations we are dealing with. And sometimes there are instances where one has to be part of that or to witness it. We make a very clear stance on integrity. The means matter as well.

EA: Did you ever have to pull out of a project because of you witnessed a similar problem? Like you said “With this structure, with these people, we cannot continue this project” type of thing.
CB: No, we haven’t have to do that, because, like I told you, we do our creating as early as possible; and we engage in a project only when we are sure we are going to go full ahead.

EA: This whole environmental thing—the "environmentally favorable", I like that framing a lot more than sustainable—and I thought that was deliberate, the way you said it. How do you define environmentally favorable? Can you articulate that philosophy a bit? For instance, is it really the end-performance of the building, or how it changes the behaviors of the occupants? Or [do you have] any other priority?
CB: It is all of them. To be environmentally favorable is to make sure of that when we’re dealing with local materials, we are not disassociating them from local skills—the people that can put all those local materials together. We want to make sure that not only the building performs as much as it can, favorably for the environment, but also how it’s put together, [how it] contributes to us as much as possible economically, and [be] socially sustainable to the environments. It is one thing to say that the building performs well because we used all local materials that were imported from different regions of the country, but we also imported the labor that came and put it together. It is always such a situation we try to avoid—we try to localize as much as possible.

EA: So the local labor is part of your definition there.
CB: Exactly, it has to be. They are available skills, or teachable skills—to the people available in the area.

EA: For instance, the technique that you used in Ilima Primary School—I am sure that the local skills were relatively scarce there, right?
CB: Exactly.

EA: Was it difficult to educate? Did it put a risk on project budget and schedule as well?
CB: It was extremely difficult but we had to do it. And we had to prove that it is an efficient method of doing it and it is the only way of doing it, actually.

EA: For instance, when the client is African Wildlife Foundation—that sounds like a bigger NGO. You explained them the case, and they took on the risk, I suppose. That cannot be an easy dialogue. To tell them, “we don’t know how long this will take”. On the African Design Center, do you have any plans to replicate it or is it more of one-off project? What do you mean by African Design center? What is your vision about it?
CB: The vision is that we are starting it by being an apprenticeship-based model. Ideally, it would grow enough in capacity, and geographically, to be able to do more projects and help more fellows on more occasions. Because the impact you are targeting is continent-wide.

EA: On that front, Architecture for Humanity is one precedent. What do you thing they did right and what do you think they did wrong? Because they folded as you know. Not that everything can be comparable but it sounds like engaging people in practice-based projects and growing impact—they had a similar vision. What do you think about it in general?
CB: I would say that maybe one thing Architecture for Humanity did was the independence of chapters. So for Architecture for Humanity, in Rwanda, that would be challenging. I could say though, whatever happens, the core principles of the African Design Center will be the same everywhere. Maybe the findings and the nations of the project differ based on how things are. But the same principles of outlining of the mission of the project, evaluating how well the project went and being totally accountable for that community—those are things I feel like if you do them, you might as well do them well and we may not suffer the same thing.

EA: It was too much empowerment to local branches, in a way.
CB: Right—without proper guidance. Truth be told, this landscape working of humanitarian architecture, if you want to call it that, is a very sensitive one. A very wrong move could end up not achieving what it’s meant to—it is the least that can happen. It could end up hurting people at large scales. That’s the case with the interventions on cholera in centers and tents in Haiti, which made the problem worse. These are the thing you want to be cautious about.

EA: What are the advantages and disadvantages of being an NGO? Do you want to retain it that way or?
CB: We definitely want to retain it. One of the advantages is that it really gives us flexibility to work on the mission-aligned projects, which is not an asset most of architects possess. Most of those with shareholders have to be concerned about [monetary things.] We don’t have it that way. We are accountable for our staff; we are accountable for the communities we work with. And we want to keep it that way. A disadvantage would be not having your work not being recognized as architectural work, as it deserves to be, and keep being fronted as social architecture or African architecture—that is what we want to fight [against]. Because we can take on any architecture firm in the world, the work we do matters as much as, if not more, than the tower you’re doing in Dubai. But we need to take attention away from designing golden sinks to people doing actual work that are changing lives in a more positive way.

EA: Every project you have is a mission and a question. What would be the question that you haven’t answered yet, but you would like to think about and try to answer?
CB: I ask myself a lot of questions. I would say the question that is constantly on mind is “How can architecture ensure Africa’s potential; and materialize [it] in a safe, sustainable way?” That is the major question that is constantly on my mind. And I am yet to find a good answer. I think the African Design Center is my attempt to address that question.

EA: So safety is an important thing then? No negative consequences because you are saying there are a lot of negative consequences of… Safe and sustainable are two key words, I guess.
CB: Exactly.

EA: By saying sustainable you mean in a way where it is almost like scalable right—not like environmentally sustainable.
CB: Exactly, it starts and keeps going. It doesn’t collapse in 20 or 50 years. [In a way that] the continent can sustain it.

EA: Do you want to share anything else?
CB: I would just say that, I have to thank you: I think it is important that you feature the work and tell these stories. [Telling these stories] is an integral part of us being able to achieve an impact, because more people can reach [us] and get this type of work. I feel like anybody who reads this article, or comes across it, can discuss it with their friends and [within] social media circles; and come up with criticism positive or negative. We would be happy if they share [it] with other people, [and encourage them] to join and to contribute. Not only in Africa, but everywhere.


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