Michael Murphy: Training African architects is one of the most important needs of our time

Architecture can help bring about wholesale change in Africa, one building at a time, says the founder of MASS Design Group, Michael Murphy.

There are approximately 25 000 licensed architects in Africa – a quarter of the number in Italy today. This is according to US architect Michael Murphy, the founder of MASS Design Group which started as a Boston-based firm but now works in 10 countries on the continent.

“There’s a huge need for investment in training the next generation of architects in Africa,” says Murphy, whose firm has been responsible for the design of some of the most innovative hospitals and school buildings in Africa today.

“If we don’t invest in training architects, designers, thinkers and creative leaders in the subcontinent we’re going to see major public health disasters, major pollution, incredible urbanisation that’s super problematic,” he explains. “I would say it’s one of the most important needs of our time.”

But there’s more at stake than just keeping up with the continent’s fast-growing building needs. Architecture at its most effective can be a symbol that helps bring about a wholesale change of the system at large.

This is how MASS Design Group approached the Butaro Hospital in Rwanda, for instance. It was built in one of the last two districts in Rwanda without a public hospital, where over 340 000 people live.

The new facility was designed to mitigate and reduce the transmission of airborne disease through various innovative systems, including overall layout, patient and staff flow, and natural cross-ventilation. The design used local materials such as nearby volcanic rock from the Virunga Mountains and local labourers. This approach reduced the facility’s price tag to roughly two thirds of what a comparable hospital would typically cost in Rwanda.

One hospital is great for that community but if we design it in such a way that we’re trying to change the entire infrastructure of hospital construction, it becomes a metaphor for something greater than itself.

The just–opened Ilima Primary School, commissioned by the African Wildlife Foundation and built in a remote area of the Democratic Republic of Congo, was built for and with the impoverished local community. During construction, the architects and local masons found a way to improve traditional mud block techniques that could then be replicated on other buildings in the community.

Murphy sums it up: “This was a great example of how we try to leverage as much local knowledge and practice as possible to develop an architecture which is of that place but also ‘full-stop’ architecture that is an international statement that we can build from what we have available around us.”