Lian (Harvard GSD M.Arch.I)

I graduated in 2013, but still blog here once in a while.

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    Campus Catalyst: MASS weighs in at World Architecture Festival

    By Lian Chikako Chang
    Nov 15, '10 4:37 PM EST

    Hello Archinect!

    Big congratulations to GSD architecture students Robin Bankert, Michael Murphy, Caroline Shannon (my M.Arch.I. 2nd year classmate!!) and Joseph Wilfong, who brought home the top prize from the World Architecture Festival earlier this month in Barcelona!

    This year's theme at the festival's AECOM-sponsored Urban SOS competition was called “Transformations." Entries had to present integrated design and planning responses specific to one of seven cities worldwide (Beijing, Istanbul, Jeddah, Johannesburg, Phoenix, Port au Prince, or São Paulo) that are currently undergoing major changes. The competition attracted 200 entries from 70 schools in 45 countries around the globe, out of which four semi-finalists were brought to Barcelona to present more developed proposals.

    A few images from their presentation:





    The GSD team chose Port au Prince and their project, called Campus Catalyst, proposed leveraging the power of education to help Haiti rebuild after its catastrophic earthquake. As Caroline described it, “the idea is to empower people affected by the disaster by setting up community learning hubs close to the affected area. In these centers, they will be able to learn skills such as carpentry, basic construction and agronomy. Along with providing immediate assistance, these life skills will contribute to the community’s long-term social, economic and environmental sustainability.”

    In explaining its selection, the jury, which included Sir Peter Cook of the UK, Nabil Gholam from Lebanon, Sofia von Ellrichshausen from Chile, and top AECOM designers and executives, cited this underlying premise of using education as a driver of long-term change, together with the proposal’s specific and pragmatic recommendations towards this end. And while the project was specific to Port Au Prince, the jury also saw that its strategy could provide a framework for post-emergency transformation in other areas around the world.

    While all of this has been well covered in the AECOM press releases, what has not been covered—but is well known to all of us at the GSD—is that this team is part of MASS, one of the most exciting start-ups to come out of the GSD in the past few years. The mission statement of MASS is “We Build Social Value Through Design,” and Caroline’s internship with them was supported by the GSD's Community Service Fellowship Program. I sat down with her recently to ask her about her work on the competition and with MASS. Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

    LC: Congratulations again to your whole team, Caroline. What was it like presenting your work in Barcelona?

    image [Photo credits: All Campus Catalyst images are courtesy of Robin Bankert, Michael Murphy, Caroline Shannon, Joseph Wilfong, and AECOM]

    CS: It was exciting. They had a huge exhibit hall where awards and projects in all kinds of categories were being presented, and the student competition was the first thing you saw when you entered the hall. And we presented to seven incredibly accomplished jurors. We had choreographed the presentation so that all four of us spoke; it was awesome! It was the first time I had written out and practiced beforehand—and even slept—and we thought, hey, we should do it like this more often.

    LC: Obviously a lot of work. How did you organize your time?

    CS: MASS had been working on many of these ideas for ‘real’ proposals over the summer, so we saw the competition as a way of exploring these concepts in a more abstract, more free way. Because of the previous work we had done, we did the first round in a week. But in the fall it was…oh boy…maybe 200 hours all together.

    LC: Could you tell us a bit about MASS?



    CS: I wasn’t around when MASS started in 2007, but it was born out of a partnership with Paul Farmer and Partners in Health to build the Butaro hospital in Rwanda that is opening this December. The idea is that there’s a great need for architectural and design thinking, especially in places that are resource-limited where poor design and construction can really be a matter of life and death. In Haiti we’ve seen how buildings can collapse, for example, and in Butaro, MASS worked on airborne disease control, which is a major concern in third world locations. The basics of proper sanitation, airflow, water, and so on—it’s the building that really provides that. So MASS tries to provide those services but also makes a wider argument through advocating how architecture can be of value in terms of social, health, economics, and so on.


    And the focus is on community-based projects, on generating value locally. In Butaro, for example, the masons that built that amazing volcanic stone wall, because of the training they got at that site, are now sought after throughout the country to provide those services.


    LC: How do you think your involvement in this competition will affect your work?

    CS: There’s a big gap in architecture between people who are the leaders in the field, who were trained in the non-digital age, versus those of us coming out of school with all these tools but who don’t know yet what to do with them. So this kind of project, in which we had to have a really clear idea of what we were doing and present a layered approach with interdisciplinary thinking, was a good example of how the kind of complexity that we’re used to generating at the GSD can be implemented in a very controlled, and more analog way.

    And for me, it was really interesting to get out of the GSD bubble, where we experience a certain range of the discipline, and to go to the World Architecture Festival. That’s not a value judgment either way, but the GSD is providing us with a certain perspective and there’s a lot more out there. The World Architecture Festival is really about practice as it is—buildings that have gotten or are getting built—and there’s a reality attached to that. What we do here is project theory into the future and talk about potential, which is super exciting but not a good gauge of the reality of practice today. So it was great to step back from the theoretical ideas we talk about and see all of this—a discussion not dominated by starchitects. And it was amazing to go there and realize that—whether you’re from Harvard or wherever—that people were really excited to hear what other people were doing. And that gives me hope.

    image [Photo credits: all MASS project photos are courtesy of MASS]

    LC: That’s pretty amazing. Last question: are you going to continue working with MASS?

    CS: Nothing has been firmed up, but AECOM is interested in continuing to develop the proposal, and Michael [Murphy, Executive Director at MASS] has been working on it. There’s definitely lots of need, and lots of development money in Haiti that needs to be spent properly, so there’s a big opportunity there.

    LC: Thanks so much, Caroline!

    CS: Thank you!

    And thank YOU, gentle readers, as always.

    P.S. For more on Urban SOS and MASS:

    Urban SOS
    Paul Farmer on the Butaro hospital

    P.P.S. My review of Foster + Partners' ‘Art of the Americas' wing for Boston's Museum of Fine Arts: First Look: MFA Gets Foster-ed


    • 10

      congrats to the Harvard team! excellent work.

      Nov 15, 10 7:48 pm  · 

      Congrats!! A friend was on the shortlist for the GSAPP team, but I'm not bitter :)!!!

      Nov 17, 10 12:33 pm  · 

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About this Blog

This blog was most active from 2009-2013. Writing about my experiences and life at Harvard GSD started out as a way for me to process my experiences as an M.Arch.I student, and evolved into a record of the intellectual and cultural life of the Cambridge architecture (and to a lesser extent, design/technology) community, through live-blogs. These days, I work as a data storyteller (and blogger at in San Francisco, and still post here once in a while.

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