Conversation with Michael Murphy

"We have to find a way to do both – make architecture beautiful and socially just." - Michael Murphy

The following is a thought response to a conversation with Michael Murphy, executive director and co-founder of MASS Design Group, an architecture and design collaborative with offices in Boston and Kigali.

Said by: AJ Sivakumar

Entirely through luck (by which I mean I filled a last-second spot the morning of), I was fortunate enough to join Michael Murphy and the student and faculty representatives of the four schools of DAAP for a discussion over lunch. The overtones of the lunch were much like the overtones of Murphy’s lecture: focusing on the role we, as architects, have in the social and political fabric.

“All architecture is public. All architecture is political….Architecture has to re-find or re-embrace its social and political implications, and its social and political agency.” – Michael Murphy

We are not alone. I think in school, we’re increasingly finding the need to work in interdisciplinary settings, because the bubble that is studio culture is misleading and unrealistic. I took Michael’s statement to mean that architecture is entrenched in the living world in the same way the social, political, and economic systems of our world are entrenched in architecture. There is no divorcing one from the other – they are absolutely and unequivocally intertwined. While historically it might have been easier or simpler to separate architecture from these things, the reality is that it is impossible. In the lunch, Michael references the “pendulum swinging” in terms of the conversation of the social responsibility of the architect. He mentions the social agenda or aspirations of Modernism and suggests the contemporary refocusing towards public-interest design to be the pendulum swinging back.

However, he mentioned that this description of public-interest design as a sub-discipline of architecture made him incredibly uncomfortable. He agrees with the sentiment to focus on and demand accountability for the socio-political implications of the work we do but, by relegating these ideas to a sub-discipline, it suggests that architecture as a whole is not built in the interest of the public. The designation in and of itself perpetuates the caricature of an egotistical architect sitting in his or her ivory tower, ignoring the wishes and welfare of the people as a “singular voice and style.” It suggests that we are not, as a profession, accountable to the public when all design is and should be.

Michael Murphy positions himself and other architects instead as facilitators, because architecture is not built for the architect to use. Even while working with communities in cultures outside our own, the attitude cannot be about teaching or fixing, but rather addressing real needs and working with the real values of the community. In talking about working with rural villages in Africa, Murphy says “It was the process that became important – it was the process that was the piece…If they respect [and accept] the process, they respect the product.”

What is our responsibility is figuring out how to do both – to be facilitators of community, values, and needs and to be designers who produce good architecture for the users and the community. We bring something important and valuable to the table, as Michael Zaretsky pointed out during the lunch. But we cannot do it alone. Murphy says, “We have to find a way to do both – make architecture beautiful and socially just.”

That social imperative, I felt, was the key takeaway from the discussions we had with Michael Murphy. It is on us as students and future architects to determine the values of not just ourselves and our practices, but our profession as a whole. It’s not enough to wait for someone else to do it or say it – we have to ask how and investigate those processes and methodologies. It is up to us to do both.

Lunch Attendees: Michael Murphy, Michael Zaretsky, Ann Black, Jordan Fitch, AJ Sivakumar, Chas Wiederhold, Kenna Gibson

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