Book Review: Empowering Architecture

Empowering Architecture: The Butaro Hospital, Rwanda by MASS Design Group, photographs by Iwan Baan, published by MASS, 2012. Paperback, 172 pages. (Amazon)

Regular readers of this web page should know that I'm a big fan of books about buildings, meaning in-depth case studies about individual projects. Some previous reviews include Raimund Abraham & the Austrian Cultural Forum New York, Oyler Wu's Pendulum Plane, and Zaha Hadid's BMW Central Building. Empowering Architecture, self-published by Boston's MASS Design Group, is a welcome addition to this subject. The book carefully and beautifully tells the story of their design and the creation of the Butaro Hospital in Rwanda, so it may become a model for improved facilities elsewhere. Here I'll focus on the book, but for more information and photos of the hospital see this week's dose.

Empowering Architecture is structured into six chapters grouped in three sections: User Experience, Contextual Response, and Community Impact; all of these comes between introductory essays by MASS and Partners in Health (one of the major project partners) and a conclusion on the dignity of the project and its construction. Tying everything together are remarkable photos by Iwan Baan that capture the architecture, the way the building responds to the gorgeous landscape, and the way people actually use the building. Much credit should be given to Baan for the way he has trained his eye on all aspects of the design, construction, and occupancy of the building, making the book equal parts photography and the architects' documentation.

MASS takes advantage of Baan's photography by using them alongside their text and drawings to help explain particular aspects of the hospital's design. For example, one of the chapters in User Experience focuses on "patient-centric design," an important aspect of which is the layout of the beds in the wards. Rather than placing the beds along exterior wall, which directs the view to the center of the room and patients on the other side, MASS oriented the beds about a partial-height service wall that runs down the middle of the room; the patients look toward the windows and the view beyond, not at other sick people. Plans and text on this design consideration (an important one among many) are placed alongside Baan's photos of the wards, making it clear how diagram turns into reality and how the simple inversion of a norm creates a more positive environment.

Each chapter and subchapter addresses an important aspect of the design that could easily inform other projects, such as the orientation of the wards, cross-ventilation, siting, and so forth. At the end of each of the three sections are handy summaries that highlight these design considerations alongside thumbnail photos. These pages also help orient the reader within the larger story, hitting on the things worth taking away and cross-referencing a few of Baan's many photos; this is especially good in regards to the latter, as it's easy to get a little lost in the hundred-or-so full-bleed photos that comprise the book. If the book were not self-published, some noticeable editing may have resulted, giving the book a different form, size, and organization. As is, the book is a thorough expression of MASS and partners' efforts and a convincing argument for place-based, socially aware architecture; it's also a great book to hold and look at.