Every weekend for as long as I can remember, my father would get up on a Saturday, put on a worn sweatshirt and he'd scrape away at the squeaky old wheel of a house that we lived in. I wouldn't even call it restoration; it was a ritual, catharsis. He would spend all year scraping paint with this old heat gun and a spackle knife, and then he would repaint where he scraped, only to begin again the following year. Scraping and re-scraping, painting and repainting: the work of an old house is never meant to be done.
The day my father turned 52, I got a phone call. My mother was on the line to tell me that doctors had found a lump in his stomach — terminal cancer, she told me, and he had been given only three weeks to live.
I immediately moved home to Poughkeepsie, New York, to sit with my father on death watch, not knowing what the next days would bring us. To keep myself distracted, I rolled up my sleeves, and I went about finishing what he could now no longer complete — the restoration of our old home.
When that looming three-week deadline came and then went, he was still alive. And at three months, he joined me. We gutted and repainted the interior. At six months, the old windows were refinished, and at 18 months, the rotted porch was finally replaced.
And there was my father, standing with me outside, admiring a day's work, hair on his head, fully in remission, when he turned to me and he said, "You know, Michael, this house saved my life."
So the following year, I decided to go to architecture school.
But there, I learned something different about buildings. Recognition seemed to come to those who prioritized novel and sculptural forms, like ribbons, or ... pickles?
And I think this is supposed to be a snail.
Something about this bothered me. Why was it that the best architects, the greatest architecture — all beautiful and visionary and innovative — is also so rare, and seems to serve so very few? And more to the point: With all of this creative talent, what more could we do?
Just as I was about to start my final exams, I decided to take a break from an all-nighter and go to a lecture by Dr. Paul Farmer, a leading health activist for the global poor. I was surprised to hear a doctor talking about architecture. Buildings are making people sicker, he said, and for the poorest in the world, this is causing epidemic-level problems. In this hospital in South Africa, patients that came in with, say, a broken leg, to wait in this unventilated hallway, walked out with a multidrug-resistant strand of tuberculosis. Simple designs for infection control had not been thought about, and people had died because of it.
"Where are the architects?" Paul said. If hospitals are making people sicker, where are the architects and designers to help us build and design hospitals that allow us to heal?
That following summer, I was in the back of a Land Rover with a few classmates, bumping over the mountainous hillside of Rwanda. For the next year, I'd be living in Butaro in this old guesthouse, which was a jail after the genocide. I was there to design and build a new type of hospital with Dr. Farmer and his team. If hallways are making patients sicker, what if we could design a hospital that flips the hallways on the outside, and makes people walk in the exterior? If mechanical systems rarely work, what if we could design a hospital that could breathe through natural ventilation, and meanwhile reduce its environmental footprint?
And what about the patients' experience? Evidence shows that a simple view of nature can radically improve health outcomes, So why couldn't we design a hospital where every patient had a window with a view? Simple, site-specific designs can make a hospital that heals.
Designing it is one thing; getting it built, we learned, is quite another.
We worked with Bruce Nizeye, a brilliant engineer, and he thought about construction differently than I had been taught in school. When we had to excavate this enormous hilltop and a bulldozer was expensive and hard to get to site, Bruce suggested doing it by hand, using a method in Rwanda called "Ubudehe," which means "community works for the community." Hundreds of people came with shovels and hoes, and we excavated that hill in half the time and half the cost of that bulldozer. Instead of importing furniture, Bruce started a guild, and he brought in master carpenters to train others in how to make furniture by hand. And on this job site, 15 years after the Rwandan genocide, Bruce insisted that we bring on labor from all backgrounds, and that half of them be women.
Bruce was using the process of building to heal, not just for those who were sick, but for the entire community as a whole. We call this the locally fabricated way of building, or "lo-fab," and it has four pillars: hire locally, source regionally, train where you can and most importantly, think about every design decision as an opportunity to invest in the dignity of the places where you serve. Think of it like the local food movement, but for architecture. And we're convinced that this way of building can be replicated across the world, and change the way we talk about and evaluate architecture.
Using the lo-fab way of building, even aesthetic decisions can be designed to impact people's lives. In Butaro, we chose to use a local volcanic stone found in abundance within the area, but often considered a nuisance by farmers, and piled on the side of the road. We worked with these masons to cut these stones and form them into the walls of the hospital. And when they began on this corner and wrapped around the entire hospital, they were so good at putting these stones together, they asked us if they could take down the original wall and rebuild it. And you see what is possible. It's beautiful. And the beauty, to me, comes from the fact that I know that hands cut these stones, and they formed them into this thick wall, made only in this place with rocks from this soil.
When you go outside today and you look at your built world, ask not only: "What is the environmental footprint?" — an important question — but what if we also asked, "What is the human handprint of those who made it?"
We started a new practice based around these questions, and we tested it around the world. Like in Haiti, where we asked if a new hospital could help end the epidemic of cholera. In this 100-bed hospital, we designed a simple strategy to clean contaminated medical waste before it enters the water table, and our partners at Les Centres GHESKIO are already saving lives because of it.
Or Malawi: we asked if a birthing center could radically reduce maternal and infant mortality. Malawi has one of the highest rates of maternal and infant death in the world. Using a simple strategy to be replicated nationally, we designed a birthing center that would attract women and their attendants to come to the hospital earlier and therefore have safer births.
Or in the Congo, where we asked if an educational center could also be used to protect endangered wildlife. Poaching for ivory and bushmeat is leading to global epidemic, disease transfer and war. In one of the hardest-to-reach places in the world, we used the mud and the dirt and the wood around us to construct a center that would show us ways to protect and conserve our rich biodiversity.
Even here in the US, we were asked to rethink the largest university for the deaf and hard of hearing in the world. The deaf community, through sign language, shows us the power of visual communication. We designed a campus that would awaken the ways in which we as humans all communicate, both verbally and nonverbally.
And even in Poughkeepsie, my hometown, we thought about old industrial infrastructure. We wondered: Could we use arts and culture and design to revitalize this city and other Rust Belt cities across our nation, and turn them into centers for innovation and growth? In each of these projects, we asked a simple question: What more can architecture do? And by asking that question, we were forced to consider how we could create jobs, how we could source regionally and how we could invest in the dignity of the communities in which we serve.
I have learned that architecture can be a transformative engine for change.
About a year ago, I read an article about a tireless and intrepid civil rights leader named Bryan Stevenson.
And Bryan had a bold architectural vision. He and his team had been documenting the over 4,000 lynchings of African-Americans that have happened in the American South. And they had a plan to mark every county where these lynchings occurred, and build a national memorial to the victims of lynching in Montgomery, Alabama.
Countries like Germany and South Africa and, of course, Rwanda, have found it necessary to build memorials to reflect on the atrocities of their past, in order to heal their national psyche. We have yet to do this in the United States.
So I sent a cold email to email@example.com: "Dear Bryan," it said, "I think your building project is maybe the most important project we could do in America and could change the way we think about racial injustice. By any chance, do you know who will design it?"
Surprisingly, shockingly, Bryan got right back to me, and invited me down to meet with his team and talk to them. Needless to say, I canceled all my meetings and I jumped on a plane to Montgomery, Alabama. When I got there, Bryan and his team picked me up, and we walked around the city. And they took the time to point out the many markers that have been placed all over the city to the history of the Confederacy, and the very few that mark the history of slavery.
And then he walked me to a hill. It overlooked the whole city. He pointed out the river and the train tracks where the largest domestic slave-trading port in America had once prospered. And then to the Capitol rotunda, where George Wallace had stood on its steps and proclaimed, "Segregation forever." And then to the very hill below us. He said, "Here we will build a new memorial that will change the identity of this city and of this nation."
Our two teams have worked together over the last year to design this memorial. The memorial will take us on a journey through a classical, almost familiar building type, like the Parthenon or the colonnade at the Vatican. But as we enter, the ground drops below us and our perception shifts, where we realize that these columns evoke the lynchings, which happened in the public square. And as we continue, we begin to understand the vast number of those who have yet to be put to rest. Their names will be engraved on the markers that hang above us. And just outside will be a field of identical columns. But these are temporary columns, waiting in purgatory, to be placed in the very counties where these lynchings occurred. Over the next few years, this site will bear witness, as each of these markers is claimed and visibly placed in those counties. Our nation will begin to heal from over a century of silence.
When we think about how it should be built, we were reminded of Ubudehe, the building process we learned about in Rwanda. We wondered if we could fill those very columns with the soil from the sites of where these killings occurred. Brian and his team have begun collecting that soil and preserving it in individual jars with family members, community leaders and descendants. The act of collecting soil itself has lead to a type of spiritual healing. It's an act of restorative justice.
As one EJI team member noted in the collection of the soil from where Will McBride was lynched, "If Will McBride left one drop of sweat, one drop of blood, one hair follicle — I pray that I dug it up, and that his whole body would be at peace."
We plan to break ground on this memorial later this year, and it will be a place to finally speak of the unspeakable acts that have scarred this nation.
When my father told me that day that this house — our house — had saved his life, what I didn't know was that he was referring to a much deeper relationship between architecture and ourselves. Buildings are not simply expressive sculptures. They make visible our personal and our collective aspirations as a society. Great architecture can give us hope. Great architecture can heal.
Thank you very much.