The sudden death on February 21st of Dr. Paul Farmer, 62, one of the founders of the non-profit Partners in Health, has rocked the world of international public medicine. An outpouring of tributes has honored the physician who worked, hands-on, in some of the poorest communities on earth, in his staunch belief that quality health care is a basic human right.
He countered experts who claimed that impoverished, often illiterate, populations could not be successfully treated for the ravages of diseases like tuberculosis and AIDS. Farmer, trained as an anthropologist as well as a doctor, proved them wrong by creating systems—including networks of aides who reach into communities to keep patients on treatment regimens—that have saved many thousands of lives.
Among the innumerable people inspired by Farmer over the years was a young architecture student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design who heard him speak in 2006. When Michael Murphy approached Farmer after his talk and asked if he worked with architects, Farmer said no. But later, after Murphy had spent six weeks in the summer volunteering with Partners in Health in Rwanda, Farmer called and asked if he might like to help design a hospital in a remote region of the country. Murphy called out to his studio mate, Alan Ricks—both were still at the GSD—and together they began to plan Butaro District Hospital (completed in 2011), under the name of the new firm they co-founded, MASS Design Group.
MASS Design Group is the American Institute of Architects’ Firm of the Year for 2022, and from that first stellar project, the practice has gone on to design a number of additional projects for Partners in Health, as well as other health facilities and institutions in Rwanda (where the firm’s Kilgali office has more than 80 in staff), and a cholera center in Haiti. The lessons from the first Butaro hospital—open air corridors, plenty of cross-ventilation and daylight, views of nature, the beauty of local craft and materials—have become part of the firm’s design vocabulary, right through its recent work on coronavirus-related projects.
The Butaro hospital complex has expanded—with MASS Design Group later building doctors’ housing and a cancer center—and it was there that Dr. Farmer died of an acute cardiac event.
Michael Murphy recalls how Dr. Farmer shaped his life and work.