MASS Design Group: Transforming society through symbolism 

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MASS Design Group visited the University of Connecticut on Oct. 26 to share their mission to “research, build and advocate for architecture that promotes justice and human dignity.” The group advocates and designs spaces across the globe in a large variety of countries, including Rwanda, Haiti, Malawi and the United States.  

One of their most noteworthy monuments is the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, located in Montgomery, Alabama. This memorial was the first national memorial to address lynching in the U.S., and is meant to acknowledge Black victims whose stories have been suppressed for decades. 

The group began by presenting how architecture has great significance and influence on society, and how the proliferation of different symbols deeply impacts social and mental well-being. MASS takes this influence very seriously, and acknowledges that they work to carry the responsibility to display multiple complex histories. 

An important term MASS used in their presentation is public memory. Public memory is the shared pool of recollections that contributes to a community’s identity. These memories are rarely uniform, as they are held by a variety of individuals. Yet together, they acknowledge the way the public frames the past, while bringing up the aspects people collectively forget or suppress. 

Although public memory is a conflicting dialogue, it is a dialogue that is necessary for growth in society. MASS uses architecture and design as their method of spatializing and symbolizing this dialogue. 

To give some context of architecture’s social impact, MASS members pointed out a recent showcase of the influence of different U.S. memorials and statues. An example was a Christopher Columbus statue in Boston being decapitated, as well as a Confederate statue being torn down in Durham, North Carolina. This was in 2020, when the Black Lives Matter movement was garnering more attention around the country, resulting in the removal or destruction of many racist statues by the public.  

These statues that stood for so many years go to show the effect colonization has had across America, as well as the marginalized groups of people whose history has been denied. MASS strives to uplift the voices of these marginalized communities through their projects. The group aims to support their clients in changing the narratives of public spaces in order to reconcile with history and create opportunities for public healing.  

The group presented two of their current projects: a memorial park in Sugar Land, Texas and the More Up Campus in Montgomery, Alabama. Sugar Land is where convict leasing – a form of forced labor – emerged in the late 1800s. In 2018, the remains of 95 individuals who were victims of convict leasing were found in the now wealthy, suburban area of Sugar Land. MASS is now working to create a memorial to honor these victims.

The More Up Campus in Montgomery is a site dedicated to honoring the sacrifice of Anarcha, Lucy and Betsey, the enslaved experimental subjects of the so-called “father of gynecology,” J. Marion Sims; the campus is currently home to the “Mothers of Gynecology” monument. MASS is supporting their client Michelle Browder to expand offered services for visitors through spaces of joy anchored in history. 

MASS Design Group continues to work with communities across the globe and ended their presentation with the following questions: How is public memory spatialized beyond memorials? How do we move from acknowledging trauma to bringing joy? And lastly, how do we acknowledge the past while also fostering the future?  

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