AL-HUSSEINI: Architecture that's built to heal

Special The Butaro District Hospital in Rwanda, designed in part by Michael Murphy, features outside hallways and natural ventilation. The Butaro District Hospital is a notable example of lo-fab development.

"Most of our cities are built with just faceless glass, only for economies, and not for humanities." -- Frank Gehry

Frank Gehry is a Canadian-born American architect known for the contemporary style-represented in his works to include the Guggenheim Museum in Spain and the STATA Center at MIT. Gehry reflects, "As an artist, I've got constraints. Gravity is one of them. But within all those constraints, I have 15 percent of freedom to make my art."

As an engineer in training at Georgia Tech, I am taught to think wisely about the remaining 15 percent. The skills we learn in textbooks and machine-shops ensure we are careful and calculating, lest we design a bridge or pacemaker that fails. Once a design is well-functioning, at least in the mechanical sense, we then often tinker to consider the human side of the contraption.

Sometimes there is no distinction between the human and mechanical side of projects, as is well demonstrated in biomedical engineering. Though the world of humans and machines is often considered separately, the reality is not so black and white. The 85 percent and 15 percent are connected, and consideration of both internal and external elements must begin early in the design phase.

In short, skills allow us to graduate as professionals. Art allows us to graduate as craftsmen. The best engineers and architects are both.

Michael Murphy, a 2016 TED Talk speaker, is one such architect. Murphy opens up by telling his heartfelt story on stage. He describes helping his terminal cancer-stricken father restore the old family home. This would inspire him to attend architecture school. It was there that Murphy met Dr. Paul Farmer, a health activist for the global poor, who would challenge him and his peers to design for the most unfortunate among us.

When we think architecture, we often imagine towering, gleaming skyscrapers in large urban environments. As Murphy states however, "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?"

Murphy rose to Dr. Farmer's challenge, and then some. He designed hospitals in Rwanda and Haiti, a birthing center in Malawi, an educational center in the Congo, a university campus for the deaf community in Washington D.C., and most recently, an incredibly touching albeit sobering memorial for those lynched, in Montgomery, Alabama.

Remarkably, the most outstanding aspect of Murphy's portfolio may not be the final products, but the process by which they were built. Murphy advocates for a locally fabricated, or "lo-fab," way of building. Lo-fab design rests on four pillars: hire locally, source regionally, train where possible, and consider each design decision as an "opportunity to invest in the dignity of the places where you serve."

Though Murphy has made it his mission to design for impoverished and underserved communities, we may, and should, take these same lo-fab principles into consideration when developing public projects in Douglasville. In truth, these principles are already well-represented in our city values. As Douglasville continues to build in downtown and elsewhere, let us remember that architecture and engineering are not simply means to an end. They are what make the end worthwhile once we get there.

Mahdi Al-Husseini is the volunteer organizer of TEDxDouglasville, a senior at Georgia Tech studying biomedical engineering and public policy, and a U.S. Army cadet.

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