My Summer at MASS Design

Leechen Zhu, Weitzman Master of Architecture, 2024

In the gallery of the MASS office, looking out towards Poughkeepsie’s Main Street, is a quote on the wall by the Austrian architect Walter Pichler: “Architecture is an embodiment of the power and longings of a few men.” Pichler wrote this in 1962, but the sentiment holds today. Most people do not embody their “longings” by commissioning buildings. So then, whose “longings” are architects working to realize? In other words, who can afford architectural services? The typical clientele is narrow: corporations, institutions, and well-off individuals. And yet, despite the wealth of their clients, many architects remain overworked and underpaid. If even their current clients will barely cover their salaries, how can they expand their services to those who cannot afford to pay as much? And even if they could, how would they approach these new clients, who have never imagined themselves utilizing the services of an architect?  

MASS has found a way. When the Poughkeepsie branch was established, they sought to build projects that would serve the local community and revitalize the city. To start, they asked around. What did local folks want to see built? What did local organizations picture for the future? As the team listened and gave input, they illustrated how MASS could fit into these hopes and dreams, all the while building trust and rapport. It was a slow process. It took several years before projects began in earnest. 

Such a long period of consistent outreach was only possible because MASS is not conventionally financed; it is a nonprofit organization. Through funding from grants and philanthropic organizations, the team can sustain lengthy durations of reduced-fee and pro bono services. Such services – helping local organizations understand the architectural process, helping them weigh the pros and cons of expanded facilities, and helping them determine whether a building project is even feasible, way before an architect is on the books – are not part of the conventional architecture market. These preliminary conversations serve two critical purposes: one, an introduction to the construction industry, which is mind-bogglingly complex even for the experienced client; and two, the understanding that MASS, beyond its ability to provide architectural services, is a nonprofit with the inherent expertise to help source funds for a potential building project. The construction market, typically closed to the uninitiated, has opened.  

Nowadays, the Poughkeepsie team is busy constructing the projects that they helped envision in those early years. These past few months, I have been assisting with a recreational and educational facility that has been a long time coming. It is dedicated to local youth, who have been without a YMCA for over a decade, and whose school facilities are deteriorating and severely insufficient. Initial momentum for this project slowly grew over many months, through living room conversations between interested organizations and local individuals. Almost miraculously, as these talks continued, funding grew. Once complete, this project will not only embody the longings of local families and youth, but also the aims and missions of local nonprofits, including MASS itself. More than anything, beyond the technical experience I have gained through daily tasks and meetings, this internship has driven me to imagine the possibilities beyond the conventional model of architecture – such a timely question to consider at the very beginning of my career.  

This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2023 GAPSA Summer Internship Funding Program that is coordinated by Penn Career Services. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here.

By Career Services
Career Services