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  • 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.

  • (Laughter)

  • But there, I learned something different about buildings.

  • Recognition seemed to come

  • to those who prioritized novel and sculptural forms,

  • like ribbons, or ...

  • pickles?

  • (Laughter)

  • 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.

  • (Applause)

  • 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 info@equaljusticeintiative.org:

  • "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?"

  • (Laughter)

  • 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,