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AIA 2013 Convention Keynote:
Cameron Sinclair’s Public Interest Design Movement Infuses New Leadership in the Design World

Public interest architecture is the “secret weapon” for explaining the value of architecture beyond the profession, Sinclair says

By Angie Schmitt

AIA Convention keynote speaker Cameron Sinclair has built an empire of architects for the good. Since launching Architecture for Humanity just less than 14 years ago, the London native and cofounder Kate Stohr have grown the organization to include 50,000 design professionals at 73 chapters in 25 countries. Each year, 100,000 people benefit from structures created by Architecture for Humanity.

Along the way, Sinclair penned a bestselling book, picked up a TED prize, and launched the Open Architecture Network (now “WorldChanging), an open source community for design professionals working to improve living conditions around the globe.

Sinclair will address the 2013 AIA Convention in Denver on June 21, expanding on the themes of humanitarian design leadership established by the conference’s first keynote speaker, Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS Shoes. Mycoskie’s innovative business model organically builds altruism into its brand, by giving one pair of shoes to impoverished children in need for every pair of stylish, simple slip-ons they sell. The final day of the Denver convention will provide an opportunity to be inspired by a man who’s the epitome of an elder statesman, someone who has dedicated his life to serving others--General Colin L. Powell, USA (Ret.).

At 38, Sinclair says he feels like “one of the grandfathers” of the public interest design movement. As the market for architects has faltered in recent years, his work has begun to be seen as less of a charity arm of the profession, and more as an exciting new province that can set the tone for generations of architects to come. There’s a sort of worldly globe-trotting sophistication to Sinclair’s work—in Peru one week, Port-au-Prince the next—but there are steps any architect living anywhere can take, even just philosophically, that can lead them towards greater public engagement and outreach. How to–as the title of his book puts it–Design Like You Give a Damn. Sinclair sat down with AIArchitect recently to explain how architects can join the movement.

Lesson 1 - Get Involved with Architecture for Humanity

Volunteering in a local Architecture for Humanity chapter is one way to get involved in our organization. We have 36 city-based chapters in the United States doing incredible projects to strengthen their towns and neighborhoods. The nature of this work presents a great opportunity to learn to listen and understand what value we bring to the system. If there isn't a chapter in your area, we can help you start one.

Another way to get involved is to apply to become a Design Fellow. Architecture for Humanity has a fellowship that is one year in the field working alongside local architects, builders and communities. We have 70 design fellows globally right now, the majority of which are in Haiti and Japan. As our [Hurricane] Sandy rebuilding develops we will take on a lot more domestic fellows along the Eastern Seaboard.

These architects volunteer their professional services, work on a stipend, and manage all aspects of the architectural partnership, from conception to completion. Where we see opportunities to make [a] tremendous impact in specific areas, we've partnered with organizations to support fellowships or fellowship roles. For instance, we have an AIA/USGBC fellowship, the second year running, working on sustainable design in Haiti. The country is at a critical point in their development, and our partnership keeps environmental design at that table.   

Our staff focuses on managing work from one of five offices. Program managers are full-time, and work on two areas of focus: sustainable development and infrastructure reconstruction and resilience. Through these three avenues we are beginning to develop a career in public interest design. 

Lesson 2 - Don't differentiate Between Professional Work and Doing Good

The history of architectural discourse has always involved architects assuming some level of social responsibility for the city they worked in. Pro bono architecture has always been part of the profession, and with the globalization of our profession we have somehow lost that ideal.

Public interest architect is not new; it’s really swinging the profession back to where we’ve been before. But this time around public interest design has given architects an outlet. But it has no modern history. There are no rules, in a way, no certificates. Part of the good side of having no regulation is that it’s easy to get involved.

I recently sat next to an environmental sustainability expert from Vienna. I told her what we did, and she showed up in my office the next day to volunteer. It is that simple. 

Lesson 3 - Redefine Your Work or It Will Redefine You.

At a recent retreat with public interest designers we realized that we’ve been spending most of our time trying to explain the value of pro bono work to architects, but we need to explain the value of architects to the rest of the world. We need to start taking an outward facing conversation to the general public and the national government. I almost see public interest architecture as a secret weapon for those outside the industry to try to explain our work in a much wider context. Sort of like the emergency room doctors explaining the value of medicine.

The other thing that’s highly import: Architects don’t talk enough about economic development and safe communities created by their methodology. The thing that people don’t realize is the job creation mechanism that we have. We created more than 7,000 jobs in Haiti last year because of our construction methodology, which is one that maximizes local involvement.

Whether it be the NEA or HUD, part of our conversation is not, ‘How do we get architects this job?’ but, ‘How do we use a methodology to stimulate solutions to the problems in this town?’ We don’t want to fix Detroit, we want to jumpstart Detroit. 

If we use architects to jumpstart cities, there’s more jobs for for-profit architects.  By using pro bono architects to really be that catalyst, the cities that do recover are going to rebuild with an understanding of the value of architects.


Cameron Sinclair, founder of Architecture for Humanity.


Recent Related:

AIArchitect Special Issue—Form, Function, Force Multiplier: Design for the Common Good

HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan: Architects Must Address Urban Policies of the Past with Designs for the Future

Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author David McCullough on Architecture’s Debt to History


Back to AIArchitect January 11, 2013 Issue

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