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Cameron Sinclair: Architecture for Everyone

The Architecture for Humanity co-founder sees new architecture clients everywhere he looks, from tornado-ravaged Oklahoma to war-torn Afghanistan

By Mike Singer

Cameron Sinclair, co-founder and “chief eternal optimist” for Architecture for Humanity, urged attendees at the 2013 AIA Convention to evaluate the true value of architecture in terms of its ability to transform communities in need. “Less than three percent of the world uses the services of architects, yet 71 percent of the world are in dire need of decent design, of good, well-thought, meaningful buildings,” Sinclair said. “Guess who can do it? All of you! There shouldn’t be an architect in the United States out of work if we can tap the 71 percent of people in the world who are looking for dignified shelter and strong communities.”

Sinclair made the case for how architects collectively improve living conditions through increases in safety, public health, education, and community resilience, showcasing dozens of projects from around the globe that architects, working with the organization he co-founded 14 years ago, helped create. “Often when you are in an area that has been hit by natural disaster, or in a post-conflict area, or in an area just blighted by systemic poverty, people see despair and no hope,” he said while showing recent scenes of post-Hurricane Sandy destruction in New York City and post-tornado devastation in Oklahoma. “But when architects go there, they see an opportunity to change, an opportunity to resurrect a community, an opportunity to find new ways to live as community members. And it is this value that we have that can truly transform a nation and transform a profession. And it is this value we need to hold true to ourselves.”

Under Sinclair’s leadership, Architecture for Humanity provides pro bono design and construction services to communities in need, and it has doubled every year to now include 81 staff members, 6,800 design professional volunteers, five regional offices around the globe, and 64 city-based chapters in 27 countries. All these numbers add up to a startling demonstration of the power of design: More than 100,000 people benefit annually from the organization’s efforts. Since its start, Architecture for Humanity has helped shelter and house nearly 2.1 million people.

Architecture, community, sustainability

“Think of our architects as PhD. MacGyver—they are incredibly smart, but they can blow torch like nobody’s business,” Sinclair said to a capacity audience. “We are taking the skills you learned in school, that you honed as a professional, and bringing it to communities that never imagined the idea of an architect, an engineer, or a planner coming to help. When you are given the opportunity to work in communities, you have an opportunity to not just design, but to build, and when you build in a community, it is transformative. We don’t just design solutions, we build them.”

Sinclair, who won the TED Prize in 2006, shared Architecture for Humanity’s model of sustained economic development, where architects take the lead, bringing in technical expertise married with construction capital and construction management. His architect-driven economic development plan involves hiring locally, creating jobs, and providing skills training, so that project ownership is transferred to the local community when the work is done.

“We don’t show up and say ‘Hi,’” Sinclair says. “We stay and make sure it gets done. We partner with local professionals, and always make sure there is an architect of record for each project. When we go in to a community, we want to build the most relevant, effective structures that can be replicated. We are not designing for these communities, we are designing with them.”

With Architecture for Humanity co-founder Kate Stohr, Sinclair launched the Open Architecture Network, the worlds’ first open source community dedicated to improving living conditions through innovative sustainable design. Last year, the Open Architecture Network merged with Worldchanging to expand its work to both the built and natural environment.

Sinclair and Stohr also codified many of their design and sustainability principles into the book Design Like You Give A Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises . In 2012, he and Stohr released the follow-up, Design Like You Give A Damn [2]: Building Change From The Ground Up. In his books and his AIA presentation, his vision of sustainability reaches beyond materials and energy use, to encompass social and economic empowerment that protects the cultural heritage of the communities where architects work.

Through architecture, physical health and social trust

Architecture for Humanity’s recent work has focused on creating spaces that encourage healthy lifestyles. Sinclair described how architects can play a key role in tackling obesity and other chronic health problems by creating open spaces in parks and schools, transportation options, and workplaces that promote physical activity. “We have a health care crisis in this country. We spend twice as much on health care costs than on education. Seven out of 10 Americans are obese or overweight. So when we think about disasters, let’s not just think about the past ones, the visual ones, but the ones that are coming, and health care is a huge one. Is this not a design problem? Is this not work for you for the next decade?”

Sinclair’s speech also demonstrated how offering new buildings with new programs can change perceptions of safety and build social trust. One example was a sports facility that brought together children from warring tribes in post-genocide Rwanda. Another was a skate park in Kabul, Afghanistan. “Where kids are skating together, no Taliban and Afghan are fighting,” he said.

Projects like these are typically described as ad-hoc, tactical buildings born out of extreme need, rough-grained interventions that are far more associated with raw function than formal beauty. But Sinclair doesn’t see it that way. “The most sustainable building in the world is the one that’s loved,” he said. “That is what architects do best. Unless somebody loves the building, they are not going to take care of it. So it is our responsibility to make sure we have the most beautiful, gorgeous structures that [are] going to be loved by that community.”

   
   




Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity addresses the 2013 AIA Convention in Denver. Image courtesy of MattMartin.tv

     
 

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