Following the 2004 tsunami that ravaged the South East Asian coastline, Architecture for Humanity constructed schools, medical clinics and community centres that had an immediate positive effect in the devastated areas. Co-founded in 1999 by Cameron Sinclair, Architecture for Humanity develops innovative design solutions for global, social and humanitarian crises. The non-profit organisation is now focusing on design solutions for the havoc reeked by Hurricane Katrina and the Kashmir earthquake.
Sinclair first became interested in social and humanitarian design as an architecture student at the University of Westminster and the Bartlett School in London. After graduating, he moved to New York where he worked as a project architect while founding Architecture for Humanity in response to the need for transitional housing for refugees returning to Kosovo at the end of the Balkan conflict. The experience established the template for future projects: a global network of designers and architects submitting competition proposals for tackling social issues, with the winning entries overseen by Sinclair and his partners.
Although previous and ongoing projects have centred on building transitional housing for refugees or reconstructing communities destroyed by disaster, Architecture for Humanity does much more than disaster relief. Using design as a catalyst for change and embracing Sinclair’s slogan ‘design like you give a damn’ – Architecture for Humanity is also developing projects such as a football facility and HIV/AIDS outreach centre for young girls in Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
Q. How do you describe what you do – both as a concept and as a practical working method?
A. Essentially I work as a conduit between the design industry and the humanitarian world. In addition to developing and managing a number of projects we also raise funds for implementing design schemes. In the NGO world risk is seldom taken and introducing new ideas can take decades – we embrace innovation and provide the opportunity to take it from the drawing board and implement designs in the field. We also respond to natural disasters, however only within the confines of long-term reconstruction. By working directly with an affected community and on-the-ground local charitable organizations we help introduce new appropriate and leapfrog technologies within vernacular buildings. By integrating local construction technologies we can hire those affected and begin micro-economies that allow for long term renewal not just rebuilding.
Q. When did you first become interested in architecture and design?
A. Originally I thought I would become a war photographer or go into politics but in my late teens I became interested in design and spent a couple of summers working in architectural offices in Bath, England. It was around then that I became influenced by a design teacher during my ‘A’ Levels. Living in Bath at the time I was surrounded by great historic architecture but what court my eye was the awful public housing projects that seemed to blight the city. I was intrigued how a design team could formulate a building that was very quickly seen as a detriment to the community. Unsurprisingly politics and poorly thought out cost cutting exercises plays heavily into development of ‘bad architecture’.
Q. When did you first become interested in design for global change?
A. My family lived near New York City since I was a teenager and I was fascinated with the city. I watched the city change from having a very public homelessness issue, from the Tompkin Square Park riots to the gentrification of the city and eventual ‘Disneyfication’ of Times Square. By the time Guiliani was mayor the city declared itself clean and the issue resolved. While researching for a pre-diploma project I found out that there was just as many homeless living on the streets and in the subways than had been prior to New York’s much touted clean-up. I focused on developing transitional and self-built sustainable housing. It was from then that on almost every project I worked on had a level of social consciousness involved.
Q. How did you come to found Architecture for Humanity?
A. Ever since I was interested in design almost every designer and architect I spoke with want to get involved in responding to humanitarian issues. As a profession our role is to improve the built environment but we seem to serve the needs of the very few. Well thought out and innovative design should not be tied directly to cost and we have an amazing opportunity to improve the the built environment for everyone. We began Architecture for Humanity thinking that there were a number of designers who thought alike but did not have a platform to do this work. We began as a response to the housing needs of returning refugees in post-conflict Kosovo – from which a number of housing prototypes were built.
Q. How did Architecture for Humanity evolve?
A. We initially sought to advocate good design, then as we grew we instigated a number of projects, like the mobile HIV/AIDS clinic project, and most recently we are implementing projects in the field. Every one of these projects is a pilot to show the world that is architecture can not only be cost effective but innovative at the same time. Organizationally we are still just a handful off fulltime people – recently we grew from two to three. However we have thousands of locally based volunteers working in cities around the world. Our strongest local chapters have grown in Boston, London, New York and Minneapolis.
Q. What makes architecture or design humanitarian?
A. Designers should strive to improve the built environment however most architects focus their attention for civic or cultural buildings or housing for a very slender portion of our society. While we talk a lot about creating green building the impact of what we do affects very few people – globally our efforts are almost non-existent. That is not to say there aren’t designers involved in humanitarian activities – and this means far beyond just responding to natural disasters or systemic issues. The creation of public space is equally important as well as the way we design institutional buildings such as schools. What a designer does to enrich human life can be defined as humanitarian – if anything our role should be pre-emptive rather than seeking immediate solutions to a crises.
A good example is earthquake mitigation in low-income communities. If a 6.0 quake hits a major western metropolis the loss would be significant however if that same quake hits a city in a developing nation, as we saw in Kashmir, the results are horrific. We have the technology and skills to address these issues yet the current solutions are decade old. There are three fault lines in the region and thousands of school collapsed along one of those lines due to poor construction – in addition to recovery process we should be actively retrofitting every school along the other two fault lines.
Q. What is the balance of considerations when designing – are aesthetic considerations as important as ethics?
A. It is an equal balance. It discredits the work of humanitarian designers to believe they are only interested in creating functional spaces. We are not just creating houses but homes. We are not building civic buildings but gathering spaces. When working in the field you find that beauty is almost more respected than with an affluent client in a western country. However it is important that a design does not impose an aesthetic but you can work with a community to develop or refine one. The third leg in the equation is economics. If you design a building which costs a lot to maintain it will never survive, especially in a community that has just suffered great loss. For instance in Sri Lanka we were working with schools that were receiving less that $11 in annual assistance for maintenance and supplies – by introducing rainwater harvesting and passive solar technologies we can keep costs to a minimum and the school can spend more on supplies for the children. Additionally most of the schools and centres we are building are within the economic level of the country – once built and assessed the plans, protected by the Creative Commons Developing Nations License, can be replicated by others.
Q. How did the Somkhele soccer field project come about?
A. It originated from a project we launched in 2002 to develop mobile health clinics in Sub-Saharan Afric Once finalists were selected we took them to Africa to work with medical professionals, engineers, community member and locally based architects. During this workshop the community came to us with an idea about creating a space for the local youth to interact with medical professional in an open and inviting forum. Rhana Naicker, who works at the Africa Centre of Health and Population, myself and a number of locals sat and talked about building a sports facility that not only would serve the areas youth but be the home to the first ever girls football league. We then hosted a open design competition which lead to hundreds of entries from around the world.
Q. You do a lot of work outside of disaster areas that involves raising morale and simply having fun – how do these pursuits sit within your busy schedule?
A. Not sleeping helps.
Q. Are there any other examples of interventions of design and humanitarian aid that you admire?
A. Where to begin – for every ‘star architect’ project there are hundreds of designers working with communities around the world. Part of the reason we wrote the book ‘Design Like You Give A Damn’ was to give a voice to the many architects and designers I’ve had the honour of getting to know.
Q. Who are the designers and architects you admire?
A. Hundreds. I have been influenced by a number of visionaries and dreamers like Buckminster Fuller and Hassan Fathy to pragmatic realists such as Fred Cuny. Design wise I really like the work of Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Rick Joy, Future Systems and Geoffrey Baw
Most of those I really respect but never make the covers of magazines. Designers like Sergio Palleroni, Sandra D’Urzo, Diebedo Francis Kere, Nathaniel Corum and Steve Kinsler as well as relief workers like Chuck Setchell (USAID) and Rick Hill (CHF). I would also like to note groups like the Aga Khan Development Network and ITDG for pursuing innovative ideas both architecturally and environmentally.
1973 Born in London.
1993 Studies BA degree in architecture at University of Westminster.
1996 Starts postgraduate study at Bartlett School of Architecture in London with a thesis on transitional housing for New York's homeless population.
1997 Works for an architectural firm in New York designing retail stores including Harvey Nichols in London and the Gum Department Store in Red Square, Moscow.
1999 Co-founded Architecture for Humanity with Kate Stohr. Launches Transitional Housing for Returning Refugees. Project architect with Lauster Radu Architects working on the restoration of the Brancusi sculptural complex, a mixed-use redevelopment plan for Harlem and the South Bronx and the award-winning 30-year rejuvenation plan for the town of Tirgu Jiu, Romania.
2000 Project architect with Gensler in New York, helping design the award-winning School of the International Centre of Photography in Manhattan.
2001 Key member of the Gensler disaster recovery team for Lehman Brothers after September 11 terrorist attacks destroyed their offices in the World Trade Centre.
2002 Architecture for Humanity launch the Mobile HIV/AIDS Health Clinic Competition receiving record number of entries.
2003 Wins Nice Modernist Award from Dwell Magazine and launches an exhibition of the OUTREACH competition in United States, UK, Denmark and Italy. Begins ‘Design Like You Give A Damn’ lecture tour donating all fees to Architecture for Humanity.
2004 Named one of the Aspen Seven, seven people changing the world for the better by Fortune Magazine and wins the Design for Humanity Award from the American Society of Interior Designers. Architecture for Humanity responds to the 2003 Boxing Day earthquake in Bam, Iran. OUTREACH workshop hosted in Somkhele, South Africa and Siyathemba competition launched.
2005 Among various awards, wins Lewis Mumford Award for Peace and the INDEX Design for Life Awards for Community. Assumes position of Professor at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montan Challenges US government to implement proactive strategies in case of natural disaster. Initiates rehabilitation programme in the Gulf Coast creating community design centre for Biloxi, Mississippi and later ‘wash houses’ in Waveland, Mississippi following Hurricane Katrin Four mobile HIV/AIDS clinics go into operation in Nigeria and Keny Supports Global Village Shelters for Grenada after Hurricane Emily with over 70 homes erected. Exhibits structures for Mobile HIV/AIDS Health Clinic by LILA Design and Global village shelters at Centre Pompidou, Paris and Museum of Modern Art, New York respectively. Designs and develops a school of leadership and the arts in Calcutta, India for the non profit Kids With Cameras. Housing and community buildings developed and built in response to the South Asia Tsunami.
2006 Wins TED Prize and granted one wish to change the world. Appointed Cass Gilbert Visiting Professor at the University of Minnesot Partners with the United Nations (UN HABITAT) to design and build community buildings in Sri Lank Collaborates on the designing and building of Africa’s’ first Telemedicine centre in Ipuli, Tanzani Design Like you give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises published by Thames & Hudson.