TED-Prize Winner Cameron Sinclair Dishes on Cambodia, Working in Asia

Cambodia has “yet to be spoilt by poorly built ‘Westernized’ block construction.”


Cameron Sinclair is best known as the co-founder of Architecture for Humanity and the winner of the TED Prize in 2006, but what you don’t know is that he literally never sleeps. Jet-setting from Sausalito to Uganda to Kosovo, we get the rare snapshot of one of his recent trips to Cambodia, right during the historic Khmer Rouge trial this week, and find out who he hung with there and why he forsakes sleep for the cause of sustainable, open-source architecture.


Also there on assignment for Design Like You Give a Damn 2, a book that celebrates creative community-centered design, Cameron wants everyone to know that this week is your last chance to nominate a product, design, or innovation to be published in the book.

Why were you in Cambodia this month?
I went for a number of reasons. The first was to fulfill a promise I made two years ago to help Lulan Artisans expand their Cambodian operations. It coincided with a Lulan trip planned for the winner of a TED stage prize, Todd Grant, and his son Whit. This meant I got to actually take Saturday off to visit Angkor Wat and the Angkor Thom Complex. Thanks to the World Monuments Fund, who I worked with over 12 years ago, we got a tour of their amazing work on Angkor Wat, Phnom Bakheng and Preah Khan Temples.

Additionally we are in the midst of writing the second volume of Design Like You Give A Damn and we have three Cambodian projects short-listed for the book that I wanted to visit. I only managed to make two of them, the new visitors center at the Angkor Childrens? Hospital and a preservation irrigation and reservoir reconstruction project 15km outside Siem Reap. The book will be available in Spring 2011 and fingers crossed my write-ups make the cut.


Tell me about Lulan Artisans.
Founded by social entrepreneur Eve Blossom, Lulan Artisans is a for-profit social venture that partners with artisan cooperatives and takes a holistic approach to sustainable development. Over 800 weavers, dyers and spinners in 5 Asian countries develop fabric and product for local and western markets. Eve, a former architect, has been working in the region for the past 20 years and has developed this business to create local sustainable businesses to assist in the prevention of human trafficking. Her weavers not only get a housing stipend but their children also get an education. You can find out more from a recent talk she gave at the 99% conference.

How is food security linked to the preservation irrigation project?
What I love most about my job is stumbling across interesting projects that tackle multiple issues ” access to clean drinking water and food security are the most important ones out there right now. I was lucky to meet Yinh Ya of Human Translation and Bryse Gaboury, Co-Founder of Advancing Engineering and Project Manager at Engineers Without Borders ” NY and find out about their collaboration to restore a reservoir that was first developed in the Angkor period. The project has created a stable supply of water to help grow crops for the Balang Commune, representing over 9000 people, that have been faced with a severe food shortage since an earthen levee was destroyed during the 2000 rainy season. The project was first proposed by Tobias Rose-Stockwell of Human Translation who worked with the community for many years to enable this project to happen.

How does Cambodia fare compared to other Southeast Asian nations with regards to sustainable architecture?
There isn’t much fanfare about it but Cambodia has yet to be spoilt by poorly built “Westernized” block construction. There is an incredible richness in the indigenous architecture in the rural communities and the real need is to empower and support local building professionals, folks like Yinh Ya, to utilize appropriate technologies and materials to continue the sustainable building that has existed in the country for centuries. I think there is a lot more we in the west can learn from advancements in sustainable architecture in emerging markets than vice versa.

We wrote about the historic Khmer Rouge trial this week. What was the mood like while you were in Cambodia?

Very subdued. It reminded me of my time in Rwanda during the genocide trials. It is more interesting to figure what is not being discussed over what is. Communities are very open to talk about the affects on their families during that dark period but it is hard to get a true read on the mood.


What are AFH’s main projects right now?
We are expanding greatly and have around 35 architects and designers in the field. We have a dozen education buildings and youth centers underway in Haiti, Peru, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. We are finishing up our tenth health clinic in India and are still working on an orphanage. Naturally Haiti is taking up the bulk of our work but with the current economic downturn limited funds have forced us to say no to most requests we have coming in right now. Hopefully that will change.

We’ve got a number of domestic projects, although a majority of work in the United States is done by our amazing city-based chapters. Finally in the next month or so will announce the topic of our 2011 Open Architecture Challenge.

What can we expect to see from AFH in Asia in the next couple of years?

Architecture for Humanity has had a presence in Asia since 2003, although small. Most people don’t know we’ve been working quietly in post-cyclone Myanmar for the last few years and recently completed our work in India and Sri Lanka after the 2004 Tsunami. Our Dhaka chapter in Bangladesh has been doing incredible work in the country and given it is ground zero of climate issues I expect to see a lot more work happening there. We’ve been talking to groups about school building in Indonesia, low-income housing in Papua New Guinea and we have a number of local city-based chapters opening in China and Japan in the next year.

About the author

Jenara is an overseas reporter for Fast Company and a freelance writer/producer in Asia, regularly on CNNGo, and a graduate of Harvard and UC Berkeley.