Designing for the Future
When war broke out in Iraq on March 20, a relief organization phoned Cameron Sinclair for help designing refugee shelters. In 1999, Sinclair had founded Architecture for Humanity, now a network of more than 7,000 architects and designers who offer solutions to global social and humanitarian woes. His first venture: an international competition to design housing for Kosovo refugees.
From Cameron’s original entry:
Tell us what you do (or what your team or organization does) and the specific challenge you faced.
Cameron Sinclair is the founder of Architecture for Humanity, a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded to seek and promote architectural and design solutions to global, social and humanitarian crises. Through competitions, workshops, educational forums, partnerships with aid organizations and other activities, Architecture for Humanity creates opportunities for architects and designers from around the world to help communities in need. In addition to implementing design initiatives and competitions, (Outreach: Design Ideas for Mobile Health Clinic to Combat HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa and Transitional Housing for Kosovo’s Returning Refugees) Architecture for Humanity aims to promote humanitarian and social design through advocacy and education programs.
To that end, we have consulted with government bodies and relief organizations on a number of projects, including mine clearance programs and playground building in the Balkans; earthquake recovery assistance in Turkey and Iran; and refugee housing on the borders of Afghanistan. At the university level, architecture and design programs around the world have used our competitions and design criteria as a model for semester-long projects. Elementary and high school students have also benefited from our design initiatives through after-school workshops. Our challenge is to encourage the design profession to respond to the 98% of the world that do not benefit from our services and to foster public appreciation for the many ways that architecture and design can improve lives.
What was your moment of truth?
There is phrase I use alot ‘there’s nothing worse that being all mouth and no trousers” referring to those who talk about getting involved in something they feel passionate about but then never actually do anything. I’d rather fail at trying to succeed than succeed in failing to act. I had spent most of my education looking at low-income housing and helping communities in need. In the mid-1990s my work focused primarily on New York’s homeless population and whether it would be possible to create self-built, sustainable housing for a transitional population that at the time numbered close to 70,000. When I entered the real world, the opportunities to engage real-life problems were few and far between. Within four years of working, I realized I had worked on projects in over 20 countries. It seemed to me that as a profession that benefits from working internationally, we had a level of global social responsibility.
In early 1999, I saw a documentary called The Valley. This film was about a six-week journey that took place in the epicenter of the Kosovar conflict. The filmmaker, Dan Reed, spent time with both ethnic Albanians and Serbs, each fighting the other for control of the valley. The film provoked two realizations. First, I realized the extent to which scorched-earth tactics had destroyed the valley’s homes. Then it became clear that the residents were determined to return–no matter what destruction lay ahead. Within a couple of weeks NATO and allied forces were pounding Kosovo with aerial bombardment. All we heard on CNN was “the end game” and “our tactical goal.” The question of how hundreds of thousands of displaced residents would return and rebuild their war-torn country seemed to come later–almost as an afterthought.
It occurred to me and the group of people I was working with at the time that five-year transitional housing could be built next to the existing homes of returning refugees to provide shelter as they rebuilt their former homes. Originally, I had planned to work on the project myself, but then realised that as a 24 year old designer it would not make an impact other than in my portfolio. The more I researched it, the more it became apparent that this was a global issue and that the design world could better respond collectively. By the end of the day, Architecture for Humanity was created.
The first thing we did was to team up with War Child USA, a charity working within the refugee camps, to get a direct communication set up with refugees and compile a team of relief experts from nongovernment agencies, the United National High Commissioner for Refugees, and the United States Agency for International Development. Together with Lauster & Radu Architects (the firm I worked for at the time), we created design criteria and wrote up the submission requirements.
Within six weeks, and with the help of Bianca Jagger, then a War Child patron, we launched the competition at the Van Alen Institute–which incidentally has been incredibly supportive and has partnered with us often to host events since, including the jurying and exhibition our projects. Although participants had only three months to submit ideas, the website (our only source of communication) received more than 50,000 visits, and we collected more than 200 entries from 30 countries. The response was incredible. We were surprised and somewhat overwhelmed.
What were the results?
2003 was a tipping point year for us, partly due to having a number of volunteers who devoted their time to making it happen. It’s not the organization but those who are getting involved, submitting ideas, and volunteering their time, who are making the real impact. We hope that by continuing to facilitate projects, socially motivated design will become a greater part of our education and practice. Here’s a brief run down of stats from ’03 0 salary staff members 5 exhibitions 6 staff members (1 fulltime) 14 age of youngest donor – his months’ pocketmoney 18 lectures given 435 square foot studio which doubles as office and home 510 meetup participants in 115 cities 776 websites linking to Architecture for Humanity 2,370 cups of coffee drunk by founder 5,450 lecture attendees 8,070 AFH members 32,940 emails answered 42,000 visitors to the AFH exhibitions in 2003 98,500 miles traveled (approx.)
What’s your parting tip?
If you strip away the theory, ego, and the hype of design, what we all do is provide shelter. Where resources and expertise are scarce, innovative, sustainable and collaborative design can make a difference.