words Justin McGuirk
Our architects will probably never grace the front cover of a magazine,” says Cameron Sinclair. “Not for this work.”
Sinclair runs Architecture for Humanity, which he proudly describes as the largest non-profit design organisation in the world. His team consists of four people. That includes himself and his wife, journalist Kate Stohr, who co-founded Architecture for Humanity with him in 1999. When he says “our architects”, he is referring to a network of hundreds across the globe who have established their own local chapters of AfH and are working on humanitarian design projects, whether they be post-disaster reconstruction in the developing world or shelters for the homeless in American cities. Many of these people Sinclair has never met, many of the projects he doesn’t even know about. He calls this “the Wikipedia model.”
In 2006 alone, Sinclair estimates, AfH helped 12,000 people. Most of these were not by building homes – in fact, the organisation has only ever completed 130 buildings – but through shelter provision, community projects, fund raising or damage assessment. After Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, AfH raised $4 million in six months and completed damage assessments of 3,000 houses in the same time it took the American Institute of Architects to complete three. Last year, Sinclair won the TED prize, an award in which a select group of the world’s most successful businessmen offer three visionaries (one of this year’s winners was Bill Clinton) the opportunity to fulfil a wish to change the world – Sinclair’s was to improve the living conditions of five billion people.
That wish has just started yielding its first fruit. In March, AfH launched the Open Architecture Network, an open-source online platform for sharing all of the organisation’s design strategies and construction blueprints with, well, anyone. The venture promises not just to galvanise and streamline the humanitarian design industry, but ultimately – with one in three people predicted to live in slums by 2020 – to create “citizen architects”. At the same time, AfH has partnered with microchip giant AMD to create what is in effect – although Sinclair is circumspect about calling it this – the biggest architecture prize in the world. The Open Architecture Prize is worth $250,000 – the only difference being that it doesn’t just go to the winner, it covers the building of their design.
“What we’re looking to do is create urban acupuncture, where you can place a building that will create real change in the community,” says Sinclair, who is sitting over two untouched pancakes in the breakfast room of his Cape Town hotel. It’s the morning after his presentation at the Design Indaba conference, in which he announced the Open Architecture Network initiative, as well as firing a broadside at the architecture profession for its negligence in helping the poor and dispossessed. If there’s one thing Sinclair can do, it’s talk. Articulate, impassioned, politically scathing and with a harrowing statistic at every fingertip, he was a sense-talking evangelist – and he’s still going. “Every designer in design school wants to do these sorts of projects, and there’s no benchmark of what’s a success and what’s a failure. Everybody says, ‘OK, I’m going to do refugee housing. Aha, let’s use shipping containers!’ That’s been done every year ad infinitum and it’s just awful. The thing with shipping containers is that they get to about 140º and people die in them.”
One of the many benefits of AfH’s new online platform is that people can see which design solutions work in given situations. “The whole network is based around the lessons we’ve learnt over the last nine years,” says Sinclair. “We don’t want other people to have to learn them – we’ve made those mistakes.” Every design is there to be adapted for different situations, multiplying into hundreds of variations. Sinclair’s intention is to roll out humanitarian design solutions on a global scale – to move beyond the perennial pilot scheme or student project.
But Sinclair knows better than anyone how easily relief schemes can go wrong. He tells the story of how a community bakery AfH designed for a village in Sri Lanka after the 2005 tsunami fell victim to local politics (the government wouldn’t allow the concrete to be delivered, and Sinclair sees it as a flaw in the design that it required this specific material). He’s had to develop a thick skin when it comes to raising a community’s hopes and then disappointing them. “In this arena of work there are so many horror stories it’s unbelievable. Most NGOs will not admit to you that their average success rate is about 35 per cent, because it’s all based on donor dollars. If an NGO came out and said, ‘Oh, by the way, all that money you gave us, well we kind of blew it because the project didn’t work out…’ They’re never going to say that, which is why you have those houses with asbestos roofs that I showed yesterday, it’s why you have Hurricane Katrina, a billion dollars missing – that’s why.”
In his talk, Sinclair pointed out that the US military and construction giants Halliburton and Bechtel are the world’s largest providers of humanitarian reconstruction. Notwithstanding the obvious connection between that reconstruction and the American war machine, Sinclair’s point was that at least two of those organisations are in it for the money. “They’re making billions!” he says, exasperatedly picking up his point from the day before. “The Iraqi police station, which is a prime example of what’s wrong with the reconstruction world, cost $17 million, and sewage seeped out of the plumbing so badly that they call it the rainforest.”
By comparison, AfH is a cottage industry. Its Projects are infinitely more modest, but also infinitely more thoughtful. Its success stories range from folding shelters for hurricane victims in Grenada and a series of schools for tsunami-ravaged Sri Lanka to a simple ferryboat scheme in India to get children to school across a burst estuary. Now, funded by Oprah Winfrey, it is building houses on the Gulf coast of America to replace those destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and, here in South Africa, it is about to break ground in KwaZulu-Natal with an intriguing scheme for a football pitch stand that doubles as an AIDS clinic, aimed at tackling the 50 per cent infection rate in the area. Sinclair’s policy is to build around the needs of the community and to treat its members as clients rather than victims. His mantra, which is also the title of AfH’s book, is “design like you give a damn”.
AfH is based in Sausalito, California, but Sinclair is English, and his accent slides disconcertingly back and forth across the Atlantic. A south Londoner, he says his desire to help people overcome bad architecture came from growing up in Peckham and Camberwell. As an architecture student at the Bartlett, everyone else was doing glamorous “ribbon architecture” while he was developing a project for New York’s homeless. His tutor said it was too depressing and asked him to resubmit his drawings. “I bought a one-way ticket to New York and left, overnight.”
Sinclair’s single-mindedness was matched only by his chutzpah. Two years later, working as a “CAD monkey” in New York, he called the toll-free number for the UN wanting to propose his ideas for housing refugees in Kosovo. “I said, ‘I’d like to speak to the head of refugees.’ And they said, ‘One moment, I’ll put you through.’ And I’m like, ‘Shit, I’m 23 and I’m on the phone with the head of UNHCR.’ I told them about the housing ideas and they said, ‘This sounds like a great idea, why doesn’t someone from your team come in and show us?’ and I’m like, ‘Fuck’.” Sinclair and some friends pretended to be a firm. The project stalled when the UN decided that the Kosovans were not technically refugees, but Sinclair launched a design competition anyway. He called it Architecture for Humanity.
The organisation that grew out of that competition now has chapters around the world, from London to Iowa and, imminently, Cape Town. “I love the fact that in LA there are three rival groups – Santa Monica, Hollywood and Venice Beach. It’s like they’re different street gangs.” However, while the Wikipedia structure of independent activists is all very utopian, what happens to AfH’s hard-won credibility when ?one of the groups acting under its banner messes up? “There are going to be projects that I’m not so happy with,” answers Sinclair, “but if Architecture for Humanity does anything, it’s improve the reputation of architects, and prove that we’re not a bunch of airy-fairy, cape-wearing nancy boys. We’re not only proud of the work we get involved in, we’ll just keep pushing.”
Architects – the famous ones at least – are Sinclair’s favourite whipping boys. After the Boxing Day tsunami, he wrote to 250 of the world’s best-known practitioners asking for support, and only Richard Rogers (who was busy) and Lebbeus Woods replied. So an unglamorous, figurehead-free organisation suits him fine. Indeed, what Sinclair sees is a generation of young volunteers working in difficult conditions and getting the kind of training they would never get in architecture school. “They may be the next Rem Koolhaas,” he says, “but because they cut their teeth on community-based design, on projects with a social conscience, they’re going to infuse that into their work.”
Sinclair himself, though he currently flies around relentlessly getting projects off the ground or just trying to keep them moving, anticipates a future when he can let AfH run itself and go back to being a designer. Either that or go into politics. He may look like an overgrown teenager but he has the stage presence and the gumption for the latter – he says he picked these up as a student working evenings as a manager at a comedy club in London: “If you can do 400 drunk people in a midnight show at the Comedy Store, you can do any political event.”
What keeps Sinclair driven for now, though, is the relationships he builds with community leaders, whether in South Africa, Sri Lanka or Biloxi, Mississippi. “Every one of the people I work with on the ground is a hugely amazing spirit – you want to give a Nobel prize to every one. It’s really humbling to work with people who have lost everything but have a much stronger spirit than you.”