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March 7, 2007

Architecture for Humanity

Architecture for Humanity was founded in 1999 as a charitable organization promoting architectural and design solutions for global, social, and humanitarian crises. Through competitions, workshops, educational forums, partnerships with aid organizations, and other activities, AFH creates opportunities for architects and designers from around the world to help communities in need. Artkrush editor Paul Laster talks to AFH co-founder and director Cameron Sinclair about the organization's history and current projects.

AK:  What was your motivation for co-founding Architecture for Humanity?

CS:  The idea for Architecture for Humanity came when I was watching refugees returning to Kosovo after the war. I was struck by the living conditions they faced; winter was coming, and their homes were in rubble. It was a situation that demanded a better building solution, yet architects weren't responding. At first I thought of responding myself, but as an architect based in New York with primarily commercial experience, I felt that others — particularly those in the region — would probably have better solutions, so I launched a competition. There was a huge response — some 350 to 400 entries. And, in fact, a couple of Serbian architects entered the competition with a very nice note that said, "It is not us who are doing this, it is our leaders . . ." We still have that note.

AK:  What was the outcome of the competition?

CS:  We received entries from more than 220 design teams from 30 countries. We also gained funding by charging a small entry fee and through an appeal in the UK's Guardian newspaper. Buoyed by the fact that we had not only several feasible designs but also funding, we tried to negotiate building a number of housing units in Kosovo.

It ended up being our first confrontation with the brutal realities of providing international aid. In order to get building materials through customs, secure a site, get work permits, and facilitate other aspects of a housing program, we needed approval from the interim Kosovo government. However, the interim government, which was seeking aid from the international community, wanted 20,000 homes or none at all; we could build fewer than a dozen. The nonprofit War Child, which had given us direction early on, negotiated with local officials to no avail; the project ground to a halt. Short of building the structures in Albania and smuggling them across the border by helicopter — a possibility we briefly considered — we could find no way to get the shelters to those who needed them. In the end, War Child used the funds to provide immediate aid to the returning refugees and later to rebuild schools and medical facilities. However, the competition did raise awareness regarding the need for temporary, transitional shelters, and when we did work following the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004, we found that many nongovernmental organizations were building transitional shelters rather than providing tents or waiting to build permanent housing.

AK:  Since 2004, AFH has been involved in designing AIDS information and treatment centers in Africa. What AIDS-related projects do you currently have underway, and how do they assist their communities?

CS:  Our first project combining AIDS information and treatment was a 2002 design competition where design teams were asked to develop schemes for a mobile medical unit that could provide basic healthcare as well as HIV/AIDS testing, prevention, treatment, and education to underserved populations in the region. Teams from 51 countries answered the call, and four were selected for further development.

During 2004, we partnered with the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies to hold a design charrette in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, an area with one of the highest AIDS rates in the world. The four finalist teams from the mobile HIV/AIDS competition attended and worked one-on-one with healthcare professionals, facilities managers, and others to refine their designs. The teams also visited a range of clinics in the area, allowing them to see firsthand the needs of healthcare professionals battling the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Currently, a local partner has taken this on, so we'll see what happens.

We also challenged designers to create the perfect "pitch" in Somkhele in KwaZulu-Natal. This facility, to be run by medical professionals from the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies, will serve as a gathering place for youth between the ages of 9 and 14 and as the home for the first-ever girl's football league in the area. The pitch will also act as a place to disseminate information on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment and eventually act as a service point for mobile healthcare, tying in with that project and built, with any luck, on the same site.

AK:  In 2005, AFH was involved in supporting the use of Global Village Shelter — paper housing designed by Ferrara Design, Inc. and featured in the Safe exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art — as temporary homes on Grenada, which had been hit by Hurricane Emily. How important are inexpensive, portable structures — such as this one and Shigeru Ban's Paper Loghouse, which has been used as transitional shelter for earthquake victims in Turkey and India — to the recovery and reconstruction of areas that have suffered natural disasters?

CS:  It really depends on the situation. Temporary paper shelters were very important in Grenada because the island had been hit twice in a row and was in the process of rebuilding when the second storm destroyed what was left of their housing stock. They were also used successfully in Sri Lanka after the tsunami. They were very important in Pakistan, where there was no time to build permanent shelters before the onslaught of winter and where very little alternate housing (repurposed schools, government buildings, and other facilities) existed, because they had also been destroyed.

They were not as useful in New Orleans, where most people were simply relocated, or on the rest of the Gulf Coast, where people were housed further inland while they rebuilt their own homes. There, the transitional housing of choice was the trailer, and even then people only lived in them if they had to work in the area or had some other compelling reason to be there. Other kinds of transitional housing were shunned by residents who preferred just staying in a hotel — even if that meant paying.

So, the transitional structure really needs to suit the environment and the need — and frankly, sometimes there are other easier, better solutions.

AK:  What's the design history and basic philosophy conveyed in Design Like You Give a Damn, which was edited by AFH and published by Metropolis Books in 2006?

CS:  Our publication is a compendium of innovative projects from around the world that demonstrate the power of design to improve lives. These aren't necessarily Architecture for Humanity projects — in fact, most aren't. They are simply projects that show the myriad ways that design can improve lives.

Designers have long been interested in this area, but it doesn't get a lot of press. Kate Stohr, Architecture for Humanity's co-founder and the editor of the book, wrote a 100-year history of the movement toward socially conscious design, and it shows that there has been a lot of effort over the years. We're not the first to approach humanitarian problems from a design perspective.

AK:  Could you have developed so quickly without the Internet? How has the AFH website helped spread the word and get people involved, and how do you foresee your upcoming online project, the Open Architecture Network, effecting community design?

CS:  Our website is our lifeline — we absolutely could not have grown like we have without it. Last year we won the TED Prize and that enabled us — with additional support from Sun Microsystems, AMD's 50x15 Initiative, Hot Studio, Creative Commons, and others — to build the Open Architecture Network. It's the first site to allow users to share CAD files and blueprints online. The site grew out of our frustration in trying to share files and manage projects in places where there wasn't always a great network or computer setup (we can almost always find an Internet connection, though). The Open Architecture Network allows designers to share files, comment on files, rate projects, and manage projects — it's going to be a great tool. This new site will allow us — and the entire design community — to work remotely much more easily, which will hopefully translate into more projects and more communities benefiting from the work of designers around the world.

Architecture for Humanity's work is on view in Design Life Now: National Design Triennial 2006 at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York through July 29 and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston from September 8 to January 6, 2008.

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