Originally published in Design Institute’s Knowledge Circuit, November 2006

My companion in line and I stood earnestly if not wearily at the head of a standby line for the nights sold out event, a book launch for Architecture for Humanity’s ‘Design like you give a Damn.’ The sold out line, beyond my expectations of the event wound sinuously around the sumptuous, if dimly lit, Beaux Arts Library; there was a great deal of anticipation, as ticket holders shuffled in, while others joined the line.

Admission was finally granted to myself, and a few others; we were to sit in an overflow roof, capacity of 25, to watch a simulcast of the event. The climate controlled room filled with the quiet acquiescence of event goers denied space in the main venue. The event was billed with the rhetorical question, and implicit morality, of re/defining the role of the architect from: creator of ‘signature monuments that define and exalt our cultural and economic values’ to one who engages people where they live and work, and recognizing sustainability — not as a luxury (or faddish trend) but as a necessity. A query of this sort is often accompanied by hand wringing and bemoaning of design/architecture to be more than a shill of commercialism, to have an autonomy and pursuit all its own. This didn’t bear any of those traces. Its complete and utter lack of artifice and pretense was refreshing.

A quote by Buckminster Fuller is projected on screen, and John Hockenberry presides over the evening events with an informal grace. Tonight’s event brought ‘the official end of Fashion Week’ Hockenberry quipped; dispensing with much of the eccentric pop and pomp of “starchitects,” the presenters dressed casually, blue jeans and loafers. Hockenberry proposed reordering time into “pre-Cameron” and “post-Cameron”. That is exposure to an individual and organization that translate passion into idea for the betterment of all. Applause welcomes both Cameron and his very pregnant partner, Kate Sohr, to the podium. No one claps in the overflow room.

With the requisite nod to the early Modernist, the likes of Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Alvo Alto were name-checked by Cameron, not for any formal cool or posture, but rather their focus on humanitarian design. Hailed as figureheads of the movement that revolutionized the form and practice of Architecture, though much of their programs tied to social agendas are conveniently overlooked. If there was an ongoing dialogue between the early Modernists and our presenters, it might be succinctly summarized as Le Corbusier’s “Architecture or Revolution” reinterpreted as “Architecture and Revolution.” The social mindedness of Le Corbusier’s plans and polemics were accompanied by grand, visionary plans to address all socioeconomic classes, in the hopes of abating social revolutions that would disrupt society. For Cameron, Architecture practice makes possible the inclusion of the potential revolutionaries, the poor and dispossessed, in the building towards collective betterment.

With 1 billion people in abject poverty in the world today, and the number of people living in slums set to rise from 1/7 to 1/3 by the year 2030, it is a sobering reality.

Grim statistics abounded this evening, as the entryway into the necessarily complex and paradoxical relationship between people, communities, organizations, governments and nations. With 1 billion people in abject poverty in the world today, and the number of people living in slums set to rise from 1/7 to 1/3 by the year 2030, it is a sobering reality. Though, for all the dire consequences of institutionalized neglect, mismanagement, and malice there were more promising numbers. The 400,000 illegal slum-dwellers in India shown in an aerial photograph might be considered innovators; forging conditions outside of sanctioned codes and restrictions, underscoring the spirit that informs AFH’s. And even more encouraging yet are the 3,000 volunteers; 40 chapters; 2.6 million dollars raised by Architecture for Humanity.

The organization, Architecture of Humanity, was founded in 1999 to “promote architectural and design solutions to global, social and humanitarian crises.” AFH subverts traditional hierarchies built into the profession, and disciplinary structure, dealing with the powerless and underprivileged, and empowering them through a concerted dialogue. Their approach to practice takes the form of organizing competitions, workshops, education forums, and partnerships with aid organizations towards the end of making sustainable and collaborative design solutions within effected communities and regions.

The event highlighted contributions made to AFH’s book ‘Design like you give a Damn,’ a curated collection of Humanitarian design projects submitted from around the world. The presentation was divided into chunks that dealt with: emergency housing (post-disaster); transitional housing (refugees; rebuilding); permanent housing; community building (education, involvement); politics, policy, planning. The often poignant and humorous projects created by well-known practices like Shigeru Ban, Future Systems, and Arup, and those created by local designers in disaster effected regions around the world were not short offering of energy or ideas for calamitous situations.

Within the United States only 2% of all constructions have architects involved. Both inside and outside the US, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are complex and slow. The work that AFH tends to do often happens in parallel with, and at a much faster pace than, projects of a similar nature and scope run by NGOs.

When you consider that a large portion of UN humanitarian aid is allocated towards the ‘basic shelter requirements for disaster-affected populations,’ it would seem fitting to involve exemplary practioners within architecture/design to provide both a functionally effective and innovative solution. However, it has taken 30 years for the United Nation to move beyond tents that were heavy (requiring four people to carry) and inefficient (rotting before deployment, in storage, after four months) to a lighter, longer lasting solution, and more conscious of quality of life. The inclusion of a partition, which created privacy within the structure, was hailed as an innovation due to added level of utility and psychological comfort it provided its inhabitants. It took 30 years for this design to be released not due to an iterative and involved design process, but rather the bureaucracy that stymies institutions, such as the UN.

It is no wonder that AFH finds itself in positions where in order to be an autonomous and productive effort, innovation at all levels is required to realize projects. AFH makes meaningful practice through inclusion by involving local architects and designers and local communities into the planning and building phases, unlike many of its peers. Funding projects, AFH has used individual contributions and hot chocolate sales, for example, to seed the development and construction of a children’s school in Africa.

While both Cameron Sinclair and Kate Sohr approach devastation and neglect with a brilliant optimism, there are many hurdles that lay before them and many others. Within the United States only 2% of all constructions have architects involved. Both inside and outside the US, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are complex and slow. The work that AFH tends to do often happens in parallel with, and at a much faster pace than, projects of a similar nature and scope run by NGOs.

There were a number of overlaps, which proved to be promising for future types of engagements. During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA was lambasted for its utter ineptitude in dealing with the post-disaster situation in the south. AFH redrew maps from FEMA data, which made sensible the situation on the ground; these maps were later adopted by FEMA itself. The Biloxi Model Home Program found great success in pairing rebuilding home owners with architects’ plans for new housing construction. Though, ultimately, the effect they can achieve is trickle-up working on the ground and hoping to effect policies that will have larger scope of action. Following on the heels of AFH’s Biloxi Model Home Project, FEMA initiated a competition inviting various architects and designers to contribute to a charette, which would yield blueprints for housing in the Gulf Coast region.

There are many limitations to the scope and nature of what AFH can perform and accomplish. AFH can only enter post-conflict areas, due to the high cost of war risk insurance and the potential co-option of its built constructions (schools being used as a rebel base). John Hockenberry called into question the effectiveness of AFH’s interventions, admittedly localized to the specific communities they effect. Much like many of the projects in the book, the work of AFH is indeed local but with the potential for broader rippling effect, a form of acupuncture. With the growing number of chapters, in cities worldwide, and many organizations looking to the examples of repeatable programs that AFH initiate (competitions, forums, workshops) their influence may slowly be gaining. The moneyed interests that operate within developed nations are still at odds with the underprivileged, who remain marginalized. However things are no longer bleak, as Peter Lynch, former head of Cranbrook’s Architecture department, articulated in the question and answer period. Lynch, who now runs a socially conscious sustainable architecture practice, for which Kate Sohr labeled him ‘community designer,’ thinks that culture is slowly changing. AFH is part of a larger movement and social agendas no longer make you an underdog as growing awareness and support for sustainable solutions in our globalized world more possible.

As the evening drew to an end, the crowd dutifully dissipated and went about their regular routine. John Hockenberry early into the evening noted a ‘Pre-Cameron’ and a ‘Post-Cameron’ period, and this inevitably was the latter. And with that comes the weight of all the plight of the repressed, oppressed, and forgotten; and also the possibility for a better future, one enabled by mediators of the tangible world: designers and Architects. Revolution through Architecture, delivered in the personage of Cameron Sinclair, infectious with optimism and buoyant in spirit, in a pair of blue jeans.

Designer, writer, educator and hierophant. Creating communicative tissue. madad.co

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