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Architecture for the Poor
Cameron Sinclair offers design solutions for the marginalized
Tuesday Gutierrez (tuesday74)     Print Article 
Published 2007-01-08 17:41 (KST)   
"Strip away all the ego in architecture and all the design theory, the hype, and the hot magazine articles, all we do is provide shelter. If you can't do that, you can't call yourself an architect." - Cameron Sinclair (Design e2 - PBS)

This is how Cameron Sinclair describes the core of his profession, something which most architects or architecture students often forget. While most of them are trained to think of architecture in the measure of aesthetics, Cameron had a different agenda. He had always been interested in socially responsible design and "how you can make an impact" in the community.

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Turning his back from serving the often-spoiled bourgeois society, Cameron proclaimed himself as the black sheep of architecture by concentrating more on low-cost design solutions for the marginalized. "Design like you give a damn" (also the title of his book) seems to be the mantra that he personally lives by and which helps him direct the charitable organization named Architecture for Humanity.

The beginning

Sinclair co-founded the organization on 1999 together with New Yorker Kate Storer with only US$700 in their pockets. But this did not deter them from having the big vision. The goal of AFH is to provide architectural solutions to global, social, and humanitarian crises. This is a highly ambitious undertaking, when you think that almost one billion souls around the world today live in slums, and more are predicted by the U.N. to fall into the same predicament in the next 30 years.

At the prestigious Ted Conference last year where he gave a talk, Cameron said, "the future is not going to be the skyscraping cities of New York but this," pointing to a picture of a bleak landscape full of slums. But AFH has a well-thought out plan to pull the snooty nose of architecture back to the ground and face up to one of the 21st century's challenges. Cameron said "where resources and expertise are scarce, innovative, sustainable and collaborative work can make a big difference in people's lives." Instead of offering a one-design utopic solution, the answer relies on the community. "There is no such thing as utopia. All problems are local. All solutions are local," he added.

Since its inception, AFH has engaged architects and designers all over the world to get involved in humanitarian work, sometimes by hosting design competitions. At one point, a design project attracted as many as 200 entries. In an interview with Design Boom, Cameron said he was stunned to find out that there are thousands of designers around the world who wanted to volunteer their services and respond to humanitarian crises, only that they didn't have the platform to do that until AFH came into the picture. To show their commitment to a social cause, every designer who volunteers for AFH works on a pro-bono basis, only receiving a stipend for living costs and hard costs like material and travel expenses from AFH.

To date, AFH has spearheaded projects for the returning refugees in Kosovo, tsunami and Hurricane Katrina victims and even for Somkhele, South Africa, an area with the highest rates of HIV-AIDS in the world. "We rely on a vast range of donors from small companies, individuals and even school children selling hot chocolate (they were one of our largest fundraisers in 2005)."

Humanitarian rockstar and his open architecture network

If Cameron cannot claim the crown of a rockstar designer, he at least can keep the title of a rockstar humanitarian. He has already been bestowed numerous awards, and AFH even won last year's Observer ethical awards. He, however, seems to dismiss all this attention. "I donate all my speaking honorariums and any money given from prizes," he said. In 2005, Sinclair only earned $12,000. That's certainly a pay cut compared to what other designers receive.

What Cameron really needs is help. He said at one point he received a lot of emails from people offering their services and it had been difficult to manage. This forced him and his organization to embrace an open source network where designers will be able to start their own local chapter and get involved with local problems. "Somebody who is based in Mississippi knows more about Mississipi than I do." The open architecture network will allow designers to post their projects, browse the projects of others, exchange and collaborate with each other. AFH defines the mission of this network as simply "to generate design opportunities that will improve living standards for all."

For a man whose ambition is to change the world, 31-year old Cameron Sinclair certainly has a way of doing things. Project locations are not revealed to protect them from media's propensity for exaggeration; AFH doesn't sign its name on its projects; designs are licensed under Creative Commons completely free and can be used by other NGOs.

Still, the driving force of Sinclair is design. He said in a Christian Science Monitor interview, "design with pride, not pity." Beauty and aesthetics are important, no matter how humble the project, he pointed out. "What good design does is inspire people. And the people who need the most inspiration are those that have lost the most."
"Architects can play two roles in society -- either create buildings that affect a community for the better or for the worse. Given the choice, I think as an industry we strive to improve life whether it be for a single family or an entire village. Sadly, the design media tends to focus its attention on the dozen or so 'star architects,' and in doing so strengthen the general public's view that design is only for the whims of the rich." (interview for Design Boom)
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Tuesday Gutierrez

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