Design Like You Give a Damn

Where people see despair, some architects see opportunities for change. These architects can use the power of design to transform communities and even nations, said Architecture for Humanity co-founder Cameron Sinclair, during a keynote presentation at the American Institute of Architects (AIA)’s annual conference in Denver. Sinclair explored what he called the core passion of the architectural profession: the desire to leave the world better than we found it. Founded in 1999, Architecture for Humanity works with architects around the world, drawing upon their skills and enthusiasm to meet humanitarian crises through design and pro-bono projects.

Sinclair says his desire to positively shape the world started during his childhood in a very poor South London neighborhood. When he was around five or six years old, he would play with Legos, “trying to reorganize towns so people would feel good living there.” He realized he wanted to become an architect and improve lives.

Sinclair described the evolution of Architecture for Humanity — from its early start in 1999 as a small studio in New York City to what he called “the largest architectural firm in the world” with offices across the globe that have built structures for 2.5 million people.

There are many compelling examples of the group’s humanitarian work around the globe–including the earthquake and tsunami rebuilding efforts in northern Japan, long-term reconstruction in Haiti, and post-Hurricane Sandy restoration projects.

Economic development is actually an integral part of this work. The key, said Sinclair, is to partner with locally-licensed professionals and design communities with the people who actually live in them. Training is provided to construction professionals, local craftsmanship is integrated within buildings, and project ownership is eventually transferred to community leaders.

In Sinclair’s view then, sustainability also involves more than just material and energy issues. It also includes social and cultural heritage elements on the ground that can’t be ignored. “The most sustainable building in the world is one that’s loved,” said Sinclair. “People will take care of it.”

He also described the value of healthy spaces. “We have built cities and towns that create inactivity,” he said, pointing out that today’s children are the first generation to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. He called the creation of more active spaces a “design problem” that could provide architects with more work for the next decade in five key areas–open spaces, urban design and land use, transportation, schools, and the workplace.

In the end, Sinclair believes the value of architecture lies in “our ability to translate the solution-based approach we use. Right now, 71 percent of the world is in dire need of decent design, good, well-thought, meaningful buildings. Guess who can do it? All of you. There shouldn’t be a single architect out of work in the United States if we can tap the 71 percent of people who are looking for dignified shelter and strong communities.”

See Sinclair’s entire presentation online and check out his book, Design Like You Give a Damn.

This guest post is by Karen Trimbath, ASLA’s Public Relations Manager.

Image credits: Collège Mixte Le Bon Berger, Montrouis, in Port au Prince, Haiti / Public Interest Design 

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