Viewpoint (February 01, 2008)

It wasn’t so much what he said, but how he said it. In January, 34-year-old Cameron Sinclair, co-founder and Executive Director of Architecture for Humanity (AfH) spoke to an overflowing room full of students, practitioners and members of the public at the Ontario College of Art & Design (OCAD) for nearly two hours, captivating the audience and empowering those in attendance with a sense of responsibility and purpose about improving the world, one design at a time.

By now, many architects know of Sinclair’s extraordinary San Francisco-based non-profit organization that connects dozens of chapters across the world through a network of thousands of volunteers. These members contribute their knowledge, time and physical efforts toward community-based design projects located primarily in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and throughout various communities across North America.

Sinclair’s lecture was part of a speaker series organized by OCAD President Sara Diamond. Since assuming her role in 2006, Diamond has become highly influential in fostering ideas about design that seek to address relevant issues such as sustainability, aging and wellness, and contemporary ethics. Sinclair’s presence at OCAD is a reminder of the value and importance of socially responsible leaders who can directly engage the public with present-day real-life issues, such as rebuilding efforts in Sri Lanka and Mississippi. For example, just after Hurricane Katrina swept through the southern US in 2005, AfH mobilized assistance at the grassroots level to rebuild a considerable amount of Biloxi, Mississippi–approximately 600 homes, or 38 percent of the town’s housing. In post-tsunami Sri Lanka, AfH has been able to partner with large organizations like UN Habitat in working closely with various communities, utilizing their collective skill to design and build pre-schools that make children feel safe and welcome. The community-designed metal screen pictured above is a small detail, but it serves to protect children from the significant leopard population in the area. Being a networked organization that relies on social capital means that AfH can engage in global design issues that large-scale bureaucracies cannot manage alone.

In today’s world, architects must react quickly to issues of disaster, conflict and rapid largescale urbanization, thereby developing new building practices to effectively respond to these challenges. AfH’s response includes the Open Architecture Network (OAN), an online, open-source community listing hundreds of projects around the world. Information on each project is easily accessible, with drawings, photographs and project descriptions that can be viewed on screen or downloaded for free, as long as the authors are properly credited. The OAN makes it possible for an idealistic architecture student in Denver to instantly connect with a young volunteer in Zagreb who has a brilliant idea for a mobile health clinic in Kenya.

While some of our schools might be placing too much emphasis on the manipulation of 19thcentury annotations to 16th-century architectural treatises inside 21st-century software programs, design communities around the world are collaborating like never before, thanks to technological advancements in communication and the sharing of ideas virtually. Architecture for Humanity is just one example of a sophisticated network that uses the simplest of principles: communicate widely, actively engage the communities in which you work, and leverage the design talent and energy of young architects.

An equal number of buildings will be constructed over the next 40 years worldwide as there have been throughout the course of humanity, yet one in three people will be living in slums by 2030. We need more architects to solve the enormous challenges occurring in the real world. Sinclair asked the audience this simple question: “Do you want 50 clients that can afford you, or five billion people that need you?” Judging by the hundreds of earnest students who came to hear Sinclair speak, our only fear is that we will squander the opportunities for young designers to actively participate in the process of community design and development–for the sake of preserving an increasingly outdated mandate of seeking and serving those 50 clients, wherever they may be.

Ian Chodikoff Ichodikoff@canadianarchitect.Com