Architecture For Humanity, the group founded in 1999 by Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr to connect architects to communities in need, recently announced it was filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, had closed its San Francisco headquarters and laid off its staff.
This news prompted handwringing, with one publication even suggesting that AFH’s demise means the “future of socially responsible design may hang in the balance.”
While the sudden closure of such an idealistic organization — whose projects included football centers across Africa, homes in Biloxi following Katrina and schools in Central and South America — is a painful end for all those who threw their time, souls and financial support into its work, it certainly does not represent the end of architects trying to serve “humanity.”
But it does raise the question of how to viably serve the underserved. Read on for some answers.
“Socially Responsible Design” Is Widespread
When Cameron Sinclair burst onto the international stage in 1999, exhorting people to “Design Like You Give Damn” he embodied an opposing – and equal — force to the charismatic architects dominating the media at the time: Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Jean Nouvel, etc.
Sinclair’s barnstorming message — pitting the underdog against famous architects and their wealthy clients — excited journalists and curators as well as architects looking for a different path.
“Think about a prestige architect like Zaha Hadid. . .” Sinclair once said, “There are probably 20 people in Britain who can afford to commission her. I, on the other hand, have somewhere between four and five billion people on the planet who are looking for my help.”
Bold assertions like this made for good copy but the reality was less stark.
Leaving aside the fact that the buildings of “prestige architects” arguably fulfill another definition of serving humanity — bringing pleasure and civic pride to millions who set eyes upon them (for starters, Hadid’s 2012 Olympic Aquatics Centre, now open to the public in the far from affluent East London town of Stratford) — even the most starry of architects can typically be found working on a range of projects, which often includes pro bono works for causes dear to them (for example, Hadid’s design for Maggie’s Cancer Centre, right).
This is because to say an architect is not “for humanity” is like saying a doctor is not for saving lives. The profession is for many an underpaid calling, and architects, however egomaniacal they might seem at times, will generally throw themselves with the same level of zeal into designing affordable housing and elementary schools as they will private residences and art museums.
But specifically as it relates to architecture for the communities that cannot afford an architect’s services, the vacuum Architecture For Humanity was trying to fill, even there lie many exemplars.
Designing For a Sea Change
I became aware of this while curating exhibits for a show commissioned by the Annenberg Space for Photography on the topic of “architecture with a cause.” The show was intended to explore work that had sprung up in response to the multiple environmental disasters and humanitarian crises in the last decade.
The exhibition, Sink Or Swim: Designing For a Sea Change, wound up focusing its attention on design responses in coastal areas that had been hit by, or were vulnerable to, cataclysmic storms and rising seas.
We found many inspiring designs by individuals and nonprofit groups that had gone to the aid of the dispossessed — among them temporary, post-tsunami housing in Japan designed by Shigeru Ban, who has been working on shelter for refugees since 1995; floating schools, libraries and health centers by Mohammed Rezwan, a Bangladeshi architect who has been working to help the landless poor in northwestern Bangladesh through the nonprofit Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha he founded in 1998; community centers for Japanese tsunami victims by Toyo Ito and his colleagues and volunteers with Home-For-All; and a floating school for impoverished residents of Lagos lagoon (above), by Nigerian-born Kunlé Adeyemi, an alumnus of Rem Koolhaas.
All these designers were independent of AFH, and the question is, how had they survived in the difficult business of altruism?
Do Good While Making Money
AFH devoted itself exclusively to serving those least able to afford an architect. But someone has to pay for the goods and services of getting a building built, and that includes paying designers a living wage.
This meant constant fundraising for a group like AFH — a task made more challenging without a front-page disaster or a mediagenic frontman to sustain the organization’s high profile (when middle age and fatherhood approached, Sinclair departed AFH in 2013 for the well-cushioned Jolie-Pitt Foundation).
As a result, many architects work for Peter so as to afford to be Paul.
Like law firms, architecture firms often budget a portion of their time and skills for pro bono work. HOK, for example, is a corporate architecture firm specializing in entertainment and sports facilities that sent a team to design an orphanage in Haiti.
Working for a firm that largely derives its income from commercial buildings may be less inspiring to an idealistic architect than committing oneself to an organization that exists solely to help the poor.
But it’s a necessary trade-off for many designers. Working for rich and poor, on arts museums and commercial buildings as well as refugee shelters, is how Shigeru Ban, Kunlé Adeyemi and others have managed to do their altruistic work, as well as many less well-known designers who never make it onto the pages of magazines or get invited to Davos.
Does Size Matter?
One of the impressive aspects of AFH was its ever-increasing size. The combination of Sinclair’s powerful personality and the newly emergent power of crowd-sourcing produced staggering numbers for AFH, constantly touted over the years in emails from the “Chief Eternal Optimist” (Sinclair): millions of supporters, thousands of architects working on hundreds of projects in umpteen countries.
The group was awarded a 2006 TED Prize for spawning the Open Architecture Network, “a platform that allowed a community to be born surrounding open source design and connected the world of humanitarian design globally in the digital space like no one had done before.”
But what lay behind these jaw-dropping numbers?
It seems from reports as if managing this behemoth was one of the bigger challenges facing AFH, begging the question: does size matter? Can it even undermine the goals of the organization?
In looking for projects for the aforementioned Sink Or Swim exhibition, some that rose to the top of the pile were by relatively small groups with very clear focus and goals; for example, Shidhulai.org, the nonprofit founded in Bangladesh by architect Mohammed Rezwan one year before the founding of AFH.
17 years later, Rezwan is still focused on this one project, growing his fleet of floating community services bit by bit, constantly reaching out for support, but hewing to a clearly defined problem with a clear and consistent design solution for a community and region he knows extremely well.
One of the ways in which Architecture For Humanity set itself apart from traditional architecture firms and traditional architecture education was its emphasis on working in a more direct and hands-on way with the communities it was building for. “We ensure community involvement in the design process” is listed as top priority in their mission statement.
AFH was proud to be in the business of not creating signature buildings; it was taking the “ego” out of architecture.
There is surely much to gain from this approach, but is it architecture?
In setting itself up in opposition to the imperial Zahas of this world, AFH seemed to have set itself up in opposition to architecture’s role as a high art, beyond that of social and environmental science.
Again, this distinction became evident while researching projects for Sink Or Swim. Part of the appeal of Shigeru Ban’s shelters for refugees, or Kunlé Adeyemi’s floating school in Makoko, or Toyo Ito’s Home-For-All designs or Morphosis’ “Float” home for Make It Right in New Orleans (below), is their architectural beauty; the hand of an auteur is visible.
Now that may sound both subjective and superficial relative to the greater need of providing a community with shelter. But the resulting lack of distinct architectural voice for AFH means the organization has lacked definition — dare I say it, a recognizable brand — beyond its inspiring story. For all its crowd-sourced might, AFH’s brand was Cameron Sinclair, not its buildings, and once he left, the organization became less clear; and, perhaps, less clear to all those who might support it.
In light of the closure of AFH, the group states that many of the international chapters of Architecture for Humanity will “continue their work without pause” because they are separate legal entities. Additionally, they say, “U.S. based chapters of Architecture for Humanity are managed by all volunteer directors, and those directors have vowed to continue the work of the organization, though it may be under a different name.”
Hopefully these independent entities will thrive, and while the next stage for AFH may be more fragmented and smaller, may it also be stronger.
Meanwhile, long may many other architects carry the torch “for humanity.” After all, it’s their job.