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India: Design Like You Give a Damn

India: Design Like You Give a Damn

Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr

Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr started the nonprofit organization Architecture for Humanity.

Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr started the nonprofit organization Architecture for Humanity in the aftermath of the late-1990s Kosovo War, as a way to help returning refugees who were finding their homes in rubble and their communities destroyed. The organization’s goal was to link people in need with architects and designers to help communities with long-term recovery and sustainability. In 2007, they started the Open Architecture Network, an open-source online archive of architectural designs intended to foster collaboration and increased access to innovative ideas, all in the hope of improving living conditions worldwide. Here, Sinclair and Stohr talk with FRONTLINE/World reporter Singeli Agnew about the genesis and evolution of Architecture for Humanity.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

FRONTLINE/World: Can you describe what Architecture for Humanity is?

Stohr: Architecture for Humanity is a grassroots organization that helps communities access architecture and design services. In a nutshell, we connect people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford an architect with architects who want to do really beautiful, creative, sustainable work. It's pretty simple.

Sinclair: The core of our mission is very, very simple. It's providing access to design solutions for everyone. The process is extremely hard, and there’s a myriad of stakeholders that allow that to happen. And certainly, you know, trying to tie community with design and funding is hard. I think at the core of it is how can we provide better communities for everyone. And how can we use innovative solutions that not only improve the lives of a community but are done in a sustainable way. It's really the heart of what we do.

What does sustainability mean to you?

Stohr: We have a different definition of sustainable than most architects. When we look at the sustainability of a project, to us, it's not just about green building. In fact, to be totally honest with you, we kind of take that for granted. If our buildings aren’t green, then the architect hasn’t actually provided the services that the architect should be providing. The building will be green. Then, it's a question of how is this building going to be maintained? And how are we going to help this community to provide the services that it wants to in that building? What can we do to make this building smarter, saying “You know what? You actually have about 100 square meters here in front. Why don’t we landscape that and turn it into a marketplace? And then you’ll have a little income that you can use to maintain this facility.” Or wiring the building in a way that allows people to access the Internet -- not only access the Internet, but have a secure area where the community can come in to access the Internet. Once you start adding those features and you think really carefully about the building and the holistic needs of the community, then it gets really exciting.

Sinclair: I almost don’t like saying the word “green,” you know? The way I look at it is that our buildings are based on sustainable prosperity. When you create structures or spaces that generate jobs, people end up being very sustainable. They want to maintain that livelihood. And for 90 percent of the world, being sustainable is a matter of life and death.

It must be really exciting for young architects to participate in these types of projects.

Sinclair: Surprisingly, it's not just young architects. You know, I always say that I love working with 100 eager young architects and marry them with an old wise sage, somebody who has been around the block 20, 30 years and spent their life doing work, and now they want to give back. So some of the best work we have is when we marry somebody who’s a mid- to late-career professional with a young designer. Because what you end up having is great ideas that you can implement, and there becomes this pragmatic response.

Stohr: For me it's about access. Every day we get emails from designers who want to do this work. They want to do the work because it's interesting, it's exciting, it's why they got into the profession, and it's going to allow them to work internationally. Right? But traditionally the challenges are big -- they don’t have a firm; there is no firm that does this type of work. Most of their clients, even if they could identify an architect, can’t afford to pay for an architect. So how do you make these projects realizable, and give these clients access to the architects?

And so for me, it's about saying to the 5 billion people who are living in systemic poverty, in the margins, that they have access to these enormous, creative, talented resources out there. All these architects want to work with them. That’s not the problem.  The problem isn’t a lack of ideas, or a lack people who care. The problem is connecting them and supporting those projects, so that the architect doesn’t just show up in a community and discover there’s no site, there’s no funding, there’s no engineer. There’s a lot of work that goes into developing these projects, and that’s how you create access to good design.

Was this something you always envisioned? How did your architecture career begin?

Sinclair: When I went to architecture school, I was under the impression that our role was to create spaces where people gather and were inspired to change their own lives. I became quite despondent when that was not the case. But, you know, at the time I was very stubborn. I stuck to my principles and said I really want to focus on social issues. Primarily, it was looking at transitional populations in urban settings, which are mainly homeless communities. And so that was the focus of my entire academic career. When I left and went to look at something that reflected my education, I couldn’t find any work that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. And I think, you know, that was kind of the genesis for something like Architecture for Humanity. 

Why were there no opportunities that reflected your education?

Unfortunately, what’s happened is the computerization of the architectural industry. The idea of being a design intern when you leave school is that you’re mentored by someone who’s much older, who can help give you the basic skills that you need to become an architect. What’s happened now is that, because we’re so focused on computers and CAD work, people don’t get to do that. They end up sitting behind a computer and doing computer work 17, 18 hours a day. And they lose that kind of creativity. They lose that thing that happens when people meet and they draw on a piece of paper. And there’s a kind of mid-20s crisis that’s happening in the design world, where people are thinking, Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life? And I think I was somebody who went through a mid-20s crisis and said, you know, I had trained to be somebody who wanted to build better communities, but I’m drawing on a computer my whole life. And while this was going on, Kate and I spent a lot of time talking about the news and politics and what’s happening around the world. So, by day, I was designing hotel lobbies, but at night we were talking about what was happening to communities like in Kosovo or, you know, in Sudan, and, how can good architecture help create access to things like education and health and even sanitation.

Kate, you started out as a journalist and a film producer. How did you get into humanitarian architecture?

Stohr: Yeah, I’m not an architect, actually. I started out as a journalist. And, in fact, I started out in new media, building Web sites for a big company that publishes a lot of magazines. But I liked doing community work, and I did a lot of stories in the south Bronx and the poor neighborhoods in New York. I ended up writing a lot about water and garbage and housing. And I was doing all these stories, doing enormous amounts of research and work to write all these pieces about these issues. Of course, that’s not what mainstream journalism is covering, so they would run in these small, city-specific little journals. But Cameron and I would be talking about this at night. And when the refugees were returning to Kosovo, and their homes were in rubble and winter was coming, Cameron, he sort of looked at that and said, “I think this is an opportunity for architects to help.”

I think his first idea was, well, I’m just going to go and design something and try and build it. And fortunately, he talked to a few people, including Bob [Ivey], who’s the editor of Architectural Record. And the editor said, “You’re designing high-end hotels and retail spaces and housing and offices -- what do you know about designing in Kosovo, much less transitional and emergency housing?” And Cameron said, “Okay, fine, yeah, all right, I don’t know anything about that, but someone does.” And that’s where our skill sets really collided, because I was very good at building Web sites and building platforms and reaching out to large groups of people and taking really complex ideas and simplifying them. So we put together the competition to attract architects to think about how to design transitional housing. We did that first design competition for the refugees returning to Kosovo, and we got about 400 entries.

When did the epiphany about how the whole organization would take shape occur?

Cameron: I think there wasn’t really an epiphany, but there were moments in history that we have not been a part of but that have changed this organization. I think, for me, it was December 24, 2004, which was the tsunami. Within the first seven days of the tsunami, we got 4,000 emails, from people wanting to get involved, or communities desperate for help, or huge agencies and small NGOs looking for new ideas for emergency, transitional and long-term housing. We basically posted on a blog that we wanted to raise a little bit of money. I think we originally said we wanted to raise $10,000 to send a team over. We had raised that in the first hour, you know? Within two months, we had raised almost half a million dollars. And suddenly, we were no longer just an organization that matched architects with communities. We had the leverage of being able to do financing. And when you begin to be able to finance sustainable development, you can really make sure that those design innovations remain intact. 

How was that possible, to raise so much money so quickly?

Sinclair: Welcome to the Web. I mean, we didn’t do a single advert; we didn’t do a single bit of outreach; we didn’t do mass mailings. They came to us. Had it not been for the Web, this organization wouldn’t exist. We’re completely online, and that’s allowed us that two degrees of separation from anyone in the world who’s either looking for help or who wants to offer help. 

Stohr:  After the very first competition [in Kosovo], we had been slowly accumulating growing lists of architects, designers, nonprofits. So when the tsunami hit, we said, “Let’s send some architects over there. Let’s figure out how we can help a couple of communities rebuild.” And they said yes. I mean, it was that simple, and from that point, it changed how we do things. Because while we had been sending architects over to provide design resources and to work with communities to do design, when it came down to deciding how that design was implemented, it was in the hands of a funding agent who maybe didn’t even live in that community. And so a lot of times, the design gets compromised by the person who’s actually funding it. It's sort of sad in a way. And we said, okay, well, what if we were the funders? That gives the architects the leverage that they needed to actually take their vision and their design and the work that the community had agreed on and implement it.

Sinclair: I think the other thing that was remarkable about the tsunami and the post-tsunami reconstruction work is that it wasn’t that we were air-dropping in designers to help in a community. We had architects in Indonesia, in Sri Lanka, in India, and all of them said, “Listen, we’ve had some really bad things happen to our community, and we want to help. We just need the support, right? We have no access to funds; we have no access to engineers; we’re displaced.” But they were able to email us or at least phone us.

In reading your book, I was struck by all of the difficulties you guys had starting out. How did you overcome those hurdles?

Stohr: When we got into this, we had an idea of just providing architectural design services to people who can’t afford it. Of course, you start to do the work, and you very quickly realize there’s a reason why nobody has done this before, right? One of the reasons that architects don’t volunteer their services is because they’re licensed professionals. They’re like doctors. As soon as they touch a patient or, in this case, work on a building project, they’re legally liable should anything fail in that project. And so to go into a community and do design work and not to be compensated for it and then to incur that liability on top of it is a daunting proposition for a lot of architects. And on top of that, as much as they love the work that they are doing, their design work is their intellectual property. That’s what they sell to their clients, their ideas. So turn to a profession that has, for as long as it's been around, charged clients just to even look at the designs, and say, “Hey, why don’t you give that away free?” was a big request. But piece by piece we have started to untangle these things.

Sinclair: I think the thing is, as a young organization, we were willing to fail. And we’re willing to fail to show other people how to succeed. We had to try a couple of iterations to understand how would this work. I think Kate has really explained fully the whole legal ramifications as well as the idea of sharing and working within the community, but we also like to open-source our ideas and like to put our designs on the table. We don’t just put the homeruns on the table. We don’t want to just put the successes on the table. We want to put up the difficult projects that didn’t work out, and explain why. Because I think a lot of the profession will learn a lot more from failed attempts than from successes.

When thinking about all of the possible problems in the world, like famine, sickness, and so forth, what is the role of architecture? How can architecture really save lives?

Sinclair: This is a difficult question because it's not like with medicine, where you give someone a vaccine and they’re going to be protected. With architecture, there are many different aspects of the built environment that affect people, either through health or through access to education or a myriad of things. For instance, are you building structures that are a detriment to the environment? We want to find mechanisms that are using materials that are localized, that are sustainable, that are helping generate jobs. When people have wealth, they usually spend that on educating their kids, improving the health of their family or improving their living standards. So the process of architecture actually gives people an anchor.

Stohr: Let’s flip it around. Let’s look at a world that doesn’t have buildings, right? Where does the doctor work? How does he serve his patients? Where do the children come together to learn? When you go into a post-disaster situation, you see the way that world works, and, quite frankly, it's a pretty scary place. A lot of parents can’t go to work because they are caring for their children. And that happened a lot in Sri Lanka. Think about it: if there’s no place to send your child to school, you’re not going to do the work that you did, which impacts the family.

People think of architecture, and they think, “Oh you’re making a beautiful building.”  They don’t think of the buildings around them as the cornerstones of their everyday life and what allows them to prosper. They send their kid to school, and they just expect the school to be there. That’s not the way it is in most of the world.

How do you explain to say, villagers in India, what you are doing and get them to trust you to do it?

Stohr: We start by showing them designs. And suddenly there’s a whole new possibility of what their community can be. It doesn’t have to be just a cement block structure. We could do a flying buttress roof for you. We could think about using rebar in a new way. We could think about using earth construction and staining it a beautiful color. We could think about rainwater collection and solve that problem for you. It's a signal of change.  When an architect walks into a community and says, we are actually going to spend some time and think about building sustainably and building beautifully, it's a signal that someone is investing in that community. And all of a sudden the level of interest in these projects and the participation of the community completely change.

Sinclair: I think, for me, the epiphany that I had about the Open Architecture Network and the kind of genesis of that was when I happened to be in South Africa working with a rural community, and I was showing them examples of other projects we had done. I was in a small village with a laptop, with the lights off, and they’re all crowded around the laptop, and I’m going through a slide show of different projects. And the thing that the community was just really jazzed and excited about was not the design solutions but the photos of the other communities. They saw themselves. They didn’t see the black-and-white photos of supermodels that you see on computer renderings of architectural drawings. They saw them. They saw similar communities -- they could be a world away -- but the villagers were just like, “Oh, I get it. This is us. These communities are very similar to us, and this is what they’re getting.” The possibility was actually there. So I think it was at that moment that I said, “well, What if you could actually share this globally?”