“It was very emotional. We lost hope,” a villager named Poorani tells FRONTLINE/World reporter Singeli Agnew. “Everything was lost. We asked ourselves how we would live.”
Poorani tells Agnew that in the months after the tsunami, relief poured in – medicine, food and clothing. But, as often happens with big disasters, the world’s attention moved on.
For Purnima McCutcheon, an American-trained architect, the tsunami was only the beginning. For 14 years, her life was on the traditional architect’s track – but after the tsunami, she picked up everything and moved to India to help.
“It’s always been my aspiration to, at some point, work with a community and do something that was more personally meaningful,” she says.
Now her clients are villagers and fisherman, instead of big corporations, and her new job is to help them rebuild for the long-term.
To get started, she gathered the town and asked them to draw sketches of what they needed – a preschool, a bathroom, a place to hold celebrations and lead study groups. She took this long list and came up with a plan for one village hall that could meet all these needs.
This idea – that a building can make a difference – is what her group Architecture for Humanity is all about. It all started with another crisis, ten years ago, when a young couple watching television coverage of refugees in Kosovo got an idea.
“Their homes were in rubble and winter was coming, and we sort of looked at that and (Cameron) said, ‘I think this is an opportunity for architects to help,” Kate Stohr tells Angew. Stohr and her husband, architect Cameron Sinclair, launched a design competition for Kosovo – and were stunned by the results.
Their tiny apartment was soon overflowing with hundreds of design boards. New ideas for refugee housing poured in from all over the world. They included everything from recycled rubble houses to inflatable hemp tents.
Since then, they have created a network of architects around the world ready to help when needed. Their motto has become “Design Like You Give a Damn.”
“One aspect of our business is matchmaking. We’re kind of like the dating service between humanitarian groups and communities and architectural designers,” says Sinclair.
Back in Tamil Nadu, Purnima McCutcheon presents her designs for the new village hall.
“The tiles will help cool the building and the overhang, it’s for ventilation,” she explains.
While the community likes the design on a whole, an argument breaks out about the placement of a bench. Purnima knows these little details can make a difference, so it’s back to the drawing board.
“It is hard, but you have to listen otherwise it becomes your building more than theirs,” she tells Agnew.
With the community’s seal of approval, the expressive, curved walls of the new village hall start to take shape. Local workers are hired for the construction, generating income and a sense of ownership. The whole building will cost less than $6,000.
Back in San Francisco, Architecture for Humanity is raising the funds and cutting through the red tape to make sure buildings like Purnima’s can break ground. Their best resource is the untapped creative energy of designers, who are eager to bring their idealism to the drafting table – turning waste materials like carpet tiles into walls.
Thousands of designs are in an open source library anyone in the developing world can access.
“This isn’t about getting one solution for one client,” says Sinclair. “It’s about how do we get hundreds of really well-designed ideas into the hands of people that are looking for them.”
Architecture for Humanity has helped galvanize designers – many of whom are frustrated with the monotony of designing for corporate clients. Ever since Kosovo, they have held annual competitions to focus attention on overlooked corners of the world.
This year the challenge is to build a youth media center in a Nairobi slum. The winning design included a soccer field, flexible public spaces, and an iconic radio tower at the front of the building. Most importantly, the building is designed to be environmentally sustainable.
When your clients live on less than 50 cents a day, Sinclair says, being green is more than just a trendy option.
“Everyone thinks sustainability is about putting a solar panel on a celebrity’s house or buying a Prius. But for this community and for 90 percent of the world, it’s a matter of survival. It’s life or death,” he says.
In Tamil Nadu, Sinclair arrives to check in on another of Purnima’s projects, a community center. For Sinclair, the beauty of her design is not just how it will serve the community, it’s also the attention to detail.
“None of our buildings are the kind of glamorous, front-of-magazine, sexy structures,” he says. “What they are are these kind of simple dignified structures that have these kind of quiet moments of innovation.”
Purnima completed the building just last year, and it’s become the heart of village life. The solar power means low utility bills and water catchment has inspired others to do the same in their own homes. At night, parents take classes here and when someone gets married, it is here that they gather.
On this night, there is a farewell celebration. After four years, and after designing 12 community buildings, Purnima’s work here is done.
“It’s very rewarding when you go through the process, and at some point you start earning each other’s respect –the relationship sort of deepens,” she says. “I’m touched by what people say. It comes out of nowhere and is just very rewarding.”
And somewhere a new wave of architects is sitting down at the drafting table, looking to design a better future.
Sidney, New York
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