I woke up to find an email from Cameron Sinclair thanking me for “designing like you give a damn.” Sinclair is the executive director of the Jolie-Pitt Foundation and, yeah, celebrities and politicians email me all the time. I’m also popular with Nigerians who need help cashing checks. I need to figure out how to block spam, but ’til then – I am happy/sad that I got this note from Sinclair. He was reporting the shut-down of Architecture for Humanity, probably the best thing to emerge from an architect’s imagination.
Architecture for Humanity was a San Francisco-based nonprofit that brought pro-bono architecture and design services to communities in need around the world. Sinclair, a British architect, launched the charity with American writer Kate Stohr in 1999 to help provide shelter for Kosovo refugees returning home after years of regional conflict. It began as a series of open competitions to design temporary housing. By 2013, when both founders left to pursue new careers, the organization had grown to include 90,000 volunteer design professionals, 5 regional offices located around the world and 70 city-based chapters in 14 countries.
“For more than 10 years, we led the movement to bring social design where it is needed most. We built award-winning buildings, ran innovative programs, personally raised more than $5 million in annual funding, year in and year out, and established more than five community design centers that set the standard for rebuilding after disaster”, Cameron wrote in his email. Over 15 years, the organization completed more than 245 projects including schools, sports facilities, and disaster relief.
The NGO had been struggling for about a year, unable to attract funding as the novelty of its approach had waned, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
“The travesty isn’t that the organization went over budget serving communities around the world,” Margie O’Driscoll, former executive director of the San Francisco chapter of the American Institute of Architects, told the San Francisco Chronicle’s John King. “It is that humanitarian design isn’t considered a fundamental right. And that today, in San Francisco, it is easier to find funding for an app than to fund an organization which transforms lives in places most Americans don’t know exists.”
An unsettling assertion, which sent me to the NGO’s website to see who was underpinning their operation. It lists 60 “partners and funders” with political clout (Clinton Global Initiative, American Institute of Architects), deep pockets (Absolut, Google, Bezos Family Foundation), and professional expertise (ARUP, Habitat for Humanity). With friends like that, was financial support the issue – or was it inadequate management, or a diminished celebrity gloss when Sinclair moved on to greener pastures?
There are other groups with similar missions. Open Architecture Network states on their website, “One billion people live in abject poverty. Four billion live in fragile but growing economies. One in seven people live in slum settlements. By 2020 it will be one in three. We don’t need to choose between architecture or revolution. What we need is an architectural revolution.”
Architecture is the fine art that can materially change the world. I hope architects will continue to design like they give a damn–in whatever form that takes.
Image from Architecture for Humanity