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Newsmaker: Cameron Sinclair

September 2009

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By Aleksandr Bierig

Cameron Sinclair
Photo © Francine Daveta
Architecture for Humanity founder Cameron Sinclair celebrates the organization’s 10th anniversary this year.

When Cameron Sinclair co-founded Architecture for Humanity (AFH), the organization consisted of a Web site and two part-time volunteers. 10 years later, AFH has constructed an international network of 40,000 professionals committed to advancing and enabling humanitarian and socially conscious architecture, and, by its estimate, has been involved in building projects that have directly affected 700,000 people worldwide.

The social and professional networking capabilities of the Internet enabled this growth, allowing scores of local chapters to develop programs modeled on Sinclair’s initial project. Early on, Sinclair, who trained as an architect, decided to forego designing anything himself, but he has ended up building a system through which humanitarian architectural projects have multiplied.

In the past few years, this expansion has brought accolades and new responsibilities, and Sinclair and his colleagues are now regularly asked to participate in large-scale policy discussions with major organizations, including the United Nations.I spoke with him recently about these advancements, the organization’s implications for architects practicing in the developed world, and questions he has raised about ethics among architects at the top of the profession.

Aleksandr Bierig: Congratulations on 10 years.

Cameron Sinclair: Thank you. I think running an architectural non-profit is a bit like dog years. I know it’s 10, but it feels like 70 sometimes.

Image courtesy Architecture for Humanity
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AB: Have you found that any of the organization’s initial ideals or missions have had to change as the size has increased?

CS: I think we originally started off with the idea of doing a few small projects, assuming that a small sustainable project could be a catalyst for a much greater change. As we grew, we realized that we weren’t a design non-profit, we were sort of a developer non-profit. We went from working on one project a year to working in multiple countries on multiple project-types simultaneously.

AB: And what does a client look for when they contact you?

CS: Well, it’s usually a very nervous moment in their lives because they realize that they’ve outgrown whatever space they’re in right now. But doing a building is actually extremely distracting for a charitable organization or a social entrepreneur who has very little time or risk to spend on it. Our role is to fill that void, to help at that moment when they’re moving to the next level.

AB: Are you generally working with designers from outside the area or local designers?

CS: Both. For us, the best scenario is when we marry an international designer who has the drive and passion to for a project with a local architect who has the skill set and license—we make sure that every project we build has a licensed architect on it.

AB: Can you give an example of someone from the outside coming in and developing something that local people maybe hadn’t considered?

CS: Absolutely. Susie Platt is an architect who’s now working with Richard Rogers. She was working in Sri Lanka with the United Nations Habitat and local federations to build a community center. While the building was traditional in its physical architecture, it integrated rainwater catchment systems to make sure that the water table wasn’t disturbed with an increase in population after the tsunami.

The siting of the building, natural ventilation, and rainwater systems were married with local materials, and it allowed the international architect a moment to play. Susie did an homage to Geoffrey Bawa’s idea of allowing landscape to enter a building, so there was this respectful marriage between Sri Lankan architecture and a low-tech, sustainable response from the newer western tradition.

 

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