Blueprint for Building a Better World

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 6, 2005

It's not easy being the Bob Geldof of architecture. But Cameron Sinclair is doing his best to save the world, one emergency shelter and mobile AIDS clinic at a time.

At 31, the London-born architect has become a visible advocate of design for the dispossessed. His bigger challenge is figuring out how to make a living as a humanitarian. There's no salary for being the conscience of design.

"I don't think I'm going to be unpaid the rest of my life," Sinclair said on a recent visit to Washington.

He is the executive director of a tiny but influential nonprofit, Architecture for Humanity, which he dreamed up six years ago in his New York studio apartment. It has mocked the architectural mainstream for fixating on office towers and deluxe museums while ignoring the plight of people left homeless by natural disaster or war.

Sinclair's alternative is summed up in a feisty mantra, "Design Like You Give a Damn," which was the theme of a lecture he gave last month at the National Building Museum. The point is "fewer champagne parties" for celebrity architects and more attention to "the basics of life: water, education, decent shelter" for people without.

"If you just read the architecture magazines in America you would think everyone wanted to design a Prada store," Sinclair says. "Architects have kind of propelled this idea that we're for the haves, not the have-nots."

Geldof organizes concerts. Sinclair stages international design competitions. His projects have lured hundreds of architects in dozens of countries into volunteer work with relief groups. Words of support from Bill Clinton are featured prominently on his Web site. Frank Gehry has served on the board.

Clients have yet to materialize, with the funding that could turn innovative ideas into completed structures. But Paola Antonelli, design curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, says Sinclair deserves high marks for "sensitizing the world." He has taken the "Give a Damn" speech around the country and to the International Design Conference in Aspen, which Antonelli organized in 2003.

"When he speaks, people believe," she says. "Does he actually deliver, I don't know. It's not designers he has to convert, it's other people. It's the rest of the world that has to understand the importance of design."

At the building museum, he projected images generated by Architecure for Humanity contests. There were innovative structures for postwar Kosovo. A soccer field for girls in South Africa would be part of a community effort to combat AIDS through education and self-esteem. Sinclair's audience included 170 student leaders from architecture schools across North America. They responded with a standing ovation, lending credence to Sinclair's assertion of "a seismic shift" in attitudes.

It may be the folly of youth, or he could be the vanguard of radical change in how architects approach their work. Less clear is whether institutions that pay for disaster reconstruction and AIDS initiatives can be persuaded to toss a few coins from the relief budget to pay for improved designs.

Architecture for Humanity has helped raise $120,000 for Kosovo relief and $500,000 for Sri Lanka. But the organization, co-founded by Sinclair and his wife, Kate Stohr, is little more than an iBook and a Web site in Bozeman, Mont., where Sinclair took a temporary teaching job at Montana State University's school of architecture last fall. Its projects are funded on a shoestring of individual donations, contest entry fees and 9-year-olds selling hot chocolate. But word has gotten around that it's a go-to group. After the tsunami, Sinclair received 4,000 e-mails in a week from people seeking help.

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