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Blueprint for Building a Better World

"We're two people in an apartment," Sinclair says, with palpable desperation.

A New Breed

In the incongruously elaborate setting of a suite at the Henley Park Hotel downtown, compliments of the lecture sponsors, Sinclair sought to explain his "strange ride" from anonymity to being hugged on the street.

He's wearing dark slacks, a dress shirt and sturdy black shoes, the go-anywhere uniform of an international traveler -- Turkey one week, sub-Saharan Africa the week before. His laptop bag is emblazoned with the "Give a Damn" slogan, which also will be the title of a book he and Stohr are compiling on humanitarian architecture.

But he announced in advance that Washington would be the last stop on that campaign. A friend noticed that he was beginning to sound like Buckminster Fuller, a design genius with a humanitarian vision who utterly failed to change the world.

Clark Llewellyn, director of Montana State's architecture school and a board member of the American Institute of Architects, describes Sinclair as a "throwback to the late '60s and early '70s," when idealism was last in fashion in architecture. Or maybe even to the birth of modernism: "In the early 20th century, architecture was out to meet the needs of mass housing, provide air, light and a quality place to live for everyone," Llewellyn says. "We ended up with high design, but those standards are there."

By the 1990s, when Sinclair graduated with honors from London's University of Westminster and started at the Bartlett School of Architecture, the profession had become aspirational. Architects were admired like fashion designers, at least in places like the influential new magazine Wallpaper. Sinclair's classmates understandably pursued the aesthetically driven design that might lead to prized commissions. For his thesis, Sinclair went to New York to research homeless shelters. The project was not well-received on his return, and he dropped out.

Sinclair was toiling at a routine job at Christidis Lauster Radu Architects in 1999, when news reports about Kosovo sparked an epiphany: Architects could devise better shelters than relief agencies were providing to returnees. To prove the point, he spent $700 to organize a competition.

"I was disillusioned and wanted to find out if anyone else was," he says.

The London-based relief group War Child signed on as a sponsor, along with his firm. Bianca Jagger made a public appeal on their behalf. Sinclair got more than 200 entries from 30 countries. The designs were compelling enough to merit an exhibition at New York's Van Alen Institute before traveling to London, Paris, Florence, Bucharest and Washington. It also drew the attention of Robert Ivy, editor of Architectural Record, who wrote of Architecture of Humanity as "the finest of the new breed."

Four Walls and a Canopy

Sinclair is not the first designer to advocate for the badly housed. But he has been remarkably inspirational. He offers a passionate argument, smartly articulated, that a better-designed structure will function more effectively, providing people with more dignity, without adding significantly to the cost.

The guidelines for the Kosovo contest addressed housing calamities in general. Structures should last five years, cost no more than $8,000, accommodate 10 people and be easy to set up on varied terrain. The U.N. shelter of choice remains tents.

There was no official winner of that competition, but several entries reached the prototype stage. Australian architect Sean Godsell put a shipping container on stilts, with a canopy for tropical climates. He paid to build a prototype, which was eventually displayed as "Future Shack" on the lawn of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.


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