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Blueprint for Building a Better World

"It's really dangerous," he says. "It's too easy for others to say, 'Okay, we've got one. Somebody is doing this, so we don't need to.' "

Staying Alive

Ironically, Sinclair's social conscience has made him the kind of design-world celebrity his fellow students in London aspired to be.

Curators invite him to take part in exhibitions. For the high-profile election-year show, "The Voting Booth Project," at the Parsons School of Design, he produced a civil rights-themed polling booth. For a holiday shopping exhibit at the London Design Museum, which focused on great cheap designs, Sinclair chose "the 50-cent condom" as "our biggest protection against the spread of HIV and AIDS." Antonelli has included him in MoMA's October exhibition "SAFE: Design Takes on Risk."

But making a living is proving elusive. He and Stohr take no salary from the nonprofit. They have no trust funds. The lecture circuit covers travel costs. He calculates this year's income "in the four figures." He doesn't have a license to practice architecture and would have to give up the nonprofit to make the time to get one. He worked just 17 months at the giant Gensler firm, which leaves him years short of the experience required.

Corporations have crossed his mind. On his way east, Sinclair stopped in Minneapolis at the invitation of Target. But his main interest is in starting an "institute for emergency architecture."

At the building museum, Sinclair closed his talk with an image of sprawling Bombay, which he calls by its new name, Mumbai. In the 21st century, he says, the big opportunities for architecture will be found in this and other vast, polluted urban enclaves.

Architecture for Humanity's fourth contest next spring will call on designers to address just such environments.

"There is no such thing as the utopian city of the future," Sinclair wrote in an e-mail postscript, "and the truly creative architects are the pragmatic dreamers who work on developing sustainable structures to improve the lives of the over 1 billion slum dwellers around the world."

The message was signed "executive director and eternal optimist."

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