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Blueprint for Building a Better World
For Cameron Sinclair, Architecture Is About Shelter, Not Skyscrapers

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.

"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.

The New York firm I-Beam conceived a house of recycled wooden pallets, which are widely used in transporting food aid. To test the materials, the architects erected a trial house in the South Bronx. The structure held up fine overnight. The next day, squatters moved in. Shortly thereafter, authorities dismantled it, but the designers were confident.

Only Japanese architect Shigeru Ban's design -- a house of sturdy paper tubes -- was put to use, but not in Kosovo. After an earthquake in Turkey that year, Ban constructed his paper shelters there.

Sinclair is still struggling to get designs built from his second contest, for a mobile AIDS clinic. The idea emerged in 2002 on his honeymoon in South Africa.

Back in New York, he launched a call for designs. Three truckloads of entries -- 531 from 51 countries -- arrived at his Chelsea studio on the same day. Sinclair called the Van Alen Institute again and got help organizing a jury. Issues of mobility -- truck, donkey or motorcycle -- were deliberated along with power sources and cultural appropriateness. If a design looked like a hut, instead of a modern clinic, why would a mother take her child there?

Last summer, four finalists went to South Africa to work with the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies on a final design. Constructing a basic clinic that could reach 10,000 patients would cost $16,000 to $20,000, Sinclair says. A fully equipped model might cost $200,000 to build and operate for a year, serving many more. It irks Sinclair that some mobile pet clinics in this country have bigger budgets.

The third contest is titled "Siyathemba" -- Zulu for "hope." This project envisions a sports facility that would double as a health education center. The request came from young girls who wanted to form a soccer league in their community in KwaZulu-Natal, which Sinclair first encountered while studying the problems of designing the mobile AIDS clinic.

An architecture school graduate in Pittsburgh, Swee Hong Ng, produced the winning design. V-shaped earth terraces with adobe brick and concrete seating would function as an amphitheater as well as a stadium. A canopy of timber and textiles would provide shade and allow communities to customize the structure with their own fabrics, should the design be replicated.

A former Nike executive, Kevin Carroll, who now runs the Katalyst sports consultancy in Portland, Ore., was on the jury and later donated $3,500. He does not expect his name to appear on a plaque.

"For me, it's enough to be able to tell the story of Cameron's work," he says.

Sinclair has raised $50,000, and has set a deadline of Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, to gather the rest of the projected $250,000 cost.

In the meantime, he is organizing the building of a school in Sri Lanka. Funds are being raised for a school for the children of prostitutes in Calcutta. Sinclair spent the train ride from New York to Washington on the phone, hunting down trucks to move 70 emergency shelters from Georgia to Miami for shipment to hurricane-ravaged Grenada.

He brings up the Geldof comparison, first made by a British journalist, and frowns.

"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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