A Conversation With Cameron Sinclair, CEO of Architecture for Humanity

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>2_Twitter_XO_right_sized.jpg Immediately after the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Cameron Sinclair, "chief eternal optimist" (CEO) and co-founder of Architecture for Humanity, began raising money to support the design and construction of temporary housing, health clinics, schools, and other community structures. What's especially impressive, though, is that his network of more than 40,000 people is also operating everywhere from Haiti to Rwanda, providing pro bono architecture and design solutions to communities in need.

Sinclair is also a co-founder of the Open Architecture Network (an online resource providing open-source architectural solutions), a 2006 Ted Prize recipient, and the co-editor of Design Like You Give a Damn. In this interview, he discusses the democratization of architecture, how design is reshaping the Swat Valley, and Twitter.

What do you say when people ask, "What do you do?"

I build community. However I do it wearing a number of hats. (There may be a reason I spent time answering these questions at 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning.)

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the architecture world?

The Web. The Internet has created an incredible democratization of the architecture industry. The realm of the pre-determined geniuses of the profession is no longer dictated by the number of inches in a broadsheet, an appearance on Charlie Rose, or the weight of a coffee table book. Our interconnected society has allowed young professionals to find new design heroes to follow and new ways of working collaboratively. Right now Architecture for Humanity is responding to the five current natural disasters (Haiti, Chile, Pakistan, New Zealand, and Japan) through our online network. Each of these programs is being led on the ground by local professionals. The Web has allowed us to act locally and act globally simultaneously.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your field?

Most folks think we design for ourselves, not the client or community. That is the exception, not the norm. Ego gets you inches but it doesn't get you impact. A true architect is not an artist but an optimistic realist. They take a diverse number of stakeholders, extract needs, concerns, and dreams, then create a beautiful yet tangible solution that is loved by the users and the community at large. We create vessels in which life happens.

What's an emerging trend you think will shake up the architecture world?

Population growth. If you design for a few clients in one of the big Western cities--New York, Los Angeles, or London--then your days are numbered. The real area that architects need is to move into is figuring out how to access the billions of clients living in growing markets in Asia and Latin America. I expect the Pritzker Prize, the profession's highest honor, to be won by a South Asian or African architect by the end of the decade.

What's an architecture or design trend that you wish would go away?

I don't have an issue with any aesthetic style, but I do get extremely irked by paper architecture in areas of crisis. While a vision of the future needs to be designed, if it isn't built it doesn't exist. You cannot elevate the hopes of a community, then say you are done. It would be more beneficial that you didn't show up in the first place.

To ideate is to be a designer but to build is to be an architect. Intellectually, there is a need for paper architecture for push the boundaries of what we can build, but the most important question is, "Why?"

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

The business of humanitarian aid. I have become obsessed with transparency and accountability of infrastructure and community-related aid. There is a massive black hole between what is being donated and the quality of what is built. Rather than shying away from this issue or falling into a pit of trying to drive policy change, we have been working on a world-changing idea that might be able to compare real "apples to apples" impact and allow for transparency, especially of taxpayer-funded projects.

Sometimes you need to get off the track to understand what train you are really driving and how to drive it better.

Who are three people you'd put in a Hall of Fame of architects and designers?

Yasmeen Lari, first female licensed architect in Pakistan. Trained in the West but moved back home to practice. Went into retirement only to found the Heritage Foundation, a non-profit that trains locals to build self-help housing using natural building technologies. She has been doing fearless work in the Swat Valley.

Oscar Niemeyer, not as much for the architecture but the ability to be working well past 100 and put us all to shame.

Sergio Palleroni, the elder statesman of the humanitarian design movement, who has inspired thousands of students to look away from the allure of glass and steel towers and to the physicality of the earth.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

When I was 16 I wanted to be a war photographer. I was fascinated by the ability of exposing critical issues. Then I became determined to solve them. I almost entered international politics but luckily I drew better than I debated.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

In terms of apps it's a tossup between Twitter and PayPal. With one I can find out the pulse of what's going on while the other gives me exact numbers on what I have available to make swift decisions on building solutions. In terms of websites it has to be the Open Architecture Network, as we use it to manage all of our projects in 22 countries and host a series of complex international competitions online.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

A couple of Nick Drake tracks, "Fake Empire" by The National, and "Devil's Spoke" by Laura Marling. In a few days I'm speaking at an event called Summit at Sea , so I've been listening to Zee Avi and Imogen Heap, who are both playing.


Image: Courtesy of Cameron Sinclair

Click here to donate to Architecture for Humanity, and here to learn about how students can get involved through its Paper Cranes for Japan project.

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Daniel Fromson, a former associate editor at The Atlantic, is a writer based in Washington, D.C. He writes regularly for The Washington Post. His work has also appeared in Harper's Magazine, New York, and Slate.

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