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Cameron Sinclair, co-founder, Architecture for Humanity

Design Like You Give a Damn

Architecture for Humanity cofounder Cameron Sinclair on stubbornness, leadership, and his childhood plan to remake South London

 

By Originally published in Green Building & Design, May/June 2013.

In terms of putting architecture and design to work for humanitarian efforts, Cameron Sinclair has been the leading voice for more than a decade. He colaunched Architecture for Humanity (AFH) in 1999, which has been a part of building more than 5,000 structures to date for the betterment of the worldwide communities they stand in, whether they’re war-torn, reeling from a natural disaster, or just in need of a roofed schoolhouse.

Along with former Secretary of State General Colin Powell and TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie, Sinclair is a keynote speaker at this year’s American Institute of Architects National Convention. He chatted with us recently about LEGOs and leadership from AFH’s San Francisco headquarters.

gb&d: When I talk about architecture changing in some way, it usually means design—not the profession itself—and what it’s capable of, so could you first give me a little context for social responsibility in architecture, and how you’re seeing that develop as you’ve been a part of it for, what, 15 or 16 years now?

Cameron Sinclair: Yeah, it’s always scary when I hear that number. You know, the reality is that there’s a modern movement of both humanitarian and sustainable design that’s compelling. Before the 20th century, an architect would focus on local issues, and have a natural responsibility to the city in which they lived to give back. So there was some level of humanitarian or socially driven architecture prior to the 20th century. Then, somehow, between the end of World War II and the 1990s, it just became architecture follows finance, from which follows form or ethics.

gb&d: So would you define basic socially responsible architecture in terms of being local and giving back to the local community?

Sinclair: It used to be. Before the 20th century, if you were an architect based in San Francisco, you would rarely build a building in New York unless you were one of the top five architects in the world. But by the time I was 22, I had already built in a dozen countries. So as a profession, we’ve become much more global, but what we didn’t take with it was the responsibility. In a way, I think the modern social impact realm is much more global, but a local implementation is really the most sustainable. I’m a little controversial in saying that sustainability is a subset of social architecture.

gb&d: How so?

Sinclair: Well, for a while we said, “Are you a green architect?” and then, “Do you also do humanitarian or socially responsible work?” But isn’t being sustainable also being socially responsible? You’re not the be-all-end-all just because you know how to install solar panels. It doesn’t give you a caveat to say, “Well, I’m not going to help the issue of homelessness in my city because I’m a green architect. I’m helping the environment enough.”

gb&d: I watched the TED Talk you gave in Monterey in 2006, and I think your words were, “I’m not a tree-hugger, but if you’re living on four dollars a day, it just makes sense to do something efficient.”

Sinclair: It’s funny—we’ve invented the term sustainability. When I work in Africa, India, or Latin America, I actually have to describe what we mean by “sustainability.” A client in South Africa was joking and saying that I’ve got my definitions all wrong: Africa isn’t the developing world; America is the over-developed world. Industrialized nations have become too consumption driven, and we have to take far more responsibility than, say, a school in Rwanda, where getting lighting is one of their basic needs and doing it sustainably is just cost-effective and efficient.

gb&d: You started Architecture for Humanity in New York in 1999 after recognizing a need for transitional housing for Kosovo refugees, but your interest in social responsibility came a lot earlier than that, right?

Sinclair: Yeah, I was essentially duped into being an architect. I grew up in a very tough neighborhood in South London, and I was really interested in how to transform it. My parents bought me LEGOs, and it sounds kind of ridiculous, but instead of building pirate ships and spaceships and things like that, I would actually try to redesign the neighborhood that we lived in. People I spoke to when I was a young teenager said, “Well, if you were an architect you would get to actually redesign these neighborhoods and make them better.” So I went to architecture school under the belief that what we did as a profession was to improve the lives of others. Boy, was I wrong.

gb&d: What was that experience like?

Sinclair: I wanted to create buildings that not only took into consideration the environment but also enhanced the community in the building and around it. And my professors were much more interested in technological solutions to the environment and the idea that if people get richer, they’ll kind of look after themselves—a kind of Ayn Rand approach to building as opposed to the idea that we should be building for all.

gb&d: I feel like a lot of people at that point would say, “Okay, I was told my whole life that architecture could solve this, but clearly it can’t be solved, so I’m going to walk away.” What made you go the other direction and decide that architecture can change communities?

Sinclair: When people don’t understand what you’re doing, they call you stubborn. But once you get some recognition for what you’ve achieved, they call you visionary. It’s the same definition. You’re focused, really single-minded, very opinionated, and won’t take no for an answer. I’m not the sort of person who gives up easily. It might take me a long time, but I don’t give up.

gb&d: Architecture for Humanity’s slogan is the title of your talk at the upcoming AIA conference: “Design Like You Give a Damn.” Tell me about how you came up with that and how it directs your organization.

Sinclair: That was really out of frustration. I found it fascinating that when you surveyed students about why they wanted to become an architect, over 70 percent of them said it was either to improve the community, protect the environment, or build something better for others. No one said to get rich. But once people graduate and start working in the field, the number one thing they need to do is pay back their loans and make money. I think “Design Like You Give a Damn” was just a way to say, look, I don’t care if you work for AFH or if you donate your services to us, I just want you to give a damn. To actually care about what you’re doing.

gb&d: I also wanted to talk about the idea of leadership, which is the theme of the AIA conference coming up. How do you define it?

Sinclair: How do I define leadership? I think it’s a marriage between taking responsibility and inspiring. I think early on in my career I was really good at doing the inspiring bit. I could tell hundreds of young designers, “Let’s change the world,” but no one really believed me until we were an example. You have to actually build something to show that your ideas matter.

gb&d: Can you share what you plan to talk about in your keynote lecture at the conference?

Sinclair: The idea of how to make what I do professional. Here’s what I hope: I hope Architecture for Humanity goes out of business—that the industry makes my nonprofit redundant. At the moment we definitely need AFH, right? But what we’re beginning to see is firms like SOM, Gensler, Perkins+Will starting nonprofit divisions. We started at a time when no one thought you could do this, and now everybody thinks you can do this. There’s definitely been a sea change in the way the profession thinks about socially driven work.

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