Blueprint for the Future

A new book envisions architectureas a force for good

| September / October 2006

'Too often architects are desperately needed in the places where they can least be afforded,' reads a line in the book jacket of Design Like You Give a Damn (Metropolis, 2006). British-born architect Cameron Sinclair and his colleagues at Architecture for Humanity (AFH), a small-staffed but bighearted nonprofit whose leaders edited the book, are working to fix that disconnect. The California-based group lines up altruistic designers with needy communities across the globe, and the book, subtitled Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises, highlights projects by AFH and others that advance this grassroots approach.

Apart from being a cleanly designed compendium of canny ideas and a valuable resource, Design Like You Give a Damn is an impassioned call to action. Sinclair reveals that he was a 'disillusioned CAD monkey'-computer-aided designer-at a New York architecture firm before he saw a documentary about the ethnic Albanian uprising in Kosovo. Moved to help refugees, he and a colleague organized a relief housing design competition, and within a few years he cofounded Architecture for Humanity. Now he's a globe-hopping advocate for the cause, encouraging and enlisting other like-minded designers to share their talents. And Design Like You Give a Damn is essentially a manifesto for the movement.

The book describes innovations ranging from low-tech fixtures (toilets, water filters, antimalarial bed nets) to temporary structures (shelters for the homeless, relief housing) to permanent ones (schools, chapels, community centers). Many have been field-tested, while others are works in progress. The common thread: All demonstrate 'the power of design to improve lives.' Context is provided by Sinclair's introduction, a chapter by his wife and AFH cofounder Kate Stohr on relief housing during the past century, and quick-hit statistics about refugees, health care, education, literacy, and other issues that drive the need for cheap, functional architecture. (One person in six lives in a slum, the book notes, and 'that number could grow to one in three by the year 2020.')

Some of the designs are attention-getters because of unusual materials or dual uses. The inflatable hemp house uses hemp sacks to make a balloon structure, which is then covered with mortar to make a transitional house. One AFH project under way in South Africa combines a soccer facility with a health clinic. Sometimes innovation at first looks like gimmickry, but this book's willingness to present new and occasionally far-flung solutions is part of its eye-popping appeal.

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