Design Like You Give A Damn

‘Design Like You Give A Damn: Architectural Responses To Humanitarian Crises’ by Architecture for Humanity (Eds), Thames & Hudson, 2006. 336pp

Reviewed by Austin Williams | 9 September 2006

Cameron Sinclair’s long-awaited book begins with a personal journey of social and ethical awareness, which has taken him from a lowly ‘CAD monkey’, as he describes himself, to a fully-fledged professional humanitarian. He now heads an organisation that has won him the plaudits of Fortune magazine which places him in the top seven people ‘changing the world for the better.’

The book starts with personal journey of self-realisation. From humble beginnings in a tiny office in New York, Sinclair and his partner, Kate Stohr describe how they founded Architecture for Humanity and became unwitting leaders of a global movement for change.

Remarkably though, from 1999 to 2003 they built precisely nothing and by 2006, ‘we have,’ they say, ‘constructed only a dozen buildings’. Even for a rubbish architect, that takes some doing, especially given that most of the housing projects throughout this book seem to be built out of straw and rags and cost about fourpence. So what on earth have they been doing?

Well, it seems that they have been promoting themselves as ‘a conduit for change’ and this book lists lots of ‘socially-responsible’ projects (by other people) grouped under chapter headings: Housing, Health, Water, Energy, Sanitation, Policy and Politics. Schemes are précised with photographs, a project list of the location, design team and unit cost together with weblinks for more information.

Schemes vary in scale, cost and geographical location but what they have in common is a concern about survival rather than meaningful progress. The contemptibly named ‘paraSITE’ is essentially a plastic bag for the homeless in New York (so named because the bag inflates by tapping into the warm exhaust air of a ‘host’ building) but has nothing to do with addressing the problem of homelessness. A children’s merry-go-round in South Africa is in fact a water pump whereby each rotation raises water for the village. The playfulness of the design disguises the reality of a desperate lack of infrastructural resources. Time and time again, the purpose of Sinclair’s design examples seem to mask – or even to celebrate – underdevelopment preferring to deal with surface appearances, rather than critique the actual causes of underdevelopment, conflict and poverty.

Take terrible plight of African women having to carry water barrels on their heads for miles? Designers have now cunningly added a stick to the side of the barrel so that it can now be wheeled instead of carried, thus eliminating ‘unhealthy skeletal stress’. It also saves energy – and after all, they’re going to need all the energy they can get to survive another miserable day in crushing poverty with no mains water. Funnily enough, the one example of technology, a thin-film photovoltaic tent that generates 1kW is pointedly proposed for troops and aid workers rather than refugees; after all, why would victims of a crisis need electricity when they can happily swing on a roundabout? In this context, claims to ‘improve the quality of life’ imply some kind of ethereal improvement rather than financial, societal and material betterment.

Even where financial considerations make an appearance, there is something unsavoury about it, whereby the poor are ‘seen no longer as a burden but as a resource’. In Darfur, for example, an aid agency is paying refugees $1 a day to weave grass mats which are lashed to a bamboo frame to provide shelter. I sense that if a multi-national company was paying such slave rates, there’d be an outcry. But with moral right on their side, Architects for Humanity can get away with anything.

The sanctimonious title and tone of this book suggests that anybody deemed not to ‘give a damn’ is a problem. Describing tsunami-torn Sri Lanka with unseemly relish, (‘this was a key moment, not just for our organisation but for the entire movement for socially conscious design’) the authors can’t believe that national sovereignty has the audacity to undermine the good works that they are trying to impose. ‘For the most part the relief and reconstruction effort was chaotic and crippled by bureaucracy,’ they say. If only these bureaucrats (er… government officials) could be overstepped it seems, then Sinclair could get on with the task of saving the world. Don’t they know who he is? He may be a socially-conscious designer fighting the tyranny of bureaucratic inconvenience, but give me national sovereignty and elected officials over unelected moralistic interlopers any day.

In part, this book is a heartening story that shows that people – from all walks of life – remain angry about the iniquitous condition of their fellow man across the globe and want to do something about it. Unfortunately, it is depressing that such constructive anger is being directed into self-righteous campaigns that have actually nothing to do with changing the world for the better. Architecture for Humanity is principally involved in a design exercise which, unsurprisingly, is simply attempting to make grinding poverty look a little nicer.


Author: AlastairDonald

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