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Alternative housing: Architecture for Humanity

May 18 2009
‚Äö?Ñ??If you cannot design a basic shelter, you cannot call yourself an architect‚Äö?Ñ?? ‚Äö?Ñ??If you cannot design a basic shelter, you cannot call yourself an architect‚Äö?Ñ??
"The greatest humanitarian challenge we face today is that of providing shelter", claims US-based Architecture for Humanity "The greatest humanitarian challenge we face today is that of providing shelter". This is the claim made in the opening paragraph of a recently-published book, Design Like You Give a Damn, compiled by US-based charity Architecture for Humanity (AFH). All the projects featured in the book reveal a movement around the world, of architects and designers providing housing solutions to people who have no shelter - from those hit by natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, to Brazilian slums, to rough sleepers on the streets of New York. Cameron Sinclair, co-founder of AFH, believes designers have the potential to solve the accommodation and poverty crisis that is affecting the world. He also believes that by publishing the book his charity can draw the world's eyes to both the increasing plight of those without permanent accommodation, and the growing architectural response. Responses to homelessness featured before in The Pavement - such as Ted Hayes' Dome Village in downtown Los Angeles (Issue 14), or Michael Rakowitz's inflatable shelter paraSITE (Issue 13) - sit next to responses to mass housing problems in the developing world. This, Mr Sinclair believes, will be the focus of world politics in the near future. According to him, one in seven people around the world lives in a slum or refugee camp, and more than three billion people, nearly half the world's population, do not have access to clean water or adequate sanitation. Architects should be the first in line to address this crisis, he believes, especially since some estimates say that two-thirds of the cityscapes that will exist by mid-century have not been built yet. This was what Mr Sinclair, an architect trained at the University of Westminster and University College, London, had in mind when he co-founded AFH in 1999. The group has been working with government bodies and relief organisations since it was founded, in the wake of a harsh war that left Kosovo torn apart in the late 1990s. It was then that Mr Sinclair realised the potential architects had in providing aid, by using their skills to create cheap and high quality accommodation solutions. He organised a competition to find some winning projects that could house stranded Kosovans and raised more than $100,000. The group has come a long way since then, developing housing projects from places like the slums of Calcutta, to the hurricane-stricken cities of the US and Central America. It has won many awards, including the Index Award to Improve Life, and Mr Sinclair himself won the prestigious Ted Prize award last year. The group's active work in reconstruction, promotion and fundraising is ongoing, but some landmark initiatives were kicked off recently. The organisation worked with US corporation Sun Microsystems to create the Open Architecture Network, which is an open source system for supporting sustainable and humanitarian design and architecture. Users of this free computer-based system, launched in March last year, can browse, add, contribute to a massive network of projects in sustainable housing, and the service includes project management, file sharing, a resource database and online collaborative design tools. The launch of the book was another topical moment for the development of alternative housing solutions. It offers a history of the movement toward socially conscious design. More than 80 projects that have influenced lives of communities around the world are presented in the book; from a merry-go-round for children in South Africa that pumps water out of the ground and stores it into a tower to sand-filled tube-pods for refugees. In his blog, Mr Sinclair, wrote: "Tackling the issue of how to address urban homelessness has been a constant thorn in the side of the design and construction industry." In 2006 he was asked to co-judge the 'Shelter in a Cart' competition. More than 4,200 designers from 95 countries participated. The brief was to develop a 'cart' system to support those who chose to stay on the streets, rather than the housing shelter approach. Mr Sinclair admits it is a big step from these kinds of competitions to providing a lasting solution. "The competition and these initiatives are not the answer to issues of homelessness, but they force the design community to begin to ask serious questions," he says. However, as the number of people who are vulnerably housed is on the up, Mr Sinclair is adamant on one point. "There should be a basic rule," he argues. "If you cannot design a basic shelter, you cannot call yourself an architect."