"Design like you give a damn." That’s the motto of the not-for-profit organization Architecture For Humanity, and it's a memorable one. It sums up the ethos of an NGO that was born in 1999 with a simple idea: that designers could use their skills and passions to change the world, and that great architecture can bring vital hope to communities in need. That rousing slogan has spawned two books, not to mention a major international conference — Design Like You Give A Damn: LIVE! — which took place in October in Manhattan at Dwell on Design. (Details here.)
Since its inception in 1999, Architecture For Humanity has grown from a team of two to a full-time staff of over 40, operating from global offices to kick-start humanitarian design programs all over the world. To this end, they have built an extraordinary portfolio of work: the organization has overseen post-disaster rebuilding in Japan, Haiti, the Gulf Coast, New York, and the Philippines. Further to this they have implemented numerous programs that use active spaces as a means for social change — their Football For Hope initiative, involving the construction of 20 football centers across Africa, is drawing to a close after 5 incredibly fruitful years.
Now, as the organization celebrates its 15th anniversary, we look at 5 top reasons for YOU to get involved with humanitarian architecture.
Model-making workshop for the Santa Elena Pedritas School in Peru. Image via the Open Architecture Network.
If you have become accustomed to studio life with clients more akin to abstract corporate entities than real-life human beings, it might be time for a change. Working in humanitarian design regularly involves a participatory process, with local people being creatively engaged in the design of buildings that will form a vital core to their everyday lives.
Conducting design charrettes, model workshops, and public forums gives you a chance to connect with the most important people in the design process — the end-users. An exemplar in community engagement came during the design and construction of Santa Elena de Piedritas School, where children took part in a model-making workshop and even helped put together some components of the finished buildings. If there is a way to instill a sense of pride and ownership in a building for local people, this is it.
Salvaged timber used to construct the Hikado Maketplace covered deck. Image via the Open Architecture Network.
Opportunities To Innovate
Circumstances that give rise to a need for humanitarian input are often fraught with difficulty — complex site conditions and limited budgets dictate that new approaches to design are not only considered, they are positively encouraged. This fact is perfectly illustrated by Architecture For Humanity’s Hikado Marketplace project, where a covered wooden deck was constructed using salvaged timber and shingles from the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.
Unusual constraints and extraordinary factors provide an opportunity for experimentation and innovation that may not be afforded to architects in conventional scenarios: prepare for your creative spark to be well and truly lit.
Santa Elena Pedritas School, part of the Enel Cuore Community Empowerment initiative. Image via the Open Architecture Network.
Architecture is a global industry, but we often get anchored to a practice that, for reasons of fiscal pragmatism, finds the majority of its work close to home. There is nothing wrong with this at all — as Architecture For Humanity often reiterates, the best solutions tend to be local solutions. However, if like me you have a passion for learning about architecture within different cultural, social, and political contexts, humanitarian design can make the world seem like a very small place indeed.
Architecture For Humanity has projects scattered around the globe, with some programs spanning multiple continents all on their own. The Enel Cuore Community Empowerment program, which facilitates the building of schools and community buildings, has seen projects completed or under construction in Peru, Colombia, Brazil, Slovakia, Romania, and Italy. If you want to get involved with projects in vastly varied environments, for a plethora of different communities, a global humanitarian organization could be a great place to start.
The Kitakami "We Are One" Market, Tohoku. Image via the Open Architecture Network.
Skills Beyond Design
While Architecture For Humanity gets heavily involved with design, there is a wide range of other facets to the organization that keeps it ticking. Working within such a group gives you an opportunity to learn a great deal about development and coordination of complex programs, often managing design processes and construction work across entire continents.
Realizing the need for a holistic approach, the organization goes beyond the realms of the construction industry in their efforts to help communities become more resilient. They are integrating rebuilding services with business support on the east coast of Japan — such as with the Kitakami "We Are One" Market — to aid the long-term economic recovery of the region following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
Kimisagara Football For Hope and some of its energetic end-users. Image via the Open Architecture Network.
For anyone working in a commercial architectural practice, you will be familiar with the age-old struggle between the design principles we all strive to hold onto, and the need to satisfy developer clients’ desire to minimize fuss and maximize profit. This battle can sometimes lead us to forget why we got ourselves into this business in the first place: namely, our belief that good design can benefit society and improve the lives of people who inhabit our buildings.
Humanitarian design gives architects the means to get back to the grassroots of their industry. They must use their ingenuity to help people with a direct need for all that is fundamental within architecture: shelter, warmth, access to clean water, and — most of all — places around which people can build their communities. Providing these elements is all the more rewarding when you realize that your structure can form a catalyst for revitalizing children’s education, workers' business prospects, and the health of whole communities in the wake of crises.
For more information, to get involved in the organization’s work, or to donate, make sure to visit www.architectureforhumanity.org. Get on board — use your design prowess to help change the world!
The Angry Architect
Top image: Santa Elena Pedritas School, Peru. Image via the Open Architecture Network.