Sad news emerged from San Francisco last week, as we learnt that Architecture For Humanity — the international non-profit organization that changed the game for humanitarian design — had closed down on January 1st. Founded by Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr in 1999, the seminal organization was born from a simple idea: that architects and designers could use their skills to create a more resilient world.
From those humble beginnings, the non-profit grew by leaps and bounds over the past 15 years, with over 70 permanent staff and hundreds of volunteers pioneering new approaches to public interest design across the globe. The ambitious organization specialized in four areas, all of which were focussed on helping vulnerable communities through the power of good design.
Maeami Hama Community House, Japan. Via the Open Architecture Network
First and foremost, they led worldwide initiatives pertaining to disaster recovery, with a plethora of successful rebuilding projects carried out in all manner of different environmental contexts. Landmark achievements included some incredible work in Haiti following the catastrophic earthquake of 2010, and a huge number of completed structures on the east coast of Japan, built for communities devastated by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011.
The organization also championed community resilience, with pioneering programs such as the Hurricane Sandy Reconstruction initiative in New York and New Jersey. Their work in the state of Mississippi — particularly the innovative Biloxi Model Homes program — put local communities in a far stronger position to withstand future storms after Hurricane Katrina had done its worst in 2005.
Biloxi Model Homes, Mississippi. Via the Open Architecture Network
Thirdly, they sought to give communities greater access to active spaces, harnessing sport as a catalyst for social and economic empowerment. Projects spanned an incredibly diverse range of geographic locations and social contexts, from the streets of New York City to rural villages across Africa. Their recent Football for Hope campaign yielded 19 new sports centers serving communities across the continent.
Finally, their educational spaces brought new access to learning for thousands of children — standout projects included the Enel Cuore community empowerment initiative, with award-winning schools built in several countries across South America. The Haiti program also saw the successful completion of an incredible nine schools, each with a unique character reflecting the spirit of local residents — many of whom were involved throughout the design process.
College Mixte Bon Berger, Haiti. Via the Open Architecture Network
So, what went wrong? SFGate writer John King rightly points out that no individual was to blame for Architecture For Humanity’s misfortune, remarking that “the organization’s problem was one that’s inherent to socially ambitious non-profits — finding ways to keep interest and funding coming when the newness of its mission wears off.”
This state of affairs does not sit well with those who believe in the potential of good design to strengthen the resilience of communities and their environment, leading to better social and economic futures for a huge number of people across the globe. Margie O’Driscoll, a former director at the organization, lamented a collective lack of vision in this regard: “The travesty isn’t that the organization went over budget serving communities around the world. It is that humanitarian design isn’t considered a fundamental right. And that today, in San Francisco, it is easier to find funding for an app than to fund an organization which transforms lives in places most Americans don’t know exist.”
It is not all bad news, however: Numerous volunteer chapters around the world are standing strong, with representatives from London, Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago all declaring their intention to continue Architecture For Humanity’s great work despite the closure of the headquarters in San Francisco.
Kimisagara Football for Hope Center, Rwanda. Via the Open Architecture Network
It seems inevitable that this organization’s legacy will continue long into the future — it has done more to bring the conversation about humanitarian design into the mainstream than any other group, and also introduced the intriguing concept of open source architecture, something all architects will be mulling over as the profession evolves in the digital age.
The organization raised the level of engagement between the industry and the public, setting new standards in communication with the end users of buildings — they showed that with careful collaboration, it is possible to produce architecture that is pragmatic without compromising on creative innovation. Most of all, though, their work served to change the lives of thousands of young people around the world, and undoubtedly inspired a number of future careers in design and architecture along the way.
This may be the end of Architecture for Humanity, but it is surely just the beginning for humanitarian design.
The Angry Architect
Top image: Santa Elena de Piedritas School, Peru. Via the Open Architecture Network