Under Conflict, Can We Still Give a Damn?
Ethel Baraona Pohl and César Reyes from dpr-barcelona interview Cameron Sinclair, Chief Eternal Optimist and co-founder of Architecture for Humanity
Cameron Sinclair’s postgraduate thesis focused on providing shelter to New York’s homeless through sustainable, transitional housing. He co-founded Architecture for Humanity (AFH) in 1999 as a response to the conflict in Kosovo. Through a series of competitions, workshops, educational forums, and partnerships with aid groups, AFH has woven a world network to create opportunities for designers to respond to crises and conflicts. They published a first compilation of smart social conscious design in “Design Like You Give A Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises” (Metropolis Books, 2006). Today, with AFH having 73 chapters in 25 countries and more than 4,650 volunteer design professionals, Cameron Sinclair is not a name-dropper’s recourse anymore, not even after his naming as Advisor to the Obama Administration. We had a conversation in Barcelona with the architect who started a crusade on developing support in social, cultural and humanitarian design. We asked, “Under conflict, can we still give a damn?”
DPR: Hi Cameron. We know this is your first time in Spain and also, we do know that AFH Spain is really new…?
DPR: So, it’s interesting for us to know why Spain is becoming an important node or a central point for your organization?
CS: This is the second country I visited this week and yes, I found it interesting to see how so many architects are thinking and talking about Spain. It seems like the role of social architecture has come back to Spain. I think in Spanish architecture there has always been an element of social responsibility, but in the last ten years, with the big boom, people became more fascinated on sculptural buildings, museums and so on, focusing less on social issues. Now, with the financial crisis, I think there is also a kind of personal crisis and we’re getting more requests from Spain to engage with us.
DPR: Sounds provocative that, at the same time you started looking to Spain, people from here also started looking at you. Where does this reciprocity come from?
CS: I think it’s due to the financial crisis. People started to look back on what they’ve done for the past ten years, asking themselves, “What I did in the past ten years, did it really affect my community?” and now they are really interested in giving more social responses.
DPR: I can tell you that even living here, sometimes it’s hard to perceive this kind of attitude you’re talking about. We have the sense that we’ve been living architecture from a more superficial point of view and not interested in these social issues…
CS: Yes, it may be true, but the fact is that if people say that it’s okay for architecture to be superficial, then it will be superficial. If you say “No, no. Architecture needs to have a social value,” then architecture will start having it.
Is it the same when you think, why did anyone want to become an architect? If you ask a seventeen year-old why he or she wants to be an architect, it’s not to be a celebrity, it’s not to be a millionaire, it’s to make changes to their community.
DPR: Knowing about your activities in Haiti or with the Pakistan floods, we were wondering if you [AFH] also act in other kinds of conflicts, not natural ones but man-made ones, such as wars, geopolitical or armed conflicts. And if so, how do you manage it?
CS: Yes. We have some work in Afghanistan and will start working in Sudan. By the way, we have students from the UIC (Universitat Internacional de Catalunya) University working on this program  about the Sudan issue, and it’s really interesting to talk about it, because it’s really a complex issue. A lot of people from the international community think now about Sudan that there is a fifty-fifty chance of peace or war. And the real fact of it is to wonder if there is a hidden arrangement of interests waiting for war to start. But we build infrastructures to prevent war. So in a way, architecture is there for preventing war. And we do it almost in an aggressive way. You have to fight the violence as aggressively as it is.
I’m going to show today  some projects in the favelas of Brazil, which are very dangerous.
DPR: Yes, in that sense, talking about Afghanistan or Brazil is almost the same, they are both dangerous places to work in.
CS: Yes, it’s a war there. It’s a war politically and socially, and as violent as a physical war is. We have to think that architecture never creates peace, never. But it creates the vessel and the place where peace can happen. For architects, if they understand that they are not the leader, if they move like a guide, then it’s architecture without ego and it’s more humble in its approach. The best way to face a conflict is with a humble approach.
DPR: And talking about the favelas issue, how do local people react to your work there?
CS: Well, if you come in and say “I’m an architect,” they will kick you out. But when you sit down and you discuss an issue with them, and as an architect you understand that you’re not on a vacation, they let you in. Our architects live in the community, they don’t live in a luxury house, they live in the favela.
DPR: They become just one more within the population…
CS: Yes, that’s the point.
DPR: We were wondering if it has been difficult for you to find people interested in working in such dangerous places?
CS: The people who work with us, are pretty tough. They’re a little crazy, by the way. For example, Daniel Feldman, who worked in a favela for a year a while ago, he went back to Colombia, where he’s from and where the flood happened. And because he had confidence, he called the office of the president, met with the first lady and said, “I have worked in a favela, I know what it is to work in dangerous places and I want to help.” They hired him on the spot. Architects become very tough after working with us and they can really engage with their communities. They can work in tough neighborhoods, deal with tight budgets and be creative. They actually build in hope.
DPR: We have read in the last year in a few magazines and blogs  a bit of criticism on the architectural quality of your projects. What can you tell us about it?
CS: It’s funny, you know. I defend my architects very well. You can be critical about the quality but, if you don’t step in their shoes, you can’t understand the challenges. The fact is that we go into communities, bring water for the first time, we help to bring education for the first time, we bring health-care for the first time. We’re not going there to create the “Bilbao effect” in a favela or in a poor neighborhood.
In Haiti, we went to a school where we brought clean water and sanitation. The school doubled in attendance and we focused on the quality of education. The quality of the building it’s ok, but the quality of education is our main task.
DPR: Ok, so let’s continue talking about criticism. We had also been reading that there are some sociologists and anthropologists that refer to the work of some non-governmental organizations (NGO) as a “new colonialism” . What can you say about it?
CS: Absolutely. We’re very unique in the fact that we only work with local architects and engineers and a minimum of fifty percent of our staff is local. Usually, it is more. But we had a hard time as well when we saw some NGOs with the big jeeps or driving coasters and we were only on bicycles, so the criticism is valid. We, as an organization, need to listen to the people. But me, I’m not going to listen to an anthropologist from Harvard University, but I am going to listen to the community leader. When they say, “listen, we need an outside expert.” I’ll bring it. But if they say, “we don’t need it, I’m absolutely not bringing him. I think academics and intellectuals always undermine people locally and don’t believe in the strength of the community.
DPR: Yes. This is the most common attitude…
CS: We have to separate the colonial activity from this intellectual activity, which is also a kind of colonialism.
DPR: According to this, how is your relationship with other NGOs? Do you work together? Do you have any kind of agreements?
CS: Originally, we were independent, more combative. But suddenly we began to understand that we could influence them somehow. It’s like saying, “do you want to be a pirate on the pirate ship or do you want to be a pirate in the big NGO ship.” So, we wanted to get into the big ship and share ideas to be more sustainable. That was the best that we could do. There were organizations at those times that were acting separately and now they come to us with some requests, they come to us for advice.
DPR: Now, before ending the interview and knowing that we’re “friends” on twitter, facebook and we follow the activities of Architecture for Humanity through the social networks , we want to know if the social networks have been really useful to spread your work or to interact with other communities?
CS: I will answer with an anecdote. When we wanted to go to Burma, nobody could get anybody there to work with us, so we used text messaging on mobiles and we started using twitter to communicate with the local people and finally we found people to work with us through these technologies. So, in circumstances when it is hard to go physically to a certain place, we use social networks as the first step to know what is happening there. We did it in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, where it is really dangerous. We used social networks, Facebook and Twitter, to communicate with the designers and receive updates.
DPR: Thank you Cameron!
“In view of increasingly fragmented identities, we need to find a form of co-existence that makes it possible for conflict to work as a productive confrontation: “a model for unconventional participation that allows outsiders to judge existing debates without the fear of rejection.” 
“Participation is war. Any form of participation is already a form of conflict. In order to participate in any environment or given situation, one needs to understand the forces of conflict that act upon that environment… if one wants to participate in any given force field, it is crucial to identify the conflicting forces at play.”
“What we need today are more dilettantes that neither worry about making the wrong move nor prevent friction between certain agents in the existing forcefield if it is necessary.”
“An alternative model of participation within spatial practice…actors who operate from outside existing networks, while leaving behind circles of conventional expertise and overlapping with other post-disciplinary fields of knowledge.”
“Micro-political action can be as effective as traditional state political action… In this context, it could be useful to re-think the concept of conflict, seeing it as an enabler, a producer of a productive environment rather than as direct, physical violence.”
 All quotes extracted from the book “The Violence of Participation” by Markus Miessen. Sternberg Press, 2007.
 Cameron Sinclair was invited to Barcelona by the Master International Cooperation: Sustainable Emergency Architecture from the UIC ESARQ. More info: http://www.uic.es/en/international-cooperation
 The interview was done on Cameron Sinclair’s first visit to Spain, when he gave a lecture at the Association of Architects of Catalonia (COAC) Barcelona on January 19th, 2011
 Pedro Gadanho, Architecture for Humanity [December 11th 2009] visited on May 21th 2011
 NGOs as the new agents of colonialism. http://www.indymedia.org.nz/article/76194/ngos-new-agents-colonialism [October 30th 2008] visited on May 21th 2011
 You can follow AFH network activity at @archforhumanity and AFH Spain through their facebook site
Cameron Sinclair is the co-founder and ‘Chief Eternal Optimist’ (CEO) of Architecture for Humanity. He was trained as an architect at the University of Westminster and at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. During his studies Sinclair developed an interest in social, cultural and humanitarian design.
http://architectureforhumanity.org | @casinclair
Ethel Baraona Pohl is an architect who develops her professional work linked to a number of technical publications in the architectural field. Her work shows a clear innovative way to bring the contents to the public transcending the boundaries between time and space.
www.dpr-barcelona.com | @dpr_barcelona | @ethel_baraona
César Reyes is an architect from Guatemala. Co-author of the book “Sustainable Architecture,” which was pre-selected for the prestigious Riba Book Awards 2008 in the category of Construction. He runs the architecture and design studio dpr-barcelona.
www.dpr-barcelona.com | @dpr_barcelona | @cerreyes