Pragmatic Experimentation: An interview with Cameron Sinclair

Nearly drowned out by the strains of Dookie-era Green Day and the Barenaked Ladies, three of us were at the table trying to talk: me; my brother Peter, a green designer and founder of Vivus Architecture; and the British-born founder of Architecture for Humanity, Cameron Sinclair. Designer of the Year nominee at the Design Museum in London, author of the new book Design Like You Give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises, and winner of prestigious $100K TED Prize, Sinclair met us at a sports bar near his Minneapolis hotel in the University of Minnesota's Dinkytown. "We’re in a college dive bar, music blaring in the background," he says. "You could say you’re recording from Scranton, Pennsylvania." No disrespect to Scranton, but our sub-high-brow meeting place ended up fitting, because Sinclair's work as one of humanitarian architecture's foremost proponents combines the high-minded with, well, the real. His work as fundraiser, designer, and relief organizer has taken him to Ghana, Sri Lanka, South Africa, and Biloxi, Mississippi, where he and other architects working under AFH's aegis have created collaborative designs for communities rebuilding after natural disasters. And, yes, many of those meetings, like ours, occurred in the evenings over beer.

Following are excerpts from our interview, which appears in the book, Land, Art: A Cultural Ecology Handbook (Cornerhouse, December 2006), published this winter by the Royal Society of Arts' Arts & Ecology program. Also, an account of our get-together appeared in The Rake.

On art and the media:

Paul: In addition to architecture you’ve done some art interventions, and I’m wondering if you think the designs you’re doing now have an interventionist dual purpose, both housing people and making a point about how we need to house people?

CS: I’ve been teaching at the university here in Minneapolis, and I always try to make my students do agitprop projects. Actually, the role of the architect is a political one. You make a conscious choice whether you’re going to do a project or not do a project. You can say, “It’s really a shame what happened down in the Gulf Coast, but I don’t really want to get involved in that.” I actually do an art project once a year, an art project for myself, just to keep my creative juices going… Just as I was coming out of college, I did a project dealing with homelessness in New York. I had located the housing to block the Statue of Liberty, and the idea that when the city took responsibility of its homeless, it’d get it’s view of Liberty back, because there was this idea of “bring us your huddled masses yearning to be free.” And here we are in New York and there were 60,000 people on the streets. So I think you as a designer have the opportunity to come up with a pragmatic and innovative sustainable response, but at the same time there’s kind of an air of tongue-in-cheek about it, that you can make this cultural criticism...

"There’s no room for utopian dreamers,
but there’s definitely room for pragmatic experimenters."

I just did an art piece in LA. A group of artists were given clocks. You had to change a clock, and I actually took out the clock and plugged in a security camera, and hidden in the face was a camera. On the face, I replaced it with some imagery of housing a year after the tsunami. And when you’re looking at this imagery you actually see yourself in the TV camera. Part of the point was about 24-hour news, and in the news cycle, a disaster is only there for the first couple of weeks. And until a new disaster comes along, it’s like the flavor of the month. Then suddenly there’s a new disaster and people forget about those who are affected by the tsunami or Katrina or Kashmir. The media is treating disasters as entertainment. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had media outlets asking, how bad have the families suffered. They’ve suffered enough for us to film them? Would it make good television?
On global warming:
CS: I’ve talked to a couple of people who live in cities and they were saying, “Just imagine the economic losses that’s going to happen in cities like Vancouver and Seattle and all these waterfront properties that’ll go under water.” And then you take cities in China and India where you’re going to have 100,000,000 people who are going to lose their houses in the next 30 years, and where are they going? How are we dealing with them? So you’ve got that happening as well, you’ve got systemic issues of global warming. But you’ve also got population boom. In developing countries, currently there are very few people that are making a lot of money. And as you have this separation between the rich and the poor, as you have this much larger, poorer community growing and the wealth of a country held by very few people, that creates civil unrest. So what you’ll find over the next 30 years, because of lack of access to basic sanitation, healthcare, schooling, and even shelter, we’re going to end up in situations of war. Security is going to be threatened based on things we’ve never even conceived. Forget oil—

Peter: Water.

CS: Yeah, water is going to be a big thing. Darfur, a lot of that has to do with access to water. Darfur used to have a huge lake, a huge resource. And in 15 years, it’s completely dried up. So that means that farmers have had to move away from the arid areas to try and find areas where they can grow their crops, so now you have warring factions pushed into one area, one region. It’s happening all over the place. There are nomadic tribes that are being pushed off desert areas just because there’s been a temperature increase by one or two degrees. We don’t feel it here. If anything, we’re like, “Oh great, it’s going to be nice and warm!’
On practical dreaming:
Peter: Is there any room for architectural experimentation in Architecture for Humanity, or does everything have to be tried and true? How do you justify experimentation on someone’s life style?

CS: It depends what you’re experimenting. Because we’re working with communities where we’re like a team--we’re not designing for them; there’s a partnership. We discuss options, and occasionally you get people who are actually very creative, who want you to experiment. They’ve just been in a concrete block house that was completely destroyed by the tsunami and it killed half their family. And you come along and say, “We can do what you had before, or we can design this new house which looks at doing a core system,” which is a project that was done in Sri Lanka, “which will wash water through and won’t cause a loss of life and the structure will remain up.” If you’re experimenting in a way that improves their lives and also will have a level of disaster mitigation--it’s not experimentation like, “I want to do this inflatable city and if a wave comes along, we just let the balloon go and we all escape up into the air.” There’s no room for utopian dreamers, but there’s definitely room for pragmatic experimenters.
For more information, visit AFH's Minnesota chapter. For pictures, check out AFH's Flickr site. Sinclair is also the keynote speaker at PUSH 2006 on June 13. I'll be live-blogging the conference at Off Center.

Thanks to Land, Art editor Max Andrews for permission to excerpt the interview here.

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