Launch Slideshow

Cameron Sinclair

Can Architecture Save Humanity?

Can Architecture Save Humanity?

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On Tour With Cameron

This month, Cameron Sinclair’s schedule takes him to Taiwan, Japan, Chicago, and Santa Fe, N.M. He says that for any given month, he spends two weeks in San Francisco and two weeks away. His calendar doesn’t support that claim. Most weeks and weekends are blocked off in bright colors, indicating travel.

A lot of Sinclair’s work happens on the road; Stohr spends more time at headquarters. Sinclair is quick to point out that he and Stohr share duties and deserve credit equally.

Not long after the organization’s founding, though, Sinclair became synonymous with Architecture for Humanity. Fortune magazine gave him his first big break in 2004 when they named him as one of the Aspen Seven, a global group of avatars fighting for good. The World Economic Forum named him a Young Global Leader in 2008. In May, the U.S. Agency for International Development appointed Sinclair to the Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid Members, a consortium that includes executives from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and the National Academy of Sciences.

Sinclair’s biggest hit came in 2006, when he was awarded the TED Prize, an honor typically reserved for the likes of former President Bill Clinton and benevolent rock-god Bono. Around this time, being Cameron Sinclair became one of Sinclair’s chief responsibilities at Architecture for Humanity—which is one reason he signed with Los Angeles talent agency Creative Artists Agency.

“That was a really hard thing for me to do,” he says. “Part of speaking is advocacy and to get people to understand our role in this. But the other half is to bring in funding. What I found is, I spent a year on the road, talking to everybody. At the end of these talks, with hundreds of people in the room, I would say, ‘Look. We just need a contribution.’ Nothing. I was actually losing money, flying to somebody’s event, giving a talk, and nobody donating.”

Sinclair puts his considerable personal charm to work for the organization. Minus the agency’s cut, all his speaking fees go to Architecture for Humanity; so do proceeds from the sales of Design Like You Give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises, co-edited by Sinclair and Stohr and published by Metropolis Books in 2006. These engagement fees support executive salaries at Architecture for Humanity—including salaries for the co-founders, both of whom receive $96,000, according to public records, and other staff. The average salary for a nonprofit executive was roughly $150,000 in 2008, according to a 2010 compensation study by Charity Navigator.

“There’s a couple of people [who came to work] here because of the book,” Sinclair says. Design Like You Give a Damn Vol. 2 is due in April 2012. With that book, Sinclair and Stohr hope to answer the questions they get most frequently: How do you fund projects? “Kate’s been looking at the history of funding over the last 20 years and how it’s changed, looking at for-profit mechanisms versus nonprofit mechanisms. If we were smart, we could have done a book every year. And here’s another set, and here’s another set, and here’s another set.”

If the public persona is a necessary evil, it is one that has redounded to the benefit of Architecture for Humanity. Sinclair’s global fame and familiarity with architectural bigwigs in Japan led advisors to former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan to call him for reconstruction advice following the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan.

“We tend to fund the cracks in the crisis,” Sinclair says. In Japan, Architecture for Humanity’s work is diverse. The organization identified a traditional wood joint mechanism that performed well in the earthquake and is working with Fukushima carpenters to implement this design in reconstruction work. For a remote fishing village called Miami—which was wiped out by the tsunami—Architecture for Humanity is not providing design services, but rather helping the town decide whether it’s even worth rebuilding. The larger part of the work in Japan, though, which Sinclair oversees, involves cooperating with donors and insurers to establish a forgivable loan mechanism for small businesses for reconstruction and operations.

“It’s not typical of a pro-bono design firm,” he says. “But if you’ve got a mom-and-pop business that’s been there for three generations, there’s no way they can get financing to bring their business back.”

Sinclair claims credit for the phrase “build back better”—a favorite recovery mantra of President Clinton and countless others. While it’s hard to judge that claim, the URL, in any case, belongs to Architecture for Humanity: buildbackbetter.com, a website written in Japanese, calls for one-page proposals for reconstruction grants of $25,000 to $60,000 for projects in Japan.

“We’re like legal aid. If you don’t have an architect, one will be appointed to you,” Sinclair says. “If you’re not happy with the architect you’ve got, we’ll find you one.”