Launch Slideshow

Cameron Sinclair

Can Architecture Save Humanity?

Can Architecture Save Humanity?

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Behind the Scenes With Kate

In his 2008 book, Philanthrocapitalism: How the Rich Can Save the World, Matthew Bishop, the New York bureau chief for The Economist, outlines a model—or perhaps a plea—for reconstruction. It’s one that would get its test in Haiti. Traditional aid is wasteful, or perilously slow, Bishop observes. Earlier this year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that, of the $1.14 billion in aid that Congress allocated for Haiti in 2010, just $184 million has been committed to date. Bishop has noted that government models for aid are often adequate for relief efforts, but endorses the private sector for performing reconstruction, for which entrepreneurial interests can carry enthusiasm after public interest fades.

From Stohr’s perspective, choosing between public and private aid isn’t any choice at all.

“The international community has failed Haiti in some very significant ways,” Stohr says. “I’ll speak with U.S. AID representatives and they’re only doing housing. For the love of God. You’re just going to do housing in a place that needs everything?”

If Sinclair is the organization’s optimist, Stohr would be its cynic, the straight-man in the routine. She is, anyway, the only figure at Architecture for Humanity headquarters who has an office—where she manages the often byzantine contracting process that is Architecture for Humanity’s favored tool. A manila folder three inches thick containing a contract for a project in Haiti sits in a bin of manila folders stacked a foot tall under a sign reading, FOR KATE TO READ.

“To date, we are involved in seven master-planning projects in Haiti. For such a tiny firm, that is ridiculous,” she says.

Stohr, who directs Architecture for Humanity’s work in Haiti, defends the pace of reconstruction there. “In Haiti’s case, they’re off pace. But they’re only off pace by about four months,” she explains. “The reason that they’re off pace is that they’re putting a lot more into it in terms of trying to build communities. It’s not that you want to be slow. But you do want to build water-treatment systems.”

As Stohr explains, there are two primary problems with reconstruction in Haiti. (Problems beyond, say, cholera.) The first is a fundamental misunderstanding of the crisis and how it affects development: It wasn’t the earthquake that made the state dysfunctional. “If we were building in a post-conflict environment, no one would be surprised that we’re still struggling with land title,” Stohr says. “Here we are building in a disaster context, and they [critics] have forgotten that Haiti is also a post-conflict environment.”

The second is fragmentation: Reconstruction spending is typically earmarked for particular sectors, such as sanitation, and dispersed by and to subject-matter experts with little coordination between them.

“There are very few people who can tie that into a comprehensive community development project,” she says. “Of which we are one. But we are only one.”

Stohr cites Walter Kiechel’s 2010 corporate history, The Lords of Strategy: The Secret Intellectual History of the New Corporate World, as influential to her thinking with regard to Haiti. The book documents the invention in the 1960s of corporate strategy as we understand it today. “Looking at Haiti, I thought it would be interesting, since there was so much rampant disregard for building code whatsoever—I thought, maybe if I could get in there early enough with enough people, I could get a larger market share, then we could set the standard,” Stohr says. “Which is a crazy idea”—Architecture for Humanity establishing the precedent, instead of, say, U.S. AID.

Architecture for Humanity always seeks to work with local architects. “You don’t take away from the architects who are there,” Stohr says, “otherwise you’re distorting the market and competing with them.” In Haiti, the organization is working with literally all of the country’s architects to redesign six commercial corridors in Port-au-Prince. “There are only 30 architects in Haiti,” Stohr says.

It is another way to “fund the cracks in the crisis,” as Sinclair puts it: By investing now in the commercial corridors of Port-au-Prince, Architecture for Humanity hopes to prevent the housing projects funded by government agencies such as U.S. AID from turning into slums. U.S. government spending is largely prescribed for creating housing, but mortgages are bound to end in default if no markets exist to create income stability. This is a looming threat in places such as Port-au-Prince, where unemployment hovers at 90 percent.

Working in the philanthrocapitalist vein outlined by Matthew Bishop, Architecture for Humanity has used population-overlay data provided by Digicel, the Caribbean’s largest mobile telecommunications company, to identify 400 small businesses and begin work to secure loans for them. These loans come with an asterisk: The rebuilding work must be performed by one of the local, licensed architects, and Architecture for Humanity reviews the drawings. Only two banks offer loan products for the work Architecture for Humanity has in mind, Stohr says, and the organization will need to secure between 30 and 100 of them, she estimates, to reach a scale that is feasible.

When does the building happen? Architecture for Humanity has to convince Haiti first. Though the nation’s dozens of architects recently reinstated a professional architectural trade association (“a huge step forward,” Stohr says), Haitians still look to masons for building services.

“We are starting a massive consumer campaign,” Stohr says. “A radio campaign and billboards. ‘Get Help Rebuilding—Come to the Rebuilding Center.’ We’ve never done billboards in our life.”