It’s hard to imagine anyone would have been happy to learn that Architecture for Humanity filed for bankruptcy. The nonprofit and its founders (Kate Stohr, who stepped down in 2013, and Cameron Sinclair, who left in 2014) are practically synonymous with public interest architecture, what with their 200,000-plus Twitter followers; TED Prize; book with the sassy title, Design Like You Give a Damn; and celebrity friends like Jennifer Lopez and Brad Pitt.
How does the profession recover from the passing of its highest-profile humanitarian initiative? A little perspective helps: The bankruptcy is a sad setback, but it doesn’t mean the end of the movement. Architecture for Humanity chapters are signaling their intent to carry on without the parent organization, and the AIA issued a statement “promising to seek opportunities ... to advance the mission that Architecture for Humanity so strongly embodied.” And yes, there are other groups out there dedicated to public-interest architecture.
Lord knows there’s demand for their services. Too much research points to the same troubling conclusion: More and more wealth is being concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Even the Wall Street Journal is treating the gap as a given. A Jan. 28 article asserted, “The emergence of a two-tiered U.S. economy, with wealthy households advancing while middle- and lower-income Americans struggle, is reshaping markets for everything from housing to clothing to groceries to beer.”
Tragically, for millions of people in the U.S. and billions more abroad, it’s not a question of affordability on a sliding scale: buying a home vs. renting, splurging at Whole Foods vs. scrimping at Walmart. It’s a matter of basic survival, as in: “Can I feed my family today?”
Few people who read this publication know firsthand what it means to be truly poor, but relative prosperity hasn’t stopped legions of architects and designers from using their skills in an effort to help the less fortunate. Architects possess the ability to design a hospital in Haiti or a house in the Ninth Ward, and many of them have. They’ve volunteered with the AIA’s disaster assistance initiative or participated in Public Architecture’s 1% program, and they deserve huge credit for it. The profession as a whole has to protect such networks for public interest architecture.
Architects are incredible innovators when it comes to the art and science of building. And increasingly,
the profession is producing innovators of another kind: philanthropic entrepreneurs, who bring revolution to the design of their own practices. Some do so through teaching. The late Samuel Mockbee’s venerable Rural Studio at Auburn University has inspired other advocacy-through-academia initiatives—the Design/BuildLab at Virginia Tech, being one example (see their Sharon Fieldhouse, here).
And I’m especially intrigued by the spate of alternative business models that are emerging in the realm of public interest architecture: the firm-as-nonprofit that is Michael Murphy and Alan Ricks’ MASS Design Group; the separate-but-symbiotic “for-benefit” operations of Erinn McGurn, AIA, and Guy Baron’s SCALE Africa and SCALE Studio. Architecture needs more such brave experiments into the provision of design services for the needy, and it needs them now. The clientele can’t afford to wait.