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After a massive earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, the San Francisco–based nonprofit Architecture for Humanity moved in. Its staff opened temporary offices in Port-au-Prince, where they designed and constructed sustainable new homes, medical clinics, offices, and schools under the spirited credo “design like you give a damn.”
The next year, after an earthquake and tsunami swept away the Mitazono Wakaba Kindergarten in the Japanese town of Natori, the organization helped construct a new building. It did similar things in Mexico, Chile, and Peru between 2010 and 2012, rebuilding schools in impoverished communities that had been affected by disasters.
But on January 1, Architecture for Humanity was forced to lay off its 30 employees and close its San Francisco headquarters, SF Gate reported. Chairman of the board Matt Charney told the New York Times that the organization had tried to stay afloat by minimizing staff, selling its main building, and moving into smaller offices, but there just wasn’t enough money to support the organization or, presumably, cover its $2.1 million deficit. It now plans to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.
“The travesty isn’t that the organization went over budget serving communities around the world,” said staff member Margie O’Driscoll in an interview with SF Gate. “It is that humanitarian design isn’t considered a fundamental right. And that today, in San Francisco, it is easier to find funding for an app than to fund an organization which transforms lives in places most Americans don’t know exist.”
Though cut short, Architect for Humanity’s history has been remarkable. The organization was founded in 1999 with the goal of providing transitional shelter for refugees returning to Kosovo after the region’s war. It quickly grew into an energetic nonprofit with more than 60 chapters in 25 countries that have reached millions of people.
“Think about a prestige architect like Zaha Hadid,” Cameron Sinclair, who co-founded the nonprofit with his wife, Kate Stohr, told the Guardian in 2006. “There are probably 20 people in Britain who could afford to commission her. I, on the other hand, have somewhere between four and five billion people on the planet who are looking for my help.”
Sinclair and Stohr promoted an intelligent model of humanitarian design. When the organization sought to aid communities torn by disaster, it didn’t just assemble prefabricated buildings as it saw fit; rather, it relied on community involvement to create culturally sensitive designs that utilized local resources and provided jobs. Beginning in 2007, it also uploaded its designs onto the Open Architecture Network, an open-source system it developed to foster humanitarian design and architecture.
In the past decade, these efforts have been repeatedly praised. Architecture for Humanity nabbed the Index Award in 2005, the TED Prize in 2006, the Center for Architecture Foundation Award in 2007, and the National Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in 2008. In 2010, its Yodakandyia Community Centre, a housing complex for Sri Lankan families displaced by the 2004 tsunami, was shortlisted for the 2010 Aga Khan Award for Architecture. John Cary, the former executive director of Public Architecture, told the Times that the organization put “humanitarian design on the map.”
Today, while plenty of enthusiasm exists for funding massive museum projects (the $610 million expansion of SFMOMA and the $450 redevelopment of MFA Houston, to name a couple), there is a scarcity of interest in projects like these.
Though details of the closing haven’t been fully revealed, the news is deeply sobering. What Architecture for Humanity gave the world was not only valuable, but also rare. Fortunately, it wasn’t entirely alone; organizations like Building Trust International and others continue to provide sustainable design for poor and marginalized places. Hopefully we can find a way to support them.
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