Design Like You Give a Damn Edited by Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr.Thames & Hudson, 2006. 240pp. £16.95
Once upon a time, architecture was thought to have a social purpose. Corb probably went a bit too far in Vers une Architecture when he claimed that architecture could make the revolution unnecessary, but architects did believe they should use their skills to make a better, healthier and more equitable world. Up until the '70s this belief informed both practice and teaching;
architectural culture was dissatisfied with the world as it was, and restless to change it.
Today, architecture seems happy to serve the established interests of government and commerce, and the profession seems to think of itself as a branch of showbusiness. Every small action of Danny, Rem and Zaha is treated as significant, out of all proportion to its contribution to a better world - or despite its failure to make a contribution at all.
Sorry to go into grumpy old man mode, but this book is refreshingly in opposition to the self-absorption of architecture today, which is very encouraging. It is concerned with how architectural design, with minimal resources, can assist societies to cope with poverty, disease and disaster.
The bulk of the book consists of 80 illustrated case studies - most of them in the developing world, many involving selfbuild processes, and almost all of them inventive examples of how good architecture can make people's lives better.
A few familiar names feature: Shigeru Ban (houses in Kobe and Rwanda made from paper), Samuel Mockbee and the Rural Studio (a beautiful chapel in Alabama with a curtain wall made from Chevrolet windscreens), Arup Associates (latrines in Tibet with solar-powered ventilation), and a shelter like a folding umbrella designed by Future Systems for Ethiopia. But all the case studies (with one bizarre exception) demonstrate the ubiquity of resourcefulness and ingenuity among designers across the world, when faced with pressing human need.
Sadly, many of them also demonstrate the parallel failure of political commitment to allow these initiatives to achieve their full potential.
The book is edited by architect Cameron Sinclair and journalist Kate Stohr, who in 1999 founded Architecture for Humanity, which has since grown into an international force of considerable inuence.
It is beautifully designed by Thames and Hudson, and is a visual pleasure as well as inspiring. It is not perfect, though: the title is clumsy, the cover design bafingly perverse, and although the case studies are thematically organised and each is well described, a wider context for many is absent.
Even the book's most minimal case study illustrates the idea of design being the effective allocation of resources in response to need. In 2003 an architect in Baltimore, finding that 70 homeless people had died of hypothermia in the city over 10 years, organised a campaign; 800 sleeping bags were distributed, and nobody died that winter. How often is architecture that effective?