Visionary architecture needs more than friends in high places
The phenomenal success of Maggie's Centres is universally acknowledged - and commonly ascribed to the vision, commitment and personal address book of Charles and Maggie Jencks. As Kenneth Powell points out in his appraisal of Maggie's Centre, Dundee (pages 32-39), it is highly unlikely that Frank Gehry would undertake to design a small project in Scotland were it not for his deep personal affection for the late Maggie Jencks. But is it any more unlikely than, say, Shigeru Ban turning his world-class talent to the design of a prototypical hut to serve as transitional housing for Kosovan refugees? This week's AJenda charts the remarkable achievements of Cameron Sinclair, a former Bartlett student who, through determination, infectious enthusiasm and sheer force of will, has persuaded architects from all over the world to devote time and energy to designing structures to alleviate humanitarian crises. Some, such as Ban, are internationally renowned, others are hardly known. All were initially strangers to Sinclair.
There are many differences between Sinclair's not-forprofit organisation, Architecture for Humanity, and Jencks' Maggie's Centres.But both demonstrate how architecture can alleviate human suffering. And both illustrate an extraordinary ability to harness other people's enthusiasm and talent. Neither Jencks nor Sinclair could have succeeded without the support of countless others.
Gehry's goodwill would have counted for nothing were it not for the fact that Jencks and others had worked hard to hone a meaningful and coherent brief, and to establish the administrative and financial framework to make it possible. Similarly, Architecture for Humanity relies on countless volunteers to organise and publicise the architectural competitions which yield the designs, and to translate architectural ideas into tangible results.
One of the most gratifying aspects of Sinclair's story is that it has left him with the conviction that deep down architects 'want to help'. It is easy to quell good intentions with the belief that 'do-gooding' is a privilege reserved for those with money to spare and the right sort of friends. But the crucial asset is the ability to turn a vision into reality - the most fundamental architectural skill.