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Architecture with a humanitarian conscience

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On a mission to find ingenious ways of using design to ease humanitarian crises, not-for-profit organisation Architecture for Humanity has persuaded architects across the world to design transitional housing for refugees and a mobile HIV/AIDS clinic.

Now its English founder, Cameron Sinclair, is set to hit the UK.

Three days after 11 September 2001, Cameron Sinclair took a call from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

'The US is going into Afghanistan, and you are on our list of people who could help with the relief effort, ' the official said. 'I hope it's a long list, ' Sinclair quipped.

A 29-year-old British architect living in New York, Sinclair was at the time immersed in the second major project for his notfor-profit organisation Architecture for Humanity - a design competition for a mobile HIV/AIDS clinic for Sub-Saharan Africa. Fuelled by Sinclair's passion and supported by a network of like-minded souls around the globe, Architecture for Humanity seeks to find ingenious ways to use design to help ease humanitarian crises.

'When the answer came back that, no, it wasn't a long list, for a moment I really thought of dropping the project, ' he said. 'I emailed my African contacts to say our resources were going into Afghanistan instead. Their reply was this: you have lost 3,000 people in one day but we lose 6,000 every day from AIDS with another 11,000 infected every day. Africa is always the first to lose out.' Sinclair decided to stick with the AIDS project.

The results of the competition will be on show at the RIBA later this autumn.

Architecture for Humanity began in 1999 as Sinclair's response to the humanitarian crises unfolding after the war in Kosova.

Through an open call on his website, he launched an international competition to design five-year transitional housing for the returning refugees. 'When people leave their own country they are counted as refugees by the UNHCR and entitled to aid, ' he says. 'But once they step back into their own country they become IDPs - international displaced persons. Although they are still essentially homeless, they no longer receive support.

After the conflict ended in Kosovo, the media lost interest and help dissipated.'

The temporary structures would house the returning Kosovans while they set about the arduous task of rebuilding their lives and restructuring their shattered communities.

The competition attracted 230 entries from 30 countries, and was judged by a jury that included American architectural heavyweight Steven Holl. Sinclair managed it on a shoestring, spending just £400 on the entire competition, including the cost of exhibiting the winning entries.

The Kosovan competition proved to Sinclair that people were keen to help. 'Actually, deep down under their business exterior, architects care a lot, ' he says. The sort of person who's prepared to study for years, does it from a desire to improve the environment.'

As the momentum behind the competition developed, interest grew and the network - held together by the internet and enthusiasm of volunteers around the world - strengthened.

The idea earned the backing of charity War Child, whose celebrity patron Bianca Jagger attracted the attention of the American press. But the project was caught up in bureaucratic red tape and hindered by the interim government, suspicious of the venture.

'It couldn't understand that we wanted to build just 20, ' he said. 'They demanded that we construct 20,000 or none at all.' When it looked as though access might not be granted, someone suggested employing 'guerilla architecture' tactics - building the structures in Albania and smuggling them in by helicopter.

After lengthy negotiations, a compromise of 1,000 was reached. But as the winter of 2000 began to bite with refugees returning, people dying and no hard and fast guarantee that Architecture for Humanity would manage to deliver the structures, War Child decided to redirect funds towards clothing and feeding the returning refugees.

Nonetheless, a number of designers have managed to build prototypes of their solutions. Sean Godsell self-funded the building of his shipping container-inspired design in his native Australia. Mike Lawless, a partner at LDA Architects, and Mark Whitby of Whitby Bird & Partners, have built a prototype of their rubble-and-wire-mesh housing scheme in Exeter, and Techno Craft has constructed a full-scale mock up of its inflatable hemp house in Tokyo.

Having ploughed all his savings into the Kosovan competition, Sinclair was now broke and Architecture for Humanity lay low for a couple of years while he worked to clear his debts, taking a job with American giant Gensler.'I felt like Robin Hood, ' he says. 'By day working on huge high-tech projects for trading and law firms. And at night, on the low-tech and the small scale.' But it was through his work at Gensler that he had an opportunity to help in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks. On that Friday in September 2001, Sinclair had just spent three sleepless days working flat out helping companies that were victims of the attacks to find and adapt new premises.

Since the beginning, the organisation was supported by Sinclair's partner, American writer and film-maker Kate Stohr. It was on their honeymoon to South Africa that the couple came face to face with the realities of the region's AIDS crisis. Architecture for Humanity's next project was conceived.

Three quarters of the world's AIDS population lives in Sub-Saharan Africa, most lack access to life-saving drugs, testing facilities or even basic preventative health care.One of the major bars to treating the disease is that vast areas lack access to adequate medical facilities.

'All the doctors kept saying the same thing.While they should have been seeing as many as 250,000 patients throughout the region, they were seeing no more that 2,000, since they lacked time and resources to leave the overburdened clinics. Just one per cent of those who needed care were receiving it.'

One solution mooted was a fleet of fully equipped mobile clinics that could travel the region testing for, and treating, the disease as well as disseminating information to help halt the spread. So in May 2002, Architecture for Humanity issued a call for architects around the world to produce imaginative designs.

The competition received 530 entries - 25 per cent more than the World Trade Center contest - all of which arrived at Sinclair's studio. Pritzker Prize-winner Frank Gehry headed up an advisory board, and an 'adopt an architect' scheme enabled architects from poorer countries to take part. Some of the four finalists are little known - Architecture for Humanity was looking for innovation, not the razzle dazzle of the starchitects. But the the track record of the overall winner, Danish KHRAS Architects, includes Copenhagen's metro and airport, Greenland's Nature Institute and the Danish Pavilion at Expo '92 in Seville.

A travelling exhibition of the shortlisted projects - following the flight routes of sponsor Virgin Atlantic - is set to arrive in London in November after stop-offs in New York, LA, San Francisco and Copenhagen.

With five full-time volunteers around the world now and 100 or so part time volunteers, the organisation is establishing a permanent base here. Chandler Oldham, an American designer resident in London who has volunteered to build the UK satellite, first met Sinclair at Gensler. 'Architecture has got away from the importance of using design for good, ' Oldham says. 'The moment I met Cameron, I realised what he was doing was so important. And he's got so much energy - you need someone like that to get things done.'Oldham helped with the judging of the AIDS clinic and was hooked. 'The whole process was very exciting.' The UK branch's most pressing need is legal advice on setting up a charity and volunteers to help with the exhibition in November. And, of course, financial donations to fund the clinic. 'We don't want this to be just a project, ' Oldham says. 'We want to see it happen.'

By setting up the UK chapter, Sinclair is paving the way for his own return. Seven years ago, he walked out of the Bartlett without graduating and turned his back on his native England - and his native accent, he speaks with an odd New York twang. He has received death threats from a disgruntled Serb, won the praise of Bill Clinton, earned a standing ovation at the International Design Conference and enjoyed the hospitality of strangers.'I've been picked up from the airport by people I didn't know and stayed on the floors of people I've never met. I haven't been paid in years, but I've met some amazing people.'

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