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To hell with good intentions

  • 3 Comments

Does ‘charitable’ architecture undercut local firms and produce unfair, western-dominated markets?

Announcing Architecture for Humanity’s (AFH) recent closure, a statement on its website on 22 January concluded: ‘We have been extremely proud that Architecture for Humanity has been able to positively impact millions of lives through the power of design’. Co-founder Cameron Sinclair was quoted in the American Institute of Architects’ magazine, Architect, saying: ‘You can’t stop the network, because we are mobilised … the idea is not going to die just because the organisation may.’ We should be saddened by the news of its closure – and relieved to hear that AFH’s idea of bringing ‘design where it is needed most’ is not going to die, because, as Sinclair says, ‘design is a right, not a privilege’.

Yet here I am, rejoicing (and ready for the onslaught of accusations that I have a monstrous lack of compassion). For it has become all too easy to confuse this do-good rhetoric with the reality that, on reflection, this movement’s biggest impact has arguably been to deprive us, the global profession, of our (architectural) agency.

Design is a right, not a privilege

The passion driven by Architecture for Humanity and other competitors helped monopolise (and capitalise on) architects’ good intentions by creating a powerful medium of resistance to mainstream commercial practice; forming a community of design activists who ‘give a damn’. This subtle rebranding of architects, not as servants to society and custodians of our environment, but as saviours of humanity, is an uncomfortable one. The hubristic idea of architects volunteering their time to help a disenfranchised community and simply designing-out poverty is perhaps not too dissimilar to historian Jane Jacobs’ view of Critical Regionalism as a ‘revisionary form of imperialist nostalgia’.

Architecture for Humanity declared its charitable mission was to increase access to the benefits of good design for all. What that actually meant in practice has never been defined. As co-founder Kate Stohr admitted, the charity’s performance is measured not by how much architecture it built for humanity, but by ‘more elusive standards’. On its website and in its Design Like You Give a Damn publication, Architecture for Humanity claimed to have provided 12,000 jobs, educated 275,000 kids, supported 35,000 people to receive health care and ‘impacted’ a total of two million people.

Although it is not entirely clear where these figures came from, it is quite possible that these statements contravene the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct (Rule 4.201) and the RIBA Code of Professional Conduct (1,3 and 3,1), which cover the manner in which practices state the scope and nature of their responsibilities. The AIA Code states: ‘Members shall not make misleading, deceptive, or false statements or claims about their professional qualifications, experience, or performance, and shall accurately state the scope and nature of their responsibilities in connection with work for which they are claiming credit.’ Why is it, then, that charitable practices are allowed to to conflate abilities and achievements just because they are working under the term ‘humanitarian’? No one denies that designing (and building) things creates jobs.  The UK construction industry in 2013 contributed 6.1 per cent of the country’s total economic output (£92.4 billion), and provided 2.1 million jobs. The buildings that architects design may or may not have a wide impact, but by contrast, foreign interference with another country’s built environment industry can inextricably alter that country’s market system, and it is not something to be messed with lightly.

Humanitarian architecture to date seems ironically unconcerned with equality

This became evident to me after receiving a phone call from Architecture for Humanity HQ a few years ago when I was co-running a small UK architectural charity. I had wanted to commission an Asian-based Architecture for Humanity chapter to help support a low-cost rural housing design project. Young, skilled architects, disillusioned with mainstream practice had passionately set up a chapter to encourage and promote more socially conscious design in their country. They were, in my eyes, the ideal partner, until the fateful phone call when I was told I couldn’t commission them. More accurately, I was told that, as an Architecture for Humanity Chapter, they could not be paid for their services. No financial reward was allowed for their professional services. As the contract I was about to agree to clearly stipulated a fee for their work, they would be acting against the Architecture for Humanity ‘charitable’ mission.

By promoting architectural volunteerism we undercut local firms, producing an unfair, Western-dominated market.  The choice: a free media-laden foreign designer; or an unknown architect who asks (quite understandably) to be paid for that school or football stadium job. Humanitarian architecture to date seems ironically unconcerned with equality – instead of providing an architecture for the 99 per cent, it has resulted in a facile and misleading mechanism to hold back our emerging competitors.

And that isn’t all it has done. Closer to home it has undermined its own ideology and instead of promoting social design, demoted it, so it is now accessible to only the few architects with the luxury of being able to give time and services for free. It has devalued the very agency it was created to uphold.

Humanitarian design should not be ‘another way of doing architecture’ – reactive, working on the margins of our praxis. The promotion of human welfare and the advancement of society and the environment should be the guiding mission statement of the profession, and be an integral part of our work, everyday.

And that should definitely include getting paid for it.

  • Nikki Linsell is a PhD researcher and studio tutor at the University of Nottingham
  • 3 Comments

Readers' comments (3)

  • Lucy Bullivant

    What if local firms don't exist or have the skills? A country's market system may very well not have entirely what is needed to create resilient places with local people, and that is a mix of planning, architectural design, training and educational workshop leading, which seems most commonly to be organised as a collaboration with the locals, rather than as any kind of top-down operation. The work of Kéré Architects, Anna Heringer, TYIN and WORKSHOP (the student non-profit) comes to mind. Given that AfH worked in a lot of places without a local market of trained architects, or sufficient skills base in sustainable design, including with indigenous American Indian groups (and helped some members advance in their skills in sustainable design, Nathaniel Corum at AfH told me) and in the Galapagos, for example, it seems that the suggestion of pushing out existing practices seems unlikely..Just sayin' It needs to be a win-win for everyone. I don't see AfH depriving other architects of their cultural agency.

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  • The writer may be ignoring the fact that AFH was headquartered in the US for a long time, although I hear title may in fact be held in London. In the US in particular where money acquired with minimum restraint buoys a "giving back" culture, like it or not, organisations like AFH & practices operating as non-profits (which may perhaps have been what the writer encountered..?) have a role to play. Among other things, fundraising & matchmaking practices for community organisations with little money, is a role they fulfill. While the whole world is not the US, neither is it the UK!
    In addition we have seen "disaster architecture", like it or not, become a thing in Japan & Haiti & New Orleans..

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  • Lucy, you raised one of the common questions asked – what if a local architect doesn’t exist to provide a design service? Could I ask what makes you think that ‘AfH have worked in a lot of places without a local market of trained architects’? I’ve worked and researched this sector for a fair while now, travelled extensively, and I am struggling to think of anywhere where a local/regional market of Architects doesn’t exist. Are you able to give an example? (Galapagos would have regional access to Ecuadorian Architects I’d imagine - and in turn support demand led industry investments within that competitive area).
    You also mention the need for sufficient and an appropriate skills base, and I couldn’t agree more. Which is why I feel very uncomfortable with the idea of subsidising commercial foreign (western trained) architects rather than allowing local professional to bid fairly for jobs. Does this elite group of individuals in one society have the right to make such presumptions that they have the skills needed for an others unfamiliar built environments (students most certainly don’t and shouldn’t ever be involved in ‘Practicing on the Poor’ in my view, for the obvious ethical reasons). This is not to mention the requirements of a Professional Architect to ensure they meet their own Professional Charters and – more importantly – they do not infringe on others.
    Lisa, I think your comment is poignant given the active discussions at the moment around the legality of NFP’s and the ‘public good’ definition and what ‘role to play’ in society they do in fact given their state subsidisations. Leveraging funds to provide financial support to CBO’s, allowing them to employ a local Architect that they otherwise would not have been able to do, is perhaps a place where an Architecture NFP ‘Foundation’ of sorts could have its benefits? But, what this question really leads us on to is the wider problem with the profession at large - should Architects working on public projects be subsidised by the state to ensure equitable access to good designed environments?
    And if so, does the profession of Architecture need legislative changes to ensure an NHS version for Architecture – ‘universal architecture services for all’? More about this from me in the near future.

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