When Cameron Sinclair was an architecture student, he designed temporary housing for New York's homeless that would obscure the view of the Statue of Liberty. His proposal: Once the city could properly house its "huddled masses," it could have its view of the lady with the lamp back.
"There was a little bit of agitprop in there," says Mr. Sinclair, a pale, sandy-haired young Scotsman who now lives in the United States. "Everyone else wanted to be Frank Gehry," he recalls of his student days. "I was kind of a black sheep" looking for low-cost design solutions.
A few years later, in 1999, he and his wife, journalist Kate Stohr, founded Architecture for Humanity (AFH), with the lofty aim of applying innovative design concepts to help those suffering around the world.
Today, his methods remain unorthodox:
• He refuses to reveal the locations of AFH projects to television news crews. The story should be "What do we need to do to allow this community to rebuild?' " he says, but too often TV crews' attitude is "let's see some suffering."
• Plans for a building or other structures developed for AFH are available to anyone - for free. "Any nonprofit can come to us and ask, 'Can we have the construction documents for that project you did?" he says. "[And we say,] 'absolutely!' "
• AFH won't put signs with its name or that of donors on a project it builds. The building, Sinclair says, belongs to the community, not AFH or the donors. "If you donated to our organization, you know you built it, I know you built it," Sinclair says. "Why do you need to force it down their throats?"
• AFH doesn't rush in after a disaster. "We shouldn't be there in the first day or two. That's inappropriate. That's really offensive to communities," he says, whose first needs are food, clothing, and information about family members. "The idea that an architect is this person who flies in, jumps off the plane, and goes to the rescue is just about the worst image possible."
With just three full-time staff, AFH relies on some 2,500 designers and other volunteers in 60 or so chapters worldwide. Some 27,000 people subscribe to its e-mail newsletter (www.architectureforhumanity.org). Its projects include helping Gulf Coast residents rebuild after hurricane Katrina and designing earthquake-proof housing for Pakistan as well as shelters in tsunami-wracked Asia. Sinclair and AFH have won a passel of awards, including the respected INDEX Design Award in Denmark last year. But now the quirky organization is about to step into a giant spotlight. Thursday the TED conference, a group of about 1,000 movers and shakers from a broad cross section of professions and industries, will grant Sinclair $100,000 and the opportunity to have a "wish" fulfilled.
Sinclair is "an astonishing person," says Chris Anderson, the chairman and host of of the TED Conference. "He's been incredibly effective at getting people excited, at raising the issues without [having] any money."
Sinclair, who estimates he earned about $12,000 last year, has been running AFH with nothing more than a laptop computer and a cellphone. The couple is based in Bozeman, Mont., but this winter he's in Minneapolis, teaching a course on humanitarian architecture at the University of Minnesota. At the same time, he continues to fly around the world speaking and working on AFH projects. (The AFH website has a feature called "Where's Cameron now?")
"We would love for him to move his whole operation here," says Thomas Fisher, dean of the college of architecture at the University of Minnesota. In contrast to today's "me first" culture, Professor Fisher says, Sinclair shows that the world takes notice "when somebody steps up and says, 'No, it's actually about devoting yourself to others.' "
AFH's first project was a competition to design temporary housing in Kosovo, a province of Serbia devastated by civil war. Sinclair and Ms. Stohr decided simply to plunge in and announce their idea on the Internet. "I don't think anyone knew what to make of us," Sinclair says in a recent interview in an upstairs lobby at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. When they received 215 entries from more than 30 countries, "It shocked us."
The final entry was from a group of Serb architects. "Please let us enter this competition," wrote one. "We're not at war with these people. We want to help." Their entry was late, they said, because they could work on it only at night: During the day, they were organizing student protests to overthrow Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic. "It's weird to talk about design in what we do because that's only one thing [we do]," Sinclair says.
After the 2004 tsunami, poor sharecroppers in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu were caught living between an estuary and the sea. Their children used to wade across to go to school, but now the estuary was too deep. AFH is designing two piers for a boat that will ferry students across the estuary. Parents have promised to pay for someone to row the boat. That kind of close cooperation is essential, Sinclair says. "We design with a community, not for it," he says.
Children are some of AFH's best fundraisers. A school in Atlanta raised $12,000, enough to build two schools for 600 children. "The best moment I had last year was not winning all these awards, but going back to the school in Atlanta and showing them the schools that had been built in Sri Lanka," Sinclair says.
Designer/inventor Buckminster Fuller is a hero to Sinclair. So are the US armed forces. "People don't realize that the largest humanitarian group in the world is the US military," he says. "They do more help around the world than most people realize. Where's the PR for that?"
And he's not one of those angry critics of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, even though AFH's projects are sometime held hostage to it. "Some people at FEMA are amazing," Sinclair says. "They're doing great work. [But] they have no resources, and they're really struggling."
A Sinclair mantra is "design with pride, not pity." Beauty and aesthetics are important, he says, no matter how humble the project. "What good design does is inspire people," he says. "And the people who need the most inspiration are those that have lost the most."
His tenacity and optimism impress Lance Brown, an architect who co-chairs the American Institute of Architects' disaster preparedness task force. Mr. Brown watched one of his former students become embittered after working on tsunami relief for 18 months with little progress. But Sinclair "has not had his spirit diminished in light of the roadblocks and the friction in doing that kind of work," Brown says. "He's developed some ability to keep moving through it and doing good things."
While Sinclair's wife considers him "the most disorganized person I've ever worked with," Stohr is also struck by his generosity. "He is reflexively generous," she says. When groups gather at their apartment, above a restaurant in Bozeman, he often reminds guests to not be overly loud and disturb the diners below, she says.
Sinclair seems to be that rare individual who actually lives aphorisms like "learn from your mistakes" and "anything is possible if you don't care who gets the credit."
"There are 5.5 billion people who need better housing," he points out, without a hint of awe. "In order to create that housing, you're going to need a million different solutions. Our role is to embrace and encourage the development of a million solutions."
Cameron Sinclair's one big "wish" will be announced Thursday at the annual TED Conference (www.ted.com) in Monterey, Calif.
TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and the meeting brings together about 1,000 leaders in those and other industries to hear speakers who have ideas to better the world. (The registration fee is $4,400.) Each year, three people are awarded $100,000 and the chance to present one wish to the assembled group. The smart, wealthy, and talented people in the audience, if impressed, individually volunteer their support.
Last year, rock star Bono was a TED Prize winner. He wished to build a movement of more than 1 million Americans dedicated to helping Africa and for the publicity needed to achieve his wish. Both goals were exceeded, says TED chairman Chris Anderson.
The prize is not for people who have changed the world, Mr. Anderson says, but for "people who have proven that they could." In Mr. Sinclair's case, "We saw an opportunity to help him take this to the next level."
To his amazement, Sinclair will be given a "wish manager" to help him. "Her name is Amy," he says. "She's like a genie with a cellphone."