Actualities [one]: on an “Open” architecture and a merger

A few days ago I came across the news of a merger of two TED winning firms. Architecture for Humanity acquired Worldchanging, an American non-profit online magazine and blog about sustainability and social innovation, and set off to develop a “robust center for applied innovation”
I am copying below part from the press report in Archdaily. You can find the entire report here.
“In November of 2010, Worldchanging announced it was taking steps to close its doors and dissolve as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. […] The Board (of Directors) committed to finding a new home for all the valuable essays, stories, and learning accumulated through the seven years of Worldchanging’s efforts so they could continue to be a catalyst for future discussions and information sharing on how we can build a bright green future. The Worldchanging Board of Directors embarked on a formal Request for Proposal (RFP) selection process and found Architecture for Humanity to be the ideal match in terms of mission, vision, impact, and importantly, the organizational and technological capacity to run a program such as Worldchanging.”
Apart from the financial background of the process, which I am in little position to analyze, I found these news quite intriguing. Companies and firms of course are started, dissolved or merged all the time. However, I think this event is of particular interest for a new type of coalition it produces between a large and growing architectural firm which finds its press alter-ego to develop its humanitarian polemic. Worldchanging, renown for its “solutions-based journalism” adds to the communicative aspects of Architecture for Humanity through its prospectiveness and environmental conscience, while at the same time it serves as a solutions archive, a source of concentrated knowledge on all sorts of small and large sustainability-oriented innovations around the globe. Are we witnessing the rise of a humanitarian colossus? And what is its role in the discussion of the democratization of design?

My first close encounter with Architecture for Humanity was this past June in Athens. The organization’s CEO, Cameron Sinclair, gave a  forty hour talk at the Against All Odds (AAO) Project: Ethics/Aesthetics Conference talking explaining its goals and modes of operation of his firm through a show and tell of around-the-globe projects.
Prior to this conference, the AAO project had organized a similar event at the Athens School of Fine along with a series of workshops and interactive works around Athens. The main premise of the project was to “explore the moral values related to territorial practices and to communicate the conclusions to the public”. The democratization of decision making processes and the active inclusion of social groups in the design of the spaces they inhabit was an axis that traversed the project, reopening the discussion on the processes and frames of critique of participatory spatial practices. The key thematics designated were “design as action of relief”, “design as building up equality” and “design as inspiration”.
The financial situation in Greece, suffering from deep recession and measures of increasing austerity, as well as the role of urban space in the manifestation of protest and political participation, had brought the politics of space back to the surface, making the AAO project temporally and locally relevant. The AAO project was well funded and well attended and Cameron Sinclair was the person to open it.

Architecture for Humanity is a non profit design services firm, founded in 1999. It functions as a global network of design, development and construction professionals brought together by the common cause of providing design and construction advice to those in need. The firm currently has 73 chapters in 25 countries with more than 4,650 volunteer design professionals, and it is affiliated with more than 500 design professionals worldwide.
After being awarder the 2006 TED prize, Sinclair used the money to initiate the Open Architecture Network, an online open source design sharing and project management community. Apart from TED, the OAN is sponsored by large corporations such as Autodesk, Sun microsystems, AMD, Blue Gecko, Hot Studio and Creative Commons, which provides a “some rights reserved” license. Recently, the OAN network launched an iPad App.

Sinclair’s lecture was almost manifestly, very much like his website. The firm moto “Design like you give a damn”, proclamations like “Le Corbusier had it wrong” and “let the revolution begin”, feverish accounts of design successes in communities in crisis and videos of children in underdeveloped areas, gratefully smiling towards the camera, were the repertoire of his presentation. I was particularly struck by one of his starting comments, about not being able to keep track of all the crisis and disasters happening worldwide for which he gets real-time notifications through his i-phone. The analogies of this description with superhero story conventions which excite the popular imagination, like the Batman sign or the Captain Planet flashing ring, notifying them when there is someone in need, are quite amusing. One could indeed claim that Architecture for Humanity’s corporate identity is to a great extend defined by a narrative of philanthropy, and can be critiqued as carefully concealed post-colonialism using the notion of participation as a discursive medium to account for its practices.

However, maybe I am being overly critical. The practices of Architecture for Humanity bring back to the discussion the social role of the designer and the need for user empowerment through education and participation in decision making processes. After more than two decades where the academic and professional scene of the discipline was dominated by stArchitects and stArchitectures, one sees the reemergence of a discourse on the democratization of design and the self definition of the architect as a social actor.
Perhaps thinking along the lines of this paradigm, one can start developing a multi-layered critical discourse about its goals, means and methods by asking once more the fundamental question “Empowering Who?”. In this way one can maybe surpass the dilemma of accepting or rejecting such practices alltogether and starting to recognize their internal intricacies and their essentially conflictual nature.

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