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A student squatting in a shelter made of cardboard and twine.

A U student poses inside his shelter of tarp, twine, and 2x4s.

Architecture for Humanity

Students learn to design with pride, not pity

By Patty Mattern

April 25, 2006

When most people think of architects and their designs, they visualize grand buildings such as art museums or towering office blocks, and modern houses of glass and wood--things only the rich can afford. University of Minnesota College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (CALA) visiting professor Cameron Sinclair turns such notions upside down and, in doing so, shifted his students' ideas of what architecture should be. Sinclair wants to make architecture available to everyone.

"Architects, if you take all the ego and hype away, all we do is provide shelter," Sinclair said in an interview this spring.

The renowned architect is co-founder and executive director of Architecture for Humanity (AFH)--a non-profit group that promotes architectural and design solutions for global, social, and humanitarian crises. Under Sinclair's direction, AFH has created mobile health clinics to respond to HIV/AIDS crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa, developed temporary housing for people in war-torn Kosovo, and most recently helped the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Even before the final wave of destruction from the December 26, 2004, tsunami hit parts of Asia, Sinclair was on the phone speaking about what AFH could do for those the tsunami left homeless.

The young, globetrotting designer brought his ardent brand of humanitarian architecture to graduate and undergraduate students this year. In lectures, but mostly by example, he encouraged them to see architecture in a new way.

"What responsibility do we have to respond to global issues?" Sinclair would ask students. For Sinclair, the answer is a great responsibility.

"For these students, it will take 40 years before they would get a chance to design an art museum or something similar," Sinclair said.

By taking the humanitarian route, these same students will be designing structures that not only benefit people, but also can be life-changing for those individuals, Sinclair said. Sinclair's philosophy resonated with students.

Examples of Sinclair's influence on students sprang up all over the University's Northrop Mall Thursday, April 20. In his final assignment for the semester, Sinclair directed students to build their own shelter. They had a budget of $20 and needed to buy/find the materials, erect the structure, and spend the night in it. Essentially, students were to try to gain insight into what a homeless client would want for a shelter.

"I hope the students learned a number of things," Sinclair said. "First off, is that you should never design anything you are not willing to live in. It is a humbling experience for students to realize that many of the things they design are very different when you live in them." Sinclair says. "Also this project gave them a small peek at what it is like to be without a home-how difficult it is to live when it is a matter of survival."

Student Joel Nelson bought duct tape and twine before dumpster diving to find materials to build his shelter that day. "A lot of this project has to do with an architect understanding what a client wants and needs," Nelson says. "As part of this class, our clients have been people in third world countries, refugees, and people who have become homeless because of natural disasters."

In her CALA studio on homelessness with CALA Dean Thomas Fisher, senior Jody Rader and classmates had already built a prototype of a mobile shelter, so she tried out the hammock backpack for the first time. The Urban Pack is a combination backpack, hammock/sleeping bag, and tent. On the blustery April evening, Rader could not find two trees close enough together, so she secured the shelter to a tree on one side and a metal fence on the other.

"Part of the assignment is getting to understand the project by trying to put yourself in someone else's shoes," says Rader as she tied rope around a tree. "I think it is a valuable experience, but I don't think you could really experience what the homeless do in one night."

"Cameron [Sinclair] has taught us to be more aware of other people's needs and he teaches us to use architecture as a humanitarian tool. We should build with care and love," Gacuti said.

Views about architecture changed for the students during the semester.

"I think a good number of us in class--instead of getting involved in building condos for rich people--want to travel around and design for people who need it," Rader said.

Therese Hassett and a group of four other students adjusted plastic trash bags and cardboard as they constructed their shelter in the rain. "Architecture isn't all high fashion," said Hassett, mentioning shelters AFH has worked on for earthquake survivors.

A few yards away, Whitnie Nixon waited for her classmate to return with pencils that would serve as stakes for their tepee-like structure. "We're trying to go for as much space as possible for as little money as possible. We only spent $30," Nixon said. Several people were going to stay in that shelter.

Nixon hoped the drop cloth material would keep the heat in and the water out. She likes assignments like Sinclair's. "You get in there and get your hands dirty," she said. The sophomore wishes she had the skills last summer that she has now.

"If we had been on top of our game, we would have been down in Louisiana helping after Hurricane Katrina," Nixon said. "If something like that happens again, I'm going to put school on hold and go to help."

Nearby, Molly Macklin put together her one-woman shelter much like a puzzle. A creative idea hit Macklin the night before. "I had a dream about Tinker Toys and how they would be perfect to support my structure," she said.

The next day Macklin set out to buy Tinker Toys only to learn that the staple from her childhood was no longer made. Macklin refused to give up on her design idea and went to a thrift store where she found the small wooden toys. Her shelter stretched just long enough and tall enough to house her lying down. Foam board formed the foundation and she draped a shower curtain over the Tinker Toy frame and added bubble wrap to the floor to make it more comfortable.

"I built it today in four hours," Macklin said. "It all folds up so you can carry it like a briefcase. It's not something you sleep in just once."

Macklin's one-night neighbors included Laura Malwitz and Claudette Gacuti. They worked on a group structure using plastic soda pop bottles to fasten a plastic tarp to a makeshift A-frame. The bottle screw caps worked perfectly as fasteners.

A student created a shelter out of a plastic table and trash bags.
A shelter made out of a plastic table, weaved paper bags, and trash bags works for this U student.

"I've seen it in shelters for homeless people before. You can use a lot of recycled things for building shelter," Malwitz said. Five people would stay in their shelter and they did that deliberately because of the importance of forming a temporary community for the homeless.

"Having the social factor was important to us, because if you're in your own tent, it's harder to stay positive," Malwitz said. And, Malwitz said, she imagines it is much harder for victims of natural disasters to stay positive without social support.

Gacuti walked around their shelter making sure the stakes would hold it against the wind. She didn't mind the cold and rain. It made the whole experience more realistic, she said.

"Cameron has taught us to be more aware of other people's needs and he teaches us to use architecture as a humanitarian tool. We should build with care and love," Gacuti said.

Sinclair provided insight into doing architecture for those in need. "It's about designing with pride, not pity," Sinclair said. "And asking, 'is this the sort of space that I would be happy to live in?'"

In another assignment, Sinclair instructed students to respond to a problem people in Ambedkar Nagar face because of the Tsunami hitting India. Prior to the tsunami, students would simply wade through a small estuary to get to school. After the tsunami, the 300 students had to swim the 7-foot deep river to get to school and that was too dangerous. Villagers said they will hire a boatman to carry the children across, but they need structures or piers on each side where students can be dropped off. Sinclair turned to his U students to design the boat docks and one of the designs will be used in the project.

Such projects inspire students, said Sinclair who called the dock design a tiny project with a huge impact because the Indian students hadn't gone to school in months.

"The (University) students will never get to do a project [like this] again in their life," Sinclair said.