Is Idealism Dead?
If you didn’t know better, to talk to some architects you might think that idealism had vanished from the architectural scene. After years of wide-eyed innocence, many of us have become savvy to the markets and worldly-wise. Perhaps too shrewd. Along the way, some design professionals have even dropped the mention of architecture from their names and marketing materials, recasting themselves as branding experts who happen to build. While diversification, even perceived financial necessity, might dictate such an identity shift, we must wonder if we have entered a tougher new architectural era.
Architect Richard Swett, FAIA, the former U.S. ambassador to Denmark and a former member of Congress, thinks otherwise. Swett has used his own skills, including the ability to program complex information, to synthesize diverse views, and to develop plans, as managerial tools for organizations like the U.S. State Department. He believes that other architects should use their talents to improve their communities. This spring, he participated in a revitalized Leadership Institute, formed by a partnership of the AIA and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. This small group of architect/leaders from across the country found that leadership traits can be learned and transmitted to others, shared inside and outside firms.
Like Ambassador Swett, we architects, by nature and by training—almost by definition—listen carefully, and we care. Despite adversity or stringent markets, our work begins in hope and is sustained by optimism: The long life of a project, translating ideals into concrete reality, may require years of support; architecture demands it. The personality of caring, however, varies from generation to generation. The generation that reads Nylon today shades its hopes in cooler terms than the sixties generation fed by Joan Baez’s plaintive arias for social responsibility and change. The X and Y crowd have found their own causes and advertise them on the Web.
For anyone with doubts, meet contemporary leader and 28-year-old architect, Cameron Sinclair. In 1999, this architect founded Architecture for Humanity, a “volunteer nonprofit organization set up to promote architectural and design solutions to global, social, and humanitarian crises.” In a world fraught with problems, Sinclair designs his way toward change. Architecture for Humanity’s first venture, transition housing for refugees returning to Kosovo, launched a competition that attracted over 250 entries from 30 countries, resulting in an international exhibition that toured in 4 countries and raised over $80,000 for charity. Two of the program’s winning proposals have already been constructed; two more are underway.
Leaders do not stand still. Currently, Sinclair’s group is sponsoring a competition for a mobile HIV/AIDS clinic for Africa. Because of the magnitude of the pandemic (in sub-Saharan Africa, 6,000 die each day; 14,000 more are infected) and the need for mobile facilities, Architecture for Humanity is attracting international attention and support and encouraging plans to build transportable clinics for education, prevention, and treatment. By advertising the program on the Web at architectureforhumanity.org, Sinclair hopes to attract entrants by the November 1, 2002, deadline, allowing the jury to announce its selection by World Aids Day, December 1.
Architecture for Humanity represents the finest of the new breed of architectural leadership, employing architectural skills and directing them for the larger good. Active publicity has resulted in support for the organization from established leaders in the profession (prominent names serve on the organization’s board) and from the public. Committed, unapologetically architectural in name and mission, Architecture for Humanity stands up for people in need. It demonstrates a quality of leadership, providing renewed appreciation for architecture and winning respect and trust. Who ever said idealism was dead?