Architectural NGOs operate in two major areas, disaster relief and community development, with many combining the two. They operate from two main perspectives, those from the developed world working in the global South and those working within their own locality. Whilst there are many problems with the global NGO culture, not least the prevalent sidelining of local expertise and talent, they have also made a difference to the lives of many, especially in global responses to humanitarian disaster, to which architecture as a profession has been slow to respond. It was a non-architect, Fred Cuny, who first made a connection between disaster relief and development work in the 1970s. At the time there was no single organisation responsible for the coordination of relief efforts and the standard response to the need for shelter was the provision of lightweight temporary tents. A lack of organisation and understanding of the cultural context meant that it was common for food to rot whilst people went hungry, or for the isolated relief operations of independent charities to send unsuitable goods, such as woollen jackets to tropical countries. This situation prompted Cuny to set up his own consulting company, Fred Cuny & Associates later named Intertect.
Although Cuny and Intertect's ideas were not new, through managing to implement them they changed the way disaster management is handled, advocating better camp organisation with single family tents clustered around a communal space for cooking, laundry etc. and adjoining lavatories. This reduced outbreaks of disease, encouraged ownership and increased security, whilst also creating an atmosphere of self-help where small-scale cottage industries and other self-organised initiatives could thrive. Other innovations included training families to build their own shelters, an approach that has influenced architects such as Shigeru Ban, who has designed emergency shelters made out of recycled paper cardboard tubes, a low-cost and low-tech solution that could be built by families displaced by disaster. Cuny also advocated paying local people to help in the clean-up operation so that materials could be salvaged for rebuilding efforts following a disaster.
Cuny vanished at the age of 50 on a mission to Chechnya in 1995 and the mystery of his disappearance was never solved. Yet his influence has been great, he changed the working practices of organisations such as Oxfam, whilst also being a key starting point for disaster relief and humanitarian approaches in architecture, for example, Architecture for Humanity (AFH) acknowledge Cuny's influence.
Whilst there are a large number of architectural NGOs operating globally, AFH can be credited for popularising disaster relief, and to some extent development architecture, in the US and European countries, especially amongst architectural students and young professionals. The volunteer non-profit organisation was founded in 1999 by architect, Cameron Sinclair, and freelance journalist and documentary producer, Kate Stohr. Formed in response to the Kosovo conflict, the pair realised that there was no organisation that coordinated the response of architects to international humanitarian crises. As AFH point out, the equivalent organisation for engineers, RedR, had at that point been in existence for twenty years. Following a meeting with UNHCR and the realisation of the scope of work involved in addressing the needs in Kosovo, AFH launched an open design competition, which has since become their preferred method of working. Rather than responding to emergencies on their own, AFH organise open calls for ideas, put architects in touch with aid organisations and NGOs that need their design services, and raise money to implement projects. The strength of response from architects to their first competition tapped into a latent desire within the profession to use their services to improve living conditions for those in need.
In 2003, this interest was consolidated in the establishment of local chapters of AFH that operate independently from the main organisation but are affiliated to it. This has led to projects being implemented not only in disaster situations but also locally based community projects, carrying out similar work to Community Design Centers. Since 2006 AFH have organised the Open Architecture Network, an online platform that allows designers to share their ideas and resources and collaborate with each other in order to help people and communities in crisis. The network operates under a creative commons license which means that rather than each new project starting from scratch, people can build on their own experience and that of others.
The list of other architectural NGOs is long and includes Architectes Sans Frontières, Habitat for Humanity International and Architecture & Développement, which are all well established NGOs, often working with the United Nations agency UN Habitat. Those that operate as locally based, grass-roots organisations tend to focus on community development, housing provision and other longer term solutions. Shack and Slum Dwellers International, is one of the largest such organisations, active in Africa, Asia and South America. Others include Abahlali baseMjondolo, a well established movement of housing related NGOs in Latin America, the Aga Khan Development Network, Habitat International Coalition and many others.
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Architecture for Humanity, Design Like You Give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises (London: Thames & Hudson, 2006).
Frederick C. Cuny, Disasters and Development, ed. by Susan Abrams (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983).
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Ian Davis, Shelter After Disaster (Oxford: Oxford Polytechnic Press, 1978).
'A Plan for Haiti', Architect (Washington, 99 (2010), 38-39.
Alistair Gordon, 'Designing for the Dispossessed', Social Design Notes (from The New York Times), 2003, http://backspace.com/notes/2003/08/designing-for-the-dispossessed.php [accessed 1 June 2010].
"Architecture Sans Frontières-International (ASF-Int) is a politically independent not-for-profit organisation concerned with the social, cultural and environmental commitment to a sustainable built environment. Architecture Sans Frontières-UK (ASFUK) is a UK registered charity, concerned with education and training in the development sector. ASF-UK trains built-environment professionals to be more relevant to the agenda of development, and by supporting networks with local partners, helps to build organisational capacity. Through workshops, grassroots activities and lecture programmes, the organisation promotes ethical practice, particularly in poverty habitats."
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