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Architectural Mission Goes Bankrupt

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

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A visionary nonprofit that for 15 years mounted architectural and design solutions to global problems has shut down and plans to file for bankruptcy.

The U.S. branch of Architecture for Humanity once mobilized 75,000 architects for disaster relief, development  and resilience building.

On Jan. 1, however, it shuttered its San Francisco headquarters and laid off its 30-member staff, according to numerous reports this week.

The closure affects only the U.S. organization. Architecture for Humanity UK and other international entities are independent charities unaffected by the U.S. action, AFH UK announced.

Bustan Medwed Clinic Kate Stohr CameronSinclair
From left: Architecture for Humanity, LinkedIn, Matthew Fochs / CC BY 2.0

Eric Cesal (left), executive director of U.S. Architecture for Humanity, arrived in April and left in December. The acclaimed U.S. humanitarian organization, founded by Kate Stohr (center) and Cameron Sinclair (right), has gone bankrupt.

Although the shutdown has been widely reported in the news media, AFH U.S. has not announced any changes on its web site, which continues to operate.

Eric Cesal, who had been executive director of AFH U.S. since April, resigned in December, according to Architects Journal, a UK-based publication. But Cesal was still listed Tuesday (Jan. 19) on AFH's website as executive director.

Meanwhile, its Wikipedia entry described the group Monday (Jan. 19) in the past tense, and AFH's busy Twitter feed has been silent since Dec. 10.

Silent Treatment

Board chairman Matt Charney told The New York Times that the organization had been operating at a loss and  was filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which governs liquidation.

“Very recently, it just became clear that we would be unable to completely reduce our operating deficit,” he said. “We ultimately lacked the funding to continue.”

Cameron Sinclair was awarded the 2006 TED Prize. His TED wish, explained in his talk, was for more open-source architectural plans to address global humanitarian problems. The result was the Open Architecture Network.

AFH UK said AFH U.S. "did not inform" even its sister organizations or chapters before sharing its plans with the media. "We hope they are forthcoming in [their] actions and lead an open and transparent dialogue with those who spent years dedicating their time to building the Organization," the UK group said.

AFH U.S. founders Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr, who left the organization in September 2013, also got the word about its collapse through the news media, they said on Sinclair's website.

'Abrupt Demise'

The group's "abrupt demise followed a year of retooling," The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

"Local observers say the organization’s problem was one that’s inherent to socially ambitious nonprofits—finding ways to keep interest and funding coming when the newness of its mission wears off."

Still, Sinclair and Stohr noted that they personally raised more than $5 million a year for the group, and its financial picture remained unclear.

Homeless World Cup Legacy Center
 

The Homeless World Cup Legacy Center in Santa Cruz, Brazil, includes a public soccer pitch and community center. The project, developed by Architecture for Humanity, was cited in the 2013 Curry Stone Prize Vision Award to AFH co-founders Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr.

In addition, the organization's website touts dozens of A-list public- and private-sector partners, including Absolut, Alcoa, Google, the Clinton Global Initiative, the U.S. Green Building Council, the Rockefeller Foundation and the White House.

'Design Like You Give a Damn'

Founded in 1999 to develop shelter for returning refugees in Kosovo, AFH focused on four types of projects: disaster reconstruction, creating community-centered "active spaces" in developing countries, developing education spaces, and pro-active training and design and technical expertise to prevent disaster.

Its motto, and the name of its first book: Design Like You Give a Damn.

Its global efforts included clearing landmines and building playgrounds in the Balkans; transitional housing and schools in many countries; and quake reconstruction assistance in Pakistan, Turkey and Iran. The organization also hosted a series of open international design competitions focused on addressing social and economic needs.

The group also co-developed the Open Architecture Network, the first open-source system for architectural designs that have since been used on more than 245 projects in 28 countries, Wikipedia said.

Around the World

In 2012, the organization announced a partnership with the American Institute of Architects to coordinate advocacy, education and training to help architects make effective contributions to communities preparing for, responding to, and rebuilding after disasters.

Yodakandiya Community Complex
Towle Neu / CC BY 2.0

Architecture for Humanity's Yodakandiya Community Complex, in Sri Lanka, was shortlisted for the 2010 Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

That announcement followed news that its partnership with Habitat for Humanity and Students Rebuild had opened two new schools in quake-ravaged Haiti.

The organization's efforts have "provided on-the-ground support for major global crises, including disaster relief in post-Katrina Gulf Coast and in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake," notes inhabitat.com.

The group's many accolades and awards include the Center for Architecture Foundation Award, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum's Design Patron Award, and the 2006 TED Prize for co-founder Sinclair.

Sinclair's TED Talk on open-source architecture has been viewed nearly a million times.

"We believe that where resources and expertise are scarce, innovative, sustainable and collaborative design can make a difference," Sinclair said then.

Architectural Leadership
 
"Architecture for Humanity represents the finest of the new breed of architectural leadership, employing architectural skills and directing them for the larger good," Architectural Record once wrote.
 
Architecture for Humanity

San Francisco-based Architecture for Humanity closed Jan. 1, officials told the news media. But the announcement still didn't appear on the organization's website Monday (Jan. 19) morning. Typhoon Hagupit struck the Philippines in the first half of December.

And Margie O’Driscoll, former executive director of AIA's San Francisco, told the Chronicle:
 
“The travesty isn’t that the organization went over budget serving communities around the world. It is that humanitarian design isn’t considered a fundamental right. And that today, in San Francisco, it is easier to find funding for an app than to fund an organization which transforms lives in places most Americans don’t know exist.”
 
In a statement posted Friday (Jan. 16), Sinclair and Stohr expressed sadness at the fate of their organization.

"We hope the profession will continue to design like [it gives a] damn—in whatever form that takes," they said. "And we urge the chapters to continue their much-needed work."

   

Tagged categories: Architects; Architecture; Architecture for Humanity; Asia Pacific; Business management; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Latin America; North America; Program/Project Management

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