It Takes a Village

With a name that echoes the moniker of 30-year-old Habitat for Humanity and the blitz of media coverage that hasn’t stopped since its founders first hung out a shingle, it’s easy to assume that Architecture for Humanity is an institution with history. But as the nonprofit’s new book—Design Like You Give a Damn: Architectural Responses to Humanitarian Crises, released in late June by Metropolis Books—reminds us, the organization, founded in 1999, is just getting started. Rather than publishing a monograph of their own work, cofounders Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr have curated a collection of altruistic architectural projects done mostly by other design firms and organizations. “It’s a how-to and a philosophy for architects who want to engage in humanitarian works but don’t have a model for how to go about it,” Stohr says. Just as the book debuts, the organization is finally seeing the results of its labor come to fruition with the completion of a community center in the South Indian district of Cuddalore.

Seeking to fill a gap in tsunami-related government aid—which favors towns with the highest life-loss statistics—Architecture for Humanity teamed up with the India-based NGO League for Education and Development (LEAD) to build a multipurpose complex in the village of Ambedkar Nagar, where the livelihoods of farmers have been severely damaged by saltwater contamination. The partner organizations brought in architect Purnima McCutcheon, who was just moving to India from Hawaii with her family when she was hired to lead the design process and participate in a community-wide charrette.

“The community not only engaged in the design process but wanted to contribute labor as well,” Sinclair says. “That saved enough money for us to expand the program.” McCutcheon’s design includes a large meeting space that doubles as a balwadi (day-care center) and tutoring center, with a small kitchen nearby and an outdoor court for the children to play in; office space for a number of women-led community-development groups; a job training center; and a library with an outdoor porch. There’s also an open-air stage and space for murals.

The only other thing the community asked for, according to McCutcheon, was a dry place to sleep in during the monsoon season, which lasts from October through December. Accordingly the community center is waterproofed with brick on the exterior and a roof made of concrete and local Mangalore clay tiles. Using indigenous materials such as river reeds and packed mud, residents thatched the roof of a porch and helped with a children’s courtyard. “I wanted to showcase their architecture,” McCutcheon says, “because they don’t necessarily recognize the value and beauty in it themselves.”

“It really is a marriage between the needs of the community and the skills of a designer,” Sinclair reports after returning from a recent site visit. The residents’ involvement in designing and building the center was so successful that LEAD and Architecture for Humanity have already begun two additional community centers and a women’s center nearby. “What we’re doing is not going to win any design awards, but in these villages the building will mean so much—the first question from community members is whether they can get married in it.”

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