The latest challenge from the talented crew at Architecture For Humanity is hot off the press. This time the focus is on how to revolutionize education worldwide by building the classroom of the future. A lofty goal, perhaps, but exactly what we have come to expect from the small team dedicated to revolutionizing architecture the world over. So what exactly drives the people behind the accolades and successful projects? What is it like to be in the midst of an architectural revolution? Definitely interesting, but not half as crazy as you might think.
While re-imagining the classroom might not be a top priority for many of us in the U.S. and more developed world, the truth is that we are a long way from the 10 million new classrooms required to make sure that every child has a safe place to learn, play, and – more often than not – get the chance to lift themselves out of poverty. The numbers may be depressing and the challenge ever so daunting, but the faces in the “final lap” pow-wow at Architecture For Humanity’s headquarters in the SOMA district of San Francisco are more likely to crease into smiles than frowns of despair.
“This is the final, grassroots push,” says Architecture For Humanity’s co-founder Kate Stohr. Comfortably seated on a nondescript couch, coffee mug in hand and eyes gleaming, Kate doesn’t fit the bill of mastermind behind a global push for the classroom revolution. Neither does her partner in crime, Cameron Sinclair, who in 2006 conveyed his vision of a collaborative design community, real and virtual, to a rapt audience at the T.E.D. conference in Long Beach. Cameron is currently at the Davos World Economic Forum, no doubt spreading the word about the latest challenge before it has even officially launched. Even thousands of miles apart, the dynamic duo certainly brings a compelling vision to the open architecture movement, even as the team counts down the seconds to the challenge launch.
Lifting the Veil
Practice, as they say, does make perfect. And it is clear that this challenge is but one in a stream of many over the past few years. As the organization’s IT duo, Mike and Ben, present their progress on getting the site up to spec, the rest of the dozen or so team members listen attentively, seated on cabinets littered with 3D models of some of the organization’s successful designs. Taking all this in, including the various schematics pinned up on the walls, a board covered in graphic design drafts with stickies and handwritten comments, as well as copies of Architecture For Humanity’s book lying around on the funky furniture, and one could easily be forgiven for thinking that a small bomb exploded in the middle of an art store. A look at the massive whiteboard that serves to chronicle Architecture For Humanity’s many ongoing projects only adds to the picture, suggesting maybe that giants work here, too.
That said, out of the chaos comes a team of very un-giant, highly connected, individuals. I take “connected” in the Internet sense of the word: no sooner has the team discussion moved from IT details to PR packets to what kind of champagne is in the running for a celebratory drink, than attention turns to the group’s social media strategy. First item on the list? Facebook.
“Let’s not forget to push out the message on our Facebook accounts”, says Kate. Architecture For Humanity has a strong Facebook presence with a group that counts over 6,500 members, as well as 509 fans on its Facebook homepage. The team regularly maintains the group and page, and Sinclair is a prolific Facebooker himself. Although the organization deals with brick and mortar projects – quite literally – everyone is savvier than your average web user. Given that the Open Architecture Network’s (OAN) community of 3000+ architects and designers are mostly scattered across the globe, they really don’t have a choice. But the team’s network doesn’t end with the OAN; the organization monitors dozens of community design chapters, each imbued with its own authority to conduct community design projects with Architecture For Humanity’s blessing. Then there are the “ambassadors”, or architects and designers well known in their fields who speak on behalf of Architecture For Humanity; some of these are often tapped for the various juries that judge the OAN challenges, such as recurring judge and ‘starchitect’ Eric Corey-Freed. So while the tight-knit team exudes a sense of ease and the parochial – many of the staff ride bikes into town, and office ping (and beer) pong games are a common occurrence – the extent of their network, the work they do, the lives they touch, are anything but. The greatest irony, of course, is that each of these genuinely remarkable individuals will shrug off praise with a “no big deal”, or “we can do better next time”, even as they blaze a path that many others will follow; indeed, already are following.
As the group turns their attention to other matters and I leave the room, a muffled joke elicits a round of laughter that echoes through the communal open space that Architecture For Humanity calls home. Sure, changing the world one building, one classroom, one life at a time is not a job to be taken lightly, but for these guys and gals, it’s just another day at the office.