Courtesy of Cameron Sinclair

Future-in-the-present

An interview with Cameron Sinclair on already-​existing seeds of the future by Elina Pechonova

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An interview with Cameron Sinclair

An interview by Elina Pechonova

Architect, author, humanitarian. In 2004 Fortune Magazine named Cameron as one of seven people changing the world for the better, He was the awardee of the TED prize for the development of the Open Architecture Network.

In 1997 he graduated from the University of Westminster and then moved to New-York where he developed postgraduate thesis focused on providing shelter to New York City’s social problems through sustainable, transitional housing.This thesis served as the basis for starting Architecture for Humanity — an organization that helps architects to apply their design skills to humanitarian efforts: to design projects ranging from schools, health clinics, affordable housing.Sinclair is a regular lecturer and visiting professor. In the past few years he has taught in New Zealand, Spain, Japan and the United States.Cameron currently works for the Jolie-Pitt Foundation and is author of multiple books on humanitarian impact design. For 14 years he was executive director of Architecture for Humanity
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…cities of the future

There is the formal city which is the Moscow proper London proper or New York proper and then there is the spontaneous city which is where migration is happening and where culture is actually much more energetic

There is “the formal city” which is Moscow proper, London proper or New York proper, and there is “the spontaneous city” which is where migration is happening and where culture is actually much more energetic. I mean, cities will have to become competitive more than just for high network jobs. They have to figure out their social worth, access for transportation; ways to become culturally sound otherwise they will be a transit place for people to go and make money and leave. Today if you talk to a guy in New York, he says “I’m not looking for a woman to be with, I just need someone around while I make my money and I get out and then move somewhere to settle down.” But to have a strong city one should have something much more holistic. The city as nation is already happening. Think of Russia: there is Moscow and the rest of the country. Take the United States: New York as a nation, Los Angeles as a nation. Look at China: Shanghai, Beijing. Every country that is claiming the world’s power has one or two such cities, with very few exceptions.

…citizens of the future

The city as nation is already happening. Look at China: Shanghai, Beijing

I think there will be hyper-​citizens. Many of my friends, rather than buying a house in San Francisco, have one apartment there and another one in New York. Or they have a summer place in America and a winter place somewhere else. That’s a hyper-​citizen. But as much mobility as there’s going to be, there is also going to be urban politics. Most migration into the city is not by the wealthy, it is by the poor, and if we don’t have a good social system we can end up with deep urban poverty. Half of the cities in Russia are shrinking: people are leaving the North and they are going to end up either in St. Petersburg or Moscow, because it is better to be poor in Moscow than stay poor in the North. So the identity of a Muscovite will be very different in 20 years’ time.

Courtesy of Cameron Sinclair

…architects for the future

Socially-​focused architecture is the only architecture that really matters because it is affecting lives of everyday people

70 % of architects and urban planners are trained in the West. But if we speak of Architecture for Humanity, our architects come from 70 countries. We make sure that we have contextually relevant architects in our projects, and we work in Syria with Syrian and Persian architects not with kids from Indiana. Socially-​focused architecture is the only architecture that really matters because it is affecting the lives of everyday people. When we were in Kosovo in 1999, it was really tense: one couldn’t say anything without someone at the table getting upset.

Architecture is the safest way to communicate the development over community unlike politics or money

Nevertheless, architecture is the safest way to communicate the development of a community, unlike politics or money. Architects just need to be more entrepreneurial. When you are acting in communities and you’re creating change, politicians start taking note. So I did not ask to help Obama, Obama asked me to help. In a way it’s much more a power than that of politician. I don’t have to be elected.

…the future (of) urbanism

There’s no such thing as future – there’s always now. If we go 20 – 30 years back we’ll see that people who were making predictions had a very biased sight formed by the notion of their present. So there’s total inequality in futurism. That’s why I don’t really believe in future thinking. I’m a realist, I can’t predict what will happen in 30 years. I can make it up though, based on the context that I have.

Urbanists sit in offices and wear grey suits and ties. Occasionally they say they’re economists because even that sounds sexier that urbanist. It’s too institutionalized a profession

So urbanism can be seen as a way to either create an economic or a social anchor for a country and since most governments need a tax base they prefer the economic one, resulting in top-​down planning that is never people-​focused. A good example is the “parking problem” which is the elite talking to the elite. Most people that live in cities don’t have fancy cars to drive to the urban centre; they’re using public transportation anyway or they are stuck in the periphery and only occasionally come into the city. In a spontaneous city, it’s always society-​focused so you have to have different planning, but I think there’s going to be a fragmentation. The problem is that we are not training our architects and planners for a spontaneous city. We have been training them for the formal city.

What we need is to renegate urbanism in favour of community urbanism if we want our future to be optimistic.