"... by creating whole species of permanent garbage to clutter up the landscape, and by choosing materials and processes that pollute the air we breathe, designers have become a dangerous breed."

This is just one of the acerbic opinions that Victor Papanek wrote in his seminal book “Design for the Real World.” How is it that a book so scathing of designers has been in continuous publication for the past 43 years, and translated into 23 languages? 

How did an author so forthright in his negative view of the design profession end up as Professor of Architecture and Design at the University of Kansas? (After all the first sentence of his book reads, “There are professions more harmful than industrial design, but only a few of them.”)

Might it be that Papanek, who once studied architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright, had touched a raw nerve. That he articulated what many designers and architects knew to be true. “Man knows so much and does so little,” was how one of Papanek’s contemporaries, Buckminster Fuller expressed it.

We can certainly ‘do’. That is not up for dispute. But can we ‘do more’? It is relatively easy to design bright and shiny artefacts, grand pieces of ‘art-itecture'. So much harder to ‘design for the real world’, to create buildings and products that improve the lives for the majority of humanity.

Let’s look at some sobering statistics. Even after a concerted effort “748 million people – mostly the poor and marginalised – still lack access to an improved drinking water source,” according to the 2014 report of the World Health Organization United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation.

The same report noted that 14 per cent of humankind still don’t have access to toilets -— “Those one billion people with no sanitation facility whatsoever continue to defecate in gutters, behind bushes or in open water bodies, with no dignity or privacy.” A few years back he UN’s Habitat program published a report indicating that “the world slum population should reach 889 million by 2020.”

Such data highlights the scope available for the design fraternity to apply its amazing talent in creativity and problem solving for the betterment of others, to counter Victor Papanek’s jibe that, “the genuine needs of man have often been neglected by the designer.”

Design matters

However we can “Design Like You Give A Damn” as Cameron Sinclair and Kate Stohr titled their 2006 book about the many projects of Architecture for Humanity, an organisation they founded in 1999.

”Architecture for Humanity was born with a simple idea: that designers could use their skills and passions to literally change the world.” Now fifteen years on, that simple idea has spawned 59 Chapters, spread over 16 countries including Australia, having contributed kindergartens, schools, community centres, housing markets, sports facilities and the like in about 50 countries. Sinclair and Stohr have received more awards than we have room to list here.

In October 2012 the Australian branch of RedR celebrated 20 years of humanitarian action. Over those two decades, they’ve deployed over 700 people to 75 countries. Julien Temple, Manager – Humanitarian Partnerships, UNICEF, praised the organisation for their “support in providing emergency surge staffing to critical humanitarian responses worldwide.”

The Register of Engineers for Disaster Relief, as RedR was originally known, was founded in 1980 by British engineer, Peter Guthrie, who saw a pressing need for his fellow practitioners “who could be called upon at short notice to work with frontline relief agencies.”

A few years on, in 1989, the not-for-profit Society for Responsible Design (SRD) was established in Sydney. And two years later, the EcoDesign Foundation came along. Both would eventually merge their activities under the SRD name. As the world’s oldest surviving eco-design organisation, the SRD is still disseminating information on environmentally and socially responsible design.

Cardboard Cathedral, 2013, Christchurch, New Zealand. Photography by Stephen Goodenough.

Other like-minded initiatives have sprouted up along the way. In 1995 Japanese architect Shigeru Ban (see more below) established the Voluntary Architects’ Network to organise post-disaster aid in the field of construction. 

In 1999 Builders without Borders started up, as, “an international network of ecological builders who advocate the use of natural, local, and affordable materials in construction.” In the same year Architects Without Frontiers - Australia came to life, after Esther Charlesworth led a group of Melbourne University design students to post-conflict Bosnia-Hertzegovina.

In 2001 Emergency Architects France (Architectes de l'Urgence) formed, with an Australian office of EA operating between 2005 and 2013. This year Emergency Architects was awarded the International Union Architects’ Vassilis Sgoutas Prize for “serving the most impoverished and for the conception of inventive solutions for reducing poverty and indigence.” (Australian architect Anna Rubbo, founder of Global Studio, received an honourable mention for her humanitarian work.)

Habitat for Humanity is the “world’s number one not-for-profit provider of housing for low-income families living in poverty.” They've built almost 600,000 houses, sheltering more than three million people in over 3,000 communities. The volunteers and partners believe they don’t just provide a roof – they build communities. 

HfH is anchored by the conviction that safe, affordable housing provides a critical foundation for breaking the cycle of poverty. Supported families contribute 500 hours of ‘sweat equity’ becoming intimately involved in constructing their own home. Once they have paid off their interest-free loan it is transferred to another family in need. Whilst over 100 homes have been built locally, most of HfH Australia’s work is in the Asia Pacific region.

The Housing for Health process aims to assess, repair or replace ‘health hardware’, so that houses are safe and the occupants have the ability to carry out healthy living practices. Initially developed in the 1980s in South Australia by Healthabitat in conjunction with local Aboriginal Health Service, they set out to maximise community health gains, particularly for children aged 0-5 years.

The results speak for themselves; with a recent study by NSW Ministry of Health revealing the rate of hospital separations for infectious diseases reduced by 40 per cent for communities who received the Housing for Health program. Their comprehensive online guide, housingforhealth.com, provides solutions to achieving the Healthy Living Practices for all built environment professionals from specification and documentation through to quality control and maintenance. In 2012 Housing for Health exhibited for Australia at the World Architectural Biennale in Italy. The previous year the program won the Australian Institute of Architects’ Leadership in Sustainability Prize and the UN World Habitat Award.

Australian company Barefoot Power's portable solar light is designed to meet the needs of rural markets.

Barefoot Power, an Australian company that produces micro solar energy solutions to “help low income families break their dependence on inefficient, expensive and harmful light sources by giving them cleaner and cheaper options.” In 2013 they scored an Intersolar Award for their work in developing a solar-powered LED tube light solution, with the appropriate light spectrum, for weavers in India to work at their hand-looms. “The kits enable the weavers to double their productivity and raise their incomes by generating the reliable power they need for their livelihoods.” 

Originally founded by Tasmanian brothers, Barefoot Power is currently helmed by CEO Rick Hooper who once worked for Philips Lighting, and now reaches into more than 20 countries. The company believe they have positively impacted the lives of more than 1 million people. Their latest product is a 135 lumen solar light that might’ve sprung from the mind of a Starck or Newson, yet has been designed to meet the needs of remote rural night markets.

Speaking of winning awards, the 2014 laureate of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize is the aforementioned Shigeru Ban. His jury citation says, in part, “He is an outstanding architect who, for twenty years, has been responding with creativity and high quality design to extreme situations caused by devastating natural disasters. His buildings provide shelter, community centers, and spiritual places for those who have suffered tremendous loss and destruction.”

Cardboard Cathedral, 2013, Christchurch, New Zealand. Photography by Stephen Goodenough.

Recently Shigeru Ban’s work found its way to the Antipodeans, via New Zealand’s ‘Cardboard Cathedral,’ which was built following Christchurch’s 2011 earthquake. The cathedral employs Ban’s signature material: cardboard.

Ross Langdon may not be as well-known as Shigeru Ban, but he too was recognised for his work on humanitarian, aid and public projects. In particular in Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, where he recently completed an AIDS hospital. Australian Institute of Architects awarded Ross their 2014 National President’s Prize, citing his work as being notable for its community engagement and use of recycled and upcycled materials. Alas, the award was presented posthumously, as Ross, and his pregnant partner, were killed in that horrific terrorist attack on a Nairobi shopping centre last year.

However, Ross’s award, like that of the people and organisations noted above, should telegraph to designers and architects that they need not be just another ‘brick in the wall.’ That deeply fulfilling humanitarian work is possible in this profession. Projects with meaningful purpose, that would make even Victor Papanek proud. As Habitat for Humanity say, “Don’t just see the world. Change the world".