The arts are a traveller’s window into the heart of San Francisco

South China Morning Post, August 2012.

San Francisco has always had an acute sense of the frontier, and this can be said for its arts scene as well as for its gung-ho economy.

As a gold rush town, it was unusually cosmopolitan. In the mid-1800s it hosted up to 37 foreign consuls and boasted newspapers and theatre productions in at least five languages. By the time Mark Twain turned up in the 1860s, the city was a blur of bohemian activity, with strip after strip of saloons, boarding houses, dance halls, brothels and theatres.

During the next century, this bohemia fell victim to industry and the power of the American puritans; it is no coincidence that its architecture is so frothily Victorian. But its role as an artistic frontier somehow survived and ‘heading west’ has brought out the best in many writers since – from Jack London and Jack Kerouac to Isabel Allende and Amy Tan.

For anyone wanting to get a real sense of the place – after the trips to Alcatraz and a few laps of the bridge…

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Update: Presenting ‘Defamation of Religions’ research at the UN HRCouncil

I joined NGO and OHCHR staff to present research at the panel,

I joined NGO and OHCHR staff to present research at the panel, ‘Evolution of the recent debate on defamation of religions‘, on behalf of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), and the SOAS Human Rights Clinic, during the 16th UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva.  The study (available here in full, co-written with Julia Alfandari and Regula Atteya) charts the development of discourse on religious defamation at the United Nations, and analyses blasphemy cases in Pakistan, Syria and Algeria using the international human rights legal framework.  It has been published by the Social Science Research Network , and was well used by NGOs and delegates at the Session in the lead up to a groundbreaking draft resolution that better preserved the right to free expression. The resolution was pronounced a ‘landmark’ by then-US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton.

Other panelists included the Director of the Human Rights Treaties Division at the Office of the UN High Commissioner…

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Case Studies: The use of blasphemy laws in Pakistan

This is part of my contribution to ‘Defamation of Religions: International Developments and Challenges on the Ground’, published by the Social Science Research Network, for the Cairo Institute on Human Rights Studies (CIHRS).

SECTION 3: CASE STUDIES FROM THREE OIC STATES

The Islamic Republic of Pakistan has a majority Muslim population, and has passed some of the world’s strictest national laws on blasphemy and the defamation of religion. Its provisions are established in the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), its Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) and its constitution. Many of these provisions were introduced or strengthened between 1977 and 1988 during the reign of military dictator Zia ul-Haq, known for his ‘Islamisation’ of the country, mostly under martial law. Under General Zia, Shari’a Benches were established in the high courts and the Supreme Court (which had the jurisdiction to examine the compliance of domestic laws with Islamic law, even if no complaint was brought before them),…

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Legal Study: Defamation of Religions – International Developments and Challenges on the Ground

Social Science Research Network, 2011.

Abstract: This paper aims to provide a general overview of the current debate on religious defamation laws internationally, and to research and analyse the use and impact of the ‘defamation of religion’ concept and blasphemy laws on freedom of expression in three OIC member states. Part I of the paper will explore the evolution of the concept within the UN in three sections: Section One looks at the positions held by the OIC since the introduction of the initial resolution on defamation of religion at the UN; Section Two explores the counter positions held by NGOs and states in disagreement; and Section Three examines the treatment of this concept in other UN reports, namely from its committees and independent experts, as a measure of the current international consensus. Part II of this project is a study of three selected OIC member states: Algeria, Syria and Pakistan. In this section we present the national laws on religious defamation and…

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Advocacy for the Asian Human Rights Commission

Between 2007 and 2010 I worked in Hong Kong and various countries in Asia as advocacy programme manager for the AHRC and its sister organisation, the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), a regional NGO. This involved managing and writing advocacy strategies and content, liaising on casework with state officials and UN Special Procedures, and advocacy at high level fora, namely the UN Human Rights Council. Other activities, included field research on witness protection, violence against women and torture in various Asian countries and delivering workshops for human rights defenders. Below is a small selection of my work, taken from over a hundred articles and appeals written during my time there.

 Reports and submissions:

ASIA: Council urged to act to protect rights by protecting human rights defenders, a written statement to the Human Rights Council, Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, 23 February 2010.

PAKISTAN: Judicial obedience and a weak rule of law continue under the new government, a written statement to the Human Rights Council, 10 October 2009.

The State of Human Rights in Pakistan 2008: co-written with Baseer Naweed: authored chapters on the Right to Life; Religious Freedom and Minorities, The Rights of Women; Honour Killings and the Jirga (PDF).

Articles and statements:

PAKISTAN: The judiciary must confront suspected state agents on the issue of disappearances, 20 November 2009.

Thankless tasks: Human rights defenders in Sri Lanka & Pakistan, Article 2, Vol. 8, No. 3, September 2009 .

Between 2007 and 2010 I worked in Hong Kong and various countries in Asia as advocacy programme manager for the AHRC and its sister organisation, the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), a regional NGO. This involved managing and writing advocacy strategies and content, liaising on casework with state officials and UN Special Procedures, and advocacy at high level fora, namely the UN Human Rights Council. Other activities, included field research on witness protection, violence against women and torture in various Asian countries and delivering workshops for human rights defenders. Below is a small selection of my work, taken from over a hundred articles and appeals written during my time there.

 Reports and submissions:

ASIA: Council urged to act to protect rights by protecting human rights defenders, a written statement to the Human Rights Council, Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, 23 February 2010.

PAKISTAN: Judicial obedience and a weak…

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Winning Ways

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 22 April 2011

Since Architecture for Humanity first made its mark in 1999 with a competition to design transitional housing for returning refugees in Kosovo, it has used designers’ competitive streaks to its advantage. Its competitions have produced the ultimate mobile health clinic for AIDS victims in Sub-Saharan Africa, a factory to connect indigenous chocolate producers in the Ecuadorian Amazon with the global marketplace, and many more. Each competition has garnered fame and funding, showing in travelling exhibitions and drawing a range of panellists, from architect Frank Gehry to actor Cameron Diaz. The blueprints are uploaded on the Open Architecture Network (www.openarchitecturenetwork.org ) for use across the world, while the winning prototype is funded and built.

This may present an interesting challenge for the 2011 competition, which will ask architects to repurpose disused military installations for civic use. “They’re built with…

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Manor in the works

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 4 March 2011

Philosopher Alain de Botton is bent on revitalising British ‘comfort’ architecture 



For those who live in it, and visit it, British architecture is a wellspring of nostalgia. Spare a thought for the landscape here and you will likely envisage Georgian manor houses amid rolling hills, or perhaps the sooty brick-and-mortar of Sherlock Holmes’ London. And while this has long been good news for the tourist board, for writer and popular philosopher Alain de Botton, it is an endless source of frustration.

“Liking modern architecture is a kind of sect here,” the Swiss-born de Botton complains from a cosy brickbound office in north London. “It’s like witchcraft, or something slightly unusual. Because Britain industrialised so fast there’s a tremendous desire for history. But there’s a reason things become history.”

As a writer, long based in England, de Botton has dedicated himself to reforming the public understanding of vital themes. His books have addressed love, travel and, most recently, work, and he cofounded a small “cultural apothecary” in London, The School of Life, which sells books and holds philosophy workshops and secular Sunday “sermons” on selfdevelopment.

His successful 2006 book, The Architecture of Happiness, ran in a similarly edifying vein and won him kudos from the Royal Institute of British Architects. Yet when it came to architecture, he felt compelled towards a more dynamic form of activism. The feeling grew as he explored forward-thinking home design across the world for the television series, The Perfect Home. “You find very good modernism in Asia. There are some beautiful examples of private houses, blocks of flats and civic building across China and Hong Kong; think of the Great Wall project, which has been iconic,” he says, referring to the Commune by the Great Wall project–12 strikingly modern villa projects designed by 12 Asian architects. He notes that China’s flirtation with Western historical cliché seems to be fading finally as its top earners appreciate the way that homegrown architects can mix elements of Chinese geography and geology with new international ideas.

In Japan, de Botton finds that many middle-class families are comfortable using modern architects, producing neighbourhoods that are adventurous but have a shared aesthetic. It’s a spirit that he identifies from his upbringing in Switzerland, but which he finds hard to locate among England’s suburban mock-Tudor housing estates. “The point is, when you’ve got an opportunity to build a house or stay somewhere, do you go for the ‘neowhatever’ mansion?” he asks. “Or do you accept that the architecture of our own times can have many of the qualities that people admire in buildings of old, like a sensory richness, a warmth, a connection with history, but they don’t have to be museum pieces or kitsch?”

De Botton’s brainchild, Living Architecture, is an apt response to this question. The new, not-forprofit venture will see provocative modern holiday cottages sprouting bravely among Britain’s mostly rural beauty spots. Three projects are complete and at least three more are on the way, each by a different architect, and each defined by the customary tenets of good modern architecture such as light, functionality and a strong connection with the surroundings.

The scheme is part vacation, part education, and through it de Botton hopes to ease what he sees as the public’s suspicion of modernist design, and drum up the kind of popular support enjoyed by other fields of design innovation in Britain, such as product design or fashion.

Yet this is not a project for Britons only. “It’s a national mission in the sense that the idea is to raise standards here, but we’re aware that the way to raise the standards is to bring foreign architects here, at least in part,” he says, noting that as developers in Britain court the British fondness for home-grown “comfort” architecture, they leave little room for studios with strong modernist architectural traditions, such as those in Germany, the Netherlands and further north in Europe.

De Botton also sees the cottages helping to refresh Britain’s image overseas, by letting holidaymakers immerse themselves in the countryside without necessarily taking a trip back in time or compromising on quality. “People are used to London being hip, cool and modern, but once you go outside of the M25  you’re slightly in the wilderness,” he says. “We hope these houses will be clear and welcoming in a way that international audiences can appreciate.”

Yet despite these cosmopolitan sensibilities, most of the projects rework the unique architectural style of their area. The Shingle House, by Scotland’s Nord Architecture, is a stark reinvention of fishermen’s huts along the stony Kent coast, while the Dune House in Suffolk by the Norwegian Jarmund/Vigsnæs Architects makes reference to local seaside buildings with a geometrical roof in tinted orange steel alloy. Projecting into the air above a Suffolk nature reserve, the Balancing Barn is a neat yet gravity-defying affair clad in reflective tiles, but features a local hammerbeam roof, and coming to Devon next year, Peter Zumthor’s Secular Retreat will attempt to use concrete and glass to spiritual effect, creating the vibe of a monastery or abbey.

But how have the British responded? Although the national media have retained their usual blend of hype and high-handed sting, local press coverage has been generally supportive. It’s a result, de Botton thinks, of striking the right balance between exciting and accessible design. “We haven’t had any fights with any locals,” he says, with a smile. “The house in Thorpeness  is very prominent and has really galvanised the area. People are coming forward and wanting to build their own houses. It’s become a complete talking point, which is exactly what we wanted.” It is also booked almost solid for the next six months.

Living Architecture has taken a brief hiatus from the countryside with its latest, equally radical project, though it is perhaps more publicity friendly than educational.

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 4 March 2011

Philosopher Alain de Botton is bent on revitalising British ‘comfort’ architecture

For those who live in it, and visit it, British architecture is a wellspring of nostalgia. Spare a thought for the landscape here and you will likely envisage Georgian manor houses amid rolling hills, or perhaps the sooty brick-and-mortar of Sherlock Holmes’ London. And while this has long been good news for the tourist board, for writer and popular philosopher Alain de Botton, it is an endless source of frustration.

“Liking modern architecture is a kind of sect here,” the Swiss-born de Botton complains from a cosy brickbound office in north London. “It’s like witchcraft, or something slightly unusual. Because Britain industrialised so fast there’s a tremendous desire for history. But there’s a reason things become history.”

As a writer, long based in England, de Botton has dedicated himself to reforming the public understanding…

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Hit the Ground Running

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 22 April 2011

A humanitarian design group is redefining crisis response across the globe, writes Jo Baker. 



Twelve years ago a designer caught in a disaster zone might have been at rather a loss at how to pitch in; but when the quakes hit Japan last month it took very little time for the architects to rally. There were readymade chapters in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto with access to a global network of nearly 5,000 volunteer design professionals, a template for crisis response, and an online bank of designs, all relevant to post-crisis reconstruction and free for the download. And joining all these dots was the only international humanitarian-oriented organization to have pioneered design as a tool to fight disaster: Architecture for Humanity (AFH). Throughout the last month AFH has been working to link the Japan Institute of Architects (JIA) and professional building associations with designers and funders across the world as they start the long rebuild of safe, sustainable housing and community structures; just as it has done before in Christchurch, and before that in northern Pakistan, in coastal Sri Lanka, in New Orleans, and numerous other trouble spots across the globe.

Yet twelve years ago AFH founder Cameron Sinclair had been one of those lost designers himself.  Disappointed by an industry awash with slick branding and star-struck developers, he wanted to explore the ‘re-humanising’ of architecture, and to try and apply good design principles to communities in the tradition of  legendary but long-gone modernists like Swiss architect, Le Corbusier. By 2005 Sinclair and his wife, journalist Kate Stohr, based in the States, had managed to convince hundreds of architects to donate designs for mobile health clinics, transitional houses, and for sports centres that doubled as HIV outreach clinics across the globe. By 2007 these were uploaded onto an online Open Architecture Network for anyone to use for non-profit work, anywhere in the world; and designers were devising schools made of bottles, homes out of straw bricks; there was even an ‘origami homeless shelter’ made out of a single sheet by architecture student Yossi Steinberger for victims of the Sichuan earthquake (as seen on You Tube). It was the materialization of Sinclair’s mission to “design without ego”, and a challenge to the idea that any prefabricated solution can be lumped upon people hit by crisis or extreme poverty. “The idea of using adaptation as opposed to repetition was a really big shift: saying, different neighbourhoods have different issues, adapt the building to that,” explains Sinclair.  “With an architect you can create something the community wants, rather than something they just get given.” 

But although the AFH reach was expanding, with local chapters springing up from Detroit to Dhaka, Sinclair found that it had little control over the finished products. “We were doing everything right: the projects would be thoughtful, with integrated stakeholders, used the right materials and technologies,“ he recalls. “Then we’d hand it off and they’d just build crap.” So a few years ago AFH moved into construction management, and started to self fund. It sets up community advice centres, gives free design advice and creates programmes to boost construction standards by training local designers, masons and metalworkers. Soon, NGOs from Oxfam to Save the Children started asking to partner, as did Oprah, the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, Nike and The International Federation of Association Football - FIFA. In just over a decade AFH transitioned from a US$60,000 design services firm to a now, roughly US$6 million global powerhouse.

Yet in a large world with innumerable crises it is still necessary to pick and choose projects. Enter ‘urban acupuncture’: the rather slick-sounding strategy that directs the AFH focus on small-scale building projects, in a bid to knit torn communities together, and produce a ripple-effect of opportunity and change. In 2010 a London-based AFH architect, Susi Jane Platt, was shortlisted for one of the highest honours in the architectural world, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, for just such a project: a modest little village school in Sri Lanka set between a fishing village and a reservoir. Platt’s Yodakandiya Community Complex had not only moulded itself to the needs of the community around it – including built-in deterrents for rampaging elephants – but had done so via community meetings and training sessions that involved hundreds of villagers in its design and construction; Platt herself spent two years living there. This project also gave Sinclair another good reason to focus on schools: plagiarism. “The school in many instances is a 24-hour building, the heart of the community,” he says. “If we can improve design and construction quality in those schools, people will steal the best ideas locally.  It’s like open sourcing!” When designers returned to Yodakandiya after a few years they found that most of the homes around the facility had been influenced by its design, whether in the roof details, or the ventilation and rain-water catchment systems.

These projects also aim to go beyond local communities. According to Sinclair the organisation’s most dedicated core of global support is under eighteen years-old. The recent Students Rebuild: Haiti campaign rallied students and teachers around the globe in efforts to rebuild safer schools in the country. While much of the world may be looking elsewhere now, “high school kids are really the engine that is keeping us in Haiti,” he says. “We’re a fun organisation: donate 50 bucks and there’s a physical structure that you get out of it.”

Both concepts have influenced the AFH approach in Japan. While its head office has worked to raise funds for reconstruction and assessment efforts with the JIA, before starting to identify small scale building projects to work on, Students Rebuild and Do Something.org started to secure funding via the Bezos Family Foundation, which pledged $2 for every paper crane that was sent to them.

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 22 April 2011

A humanitarian design group is redefining crisis response across the globe, writes Jo Baker.

Twelve years ago a designer caught in a disaster zone might have been at rather a loss at how to pitch in; but when the quakes hit Japan last month it took very little time for the architects to rally. There were readymade chapters in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto with access to a global network of nearly 5,000 volunteer design professionals, a template for crisis response, and an online bank of designs, all relevant to post-crisis reconstruction and free for the download. And joining all these dots was the only international humanitarian-oriented organization to have pioneered design as a tool to fight disaster: Architecture for Humanity (AFH). Throughout the last month AFH has been working to link the Japan Institute of Architects (JIA) and professional building associations with designers and funders across the world as they start the long rebuild…

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Publications

Human rights, law and development
Online

The Asia Sentinel, Hong Kong: www.asiasentinel.com
The Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong: www.humanrights.asia
The Historical Justice and Memory Research Network at the at The Swinburne Institute for Social Research, Australia: www.historicaljusticeandmemorynetwork.ne
DIGNITY – The Danish Institute Against Torture, Copenhagen: www.dignityinstitute.dk
Human Rights Monitor Quarterly for the International Service for Human Rights, Geneva: www.ishr.ch
Groundviews, Sri Lanka: www.groundviews.org
The Guardian, London: www.guardian.co.uk
Open Democracy, London: www.opendemocracy.net
Oxford Human Rights Hub, Oxford: ohrh.law.ox.ac.uk
Penal Reform International, London: www.penalreform.org/blog
The Social Science Research Network: www.ssrn.com
Say-NO-UNiTE (UN Portal): http://saynotoviolence.org/
University of Essex Human Rights Centre Blog, blogs.essex.ac.uk/hrc
UN Women: www.unwomen.org

Books, Journals, Reports and Newspapers

Article 2,…

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