The Post-Disaster Architect: Esther Charlesworth Examines the Role of Architecture in Humanitarian Aid

Esther Charlesworth. Courtesy of Esther Charlesworth.

Esther Charlesworth. Courtesy of Esther Charlesworth.

By Nikhita Bhagwat

Esther Charlesworth realized early in her career that an architect can take on different roles based on what a community needs. She is acclaimed for her founding of Asia’s first design nonprofit: Architects Without Frontiers, based in Victoria, Australia, and her leadership of the Humanitarian Architecture Research Bureau (HARB), which places a sharp focus on the role of architects and designers in postdisaster areas. Charlesworth is also a professor of architecture and design at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. In 2016, she built a new postgraduate program at RMIT, the Master of Disaster, Design and Development (MoDDD), that enables architects to collaborate with other professionals in the realm of disaster management. Furthermore, she has authored many books based on her numerous experiences across the globe involving the existence of man-made and natural disasters, including Architects Without Frontiers (Elsevier, 2006), Sustainable Housing Reconstruction: Designing Resilient Housing After Natural Disasters (Routledge, 2014), Divided Cities: Belfast, Beirut, Jerusalem, Mostar, and Nicosia (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009) and City Edge (Elsevier, 2001).

In the midst of a hectic travel schedule, Charlesworth speaks from Marseilles, France, about her journey in humanitarian architecture, the urgent need for architecture’s response in today’s disaster-prone world, the potential for incorporating humanitarian design into architectural education, and the limitations of the architectural profession as it exists today.

Nikhita Bhagwat: How did you become interested in humanitarian architecture?

Esther Charlesworth: Between 1993 and 1995, when I was doing my Master of Architecture in Urban Design at Harvard, I got involved in a project rebuilding war zones in Bosnia. I hadn’t received any previous training, but being in Bosnia made me think a lot about how to design in a war, with divided communities, and how design has the potential to further social justice. That summer changed my life. Twenty-five years later, I am still on that journey.

In your experience working with disaster victims, can you recall any particular situation that you thought was the most challenging?

One challenging situation for me is in my own backyard working for indigenous communities in Australia. Indigenous people should be provided with the best of education, health care, and housing, but 90 percent have no access to schooling. I don’t think the toughest problem is always international or after the next disaster—the challenge is the ongoing condition of communities in our own country, who, for a complex series of historic and social reasons, do not have access to basic amenities.

In disaster situations, resources and supplies are limited, how does this affect your approach in thinking about and acting in these types of scenarios.

I’m normally present post-disaster; I work on projects with a long gestation. This includes trying to understand the needs of the respective stakeholders of the communities, so I’m working more on long-term planning projects. At Architects Without Frontiers, now fifteen years old, there is a range of activity happening. For example, my colleagues developed a project for building preschools in India that were built very quickly. Another project we did was in Cape Town, South Africa, building a community center in a slum out of sandbags. Sometimes these projects are done very, very quickly—without need for a planning commission or regulations—but my own expertise leans more towards long-term strategic planning.

Humanitarian Architecture: 15 Stories of Architects Working After Disaster  by Esther Charlesworth. Routledge, 2014

Humanitarian Architecture: 15 Stories of Architects Working After Disaster by Esther Charlesworth. Routledge, 2014

From an architectural standpoint, what is the most important factor in postdisaster construction, considering structures are required to be erected as quickly and cheaply as possible?

In all disciplines—whether you’re an architect, planner, doctor, or sociologist—working in a transdisciplinary mode is a strength. I think architects are very limited by themselves, and I think many have much bigger expectations of their own capacity than is actually useful. In disaster scenarios you must work across disciplines; it’s never just a group of architects doing a project.

I think the biggest problem is not the immediate construction after a disaster, it is providing a long-term strategy. Part of housing infrastructure is thinking about the people and helping them regain the livelihood that they probably lost during the disaster. So, in essence, we are always thinking long-term solutions as opposed to the immediate remedy of big solutions.

Do you think architects are working to their full potential to change the world?

I see a lot of architects working on social and civic infrastructure projects. It’s just very different from dealing with the big scenes of ecological and man-made devastation that we see now. For example, at Kutupalong-Balukhali, one of the world’s largest refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees need housing and access to water—nothing prepares you for this.

I can’t imagine. How have you observed planners responding differently to political or man-made disasters as opposed to natural disasters?

It depends on where you’ve been trained. For instance, in Europe, where I am right now, planners have a much bigger role. The spatial planners in the US and Australia tend to be more regulation- and rule-based planners. I think one of the big things now is doing natural disaster mitigation and building a resilience for the communities, for the next inevitable disaster. They say that every dollar you spend in preparation for a disaster will be several dollars once the disaster actually happens. So economically, it is much more advantageous for cities to build disaster mitigation measures rather than just deal with the aftereffects. We see this in New York and Florida where houses are built on flood-prone land. It’s not just goodwill that drives disaster prevention efforts, it’s also about insurance and real estate.

While working across various countries, is there ever a point where government bodies stand in the way of your work?

I think you always have to work within the rules of the government. It is problematic to go in as an independent agency and say, “we are going to come and fix this problem.” As an architect, if you don’t have a mandate to work in the country, you shouldn’t really be there.

Charlesworth on location with Architects Without Frontiers. Courtesy of Esther Charlesworth.

Charlesworth on location with Architects Without Frontiers. Courtesy of Esther Charlesworth.

Architects Without Frontiers shows projects from across the globe with a particularly vernacular approach. Is that one of your organization’s priorities? I imagine it would be easier to train the local workforce to build projects that use indigenous building techniques.

Well, we are not trying to win architectural awards. Some of the projects we’ve done are more practical than others, but I think good design is necessary. Just because a community is poor or at risk doesn't mean it can’t have aesthetically pleasing or good, sustainable design. Vulnerable communities deserve that just as much as any other community.

Is this what motivated you to found the Master of Disaster, Design, and Development at RMIT?

Yes, I’m interested in how this can become a far more mainstream aspect of architectural education rather than just sort of a niche. At the moment, it’s a very small group of people working in this field internationally, some of whom are here with me in Marseilles, France. We know there are disasters happening and more to come. Right now, architectural education is focused on doing big buildings in big cities. That’s not going to be the reality in 20, 40, or 100 years. I think that’s how we need to educate the designers of the future.Through MoDDD, I’m trying to develop a coalition of universities who are working in this intersection of design and disaster. There are about ten universities in Europe working in this space, not so many in the US. We just need to understand their capacities, and how we can do it better.

Charlesworth and faculty participating in a mapping workshop, Master of Disaster, Design and Development (MODD) program, RMIT University. Courtesy of Esther Charlesworth.

Charlesworth and faculty participating in a mapping workshop, Master of Disaster, Design and Development (MODD) program, RMIT University. Courtesy of Esther Charlesworth.

And does that stand true for your design team work as well? Is there a small group of designers that you have, or do you collaborate with local artisans, craftsmen, or construction workers?

It changes from project to project, but every project has a very small imprint. It requires a shift in thinking. You’ve got to think whether a project is going to be useful, given the future global challenges of our time, from food security to climate change. We need to fundamentally rethink how we practice and how we educate the next generation of designers.

I think the major challenge with your kind of work is that predictability is so low, no matter how much you think ahead of time, you’ve just got to be on your toes.

I think you’re right, but there aren’t many architects who can say their jobs are predictable. I mean the nature of architecture is dispensable. You don’t need an architect. You need a doctor for a surgery, a lawyer for a contract. You don’t need an architect—somebody else can build your house, somebody else can design your courtroom building. So, I think it’s a profession in question.

So, would the term “adaptable” best describe you as a professional?

I’m a nomad, I think. An adaptable nomad!

Finally, what advice would you give to someone seeking to delve into the field of humanitarian architecture?

I think you need to be very good in one area of design or engineering, and you need to have work experience to be useful to anyone. “Saving the world,” unfortunately, doesn’t go far without useful skills. In working with vulnerable communities, you need varied knowledge—just being good at design isn’t very useful in and of itself. You need to know about water and sanitation, or about disaster mitigation, or sustainable technology development in a niche area—then you will be useful to the humanitarian sector.


Originally published on En Pointe, an interview series from Point Line Projects.

Point Line Projects is an editorial and curatorial agency specializing in architecture and design. We produce high-quality books and exhibitions, offering writing, research, editing, agent, consulting, and design services to shepherd projects from concept to completion. With a special interest in promoting new and underrepresented voices, Point Line Projects works to encourage thoughtful, critical, and engaged discourse around art, architecture, and the design professions. 

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