Architecture transforming lives

19 August 2015

Esther Charlesworth on site in HaitiEmpowering vulnerable people and communities who may have been marginalised by poverty, conflict or natural disaster and bringing design to the places that need them the most, drives Dr Esther Charlesworth’s professional life.

Esther, an Associate Professor in Architecture with RMIT University, has spent her career trying to dispel the myth that architects’ services are only for the wealthy.

The founder and Executive Director of Architects Without Frontiers (AWF) says it was when she was studying architecture and urban design at Harvard, as part of her Harvard Menzies Scholarship, that her eyes were opened to a different way architects could work to help those who need it most.

Not so much the ‘grand designs’ style of architecture, but architecture with a relationship to public and social justice, particularly in areas of natural disaster or conflict.

Her first experience of this was working in Mostar in Bosnia, where she met up with like-minded professionals working with Engineers without Borders and doctors from Medicine Sans Frontiers; exploring ways to use architecture to help rebuild communities in conflict and disaster zones.

This has fuelled her work ever since, with projects in locations from Afghanistan to Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the tsunami.

Humanitarian Architecture by Esther CharlesworthAWF is now building a women’s resource centre in Fiji and a disability day care centre in central Vietnam was completed in 2012. The centre in Vietnam was built where agent orange in the soil has created a high incidence of physical and intellectual disability amongst many generations of children from this region.

Closer to home, the group built a house and community facilities for an Indigenous Elder on North Stradbroke Island.

“Native title has never been resolved on North Stradbroke, so the Indigenous people have essentially been camping on their land forever,” Esther said.

“This elder saved money from the dole to build and his new house has become a real focal and gathering point for the local Indigenous community.

“We provide for people who most need design but have the least access to it,” Esther said.

“There is a lot of demand. We take on projects that are already funded and where there is a local partner.

“We’ve delivered on 37 projects in 12 countries, keeping the organisational overheads to around 1 per cent. We’ve been able to deliver and transform lives at very low cost.”

Esther says AWF receives great assistance from leading Australian architects who want to give back to the community; “we provide an avenue for them to do that in partnership with donors and key project stakeholders.

“The briefs we receive are always complex, because of the kinds of vulnerability, physical and social-needs where we work.

“I really enjoy the leadership and facilitation role with AWF – I’m good at pulling people together to get projects funded and built with other AWF staff. But we are always keen to have involvement from others.”

The real challenge, Esther says, is keeping the organisation afloat financially. “Funding is for the projects not for keeping the organisation going, so that is always a challenge for us.”

But all of this work with AWF is just a sideline to her full time role as an Associate Professor and head of RMIT’s unique Humanitarian Architecture Research Bureau (HARB) – the first of its kind in Australia, probably the world.

HARB focuses on three platforms – research projects, publications and teaching. From 2016, RMIT will deliver a new degree that Esther has developed; the Master for Disaster and Design and Development, to be offered across RMIT’s Melbourne and Barcelona campuses.

In her spare time Esther has also published four books: Architects Without Frontiers; War Reconstruction and Design Responsibility (2006); Divided Cities: Belfast, Beirut, Jerusalem, Mostar and Nicosia (2009); Humanitarian Architecture – 15 stories of architects working after disaster (2014) and her latest book; Sustainable Housing After Disaster (2015).

For more information on Architects Without Frontiers, visit: