Professor Esther Charlesworth leads the Humanitarian Architecture Research Bureau (HARB) in rebuilding and protecting vulnerable communities displaced by conflict or natural disasters.
Professor, Dr Esther Charlesworth, School of Architecture and Design
Professor Charlesworth’s primary areas of research specialty is sustainable urban design, humanitarian architecture post disaster design and disaster risk reduction.
Esther Charlesworth, a Professor in the School of Architecture and Design, undertook her Masters Degree in Architecture and Urban Design at Harvard University and her PhD at the University of York (UK). She is also the founding Director of Architects without Frontiers (AWF).
"After my graduate studies at Harvard, I got involved in a reconstruction project in Bosnia and met professionals working in war zones including doctors and engineers," she says.
"I saw there was an opportunity for architects to play a role there.
That led me to co-lead a major research project on divided cities (funded by the Macarthur Foundation), which also explored the role of architects in rebuilding communities after disasters."
This led to the founding of Architects without Frontiers (AWF). Professor Charlesworth then lived in Beirut while she did her PhD in this particular area while running AWF.
Architects Without Frontiers has undertaken 39 projects in 12 countries, since 2004 and has been described by ABC journalist Phillip Adams as "destined to develop into one of the greater forces of good on this battered planet".
Professor Charlesworth challenges the idea that architecture is only seen as a series of grand designs for people who can afford the high cost of the service.
"People who are in the greatest need of design have the least access to it. My research focuses on design for the other 90%."
HARB is the first university-based research group in the Asia-Pacific region to focus on the unique role architects and built environment professionals can play in post-disaster areas.
Utilising the disciplines of architecture, landscape architecture, project management and planning, HARB aims to promote humanitarian design and the aid it can offer to communities experiencing extreme poverty and displacement due to conflict or natural disasters.
She has pursued this train of thought in her latest books, which are entitled Humanitarian Architecture: 15 stories of architects working after disaster (2014), and Sustainable housing after disaster (2015) - authored with Dr Ifte Ahmed.
Professor Charlesworth has also pioneered a new postgraduate program at RMIT, the Master of Disaster, Design and Development (MoDDD).
"MoDDD is a combined degree between RMIT Melbourne and RMIT Europe, which has been developed with industry partnerships within the International Federation of the Red Cross and UNHabitat."
Professor Charlesworth is also a recent Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellowship awardee, with a project entitled Architecture on the edge: building sustainable housing for vulnerable communities.
She hopes to extend and expand RMIT’s impressive reputation as a design led university that can help provide inter-disciplinary solutions to the growing global challenges of natural disaster, climate change and mass migration.
"RMIT is known for individual great buildings, but architecture is also about exploring the interdisciplinary aspects of design. For example after disasters it’s never just a group of architects going to work in a destroyed area; there are economists, lawyers, logisticians and health workers that we need to work with.
So it’s about how we work within other disciplinary boundaries. That’s what is needed for the profession as a whole to survive. If we remain in solos we will just become fossils."