Pioneering ‘humanitarian architecture’, promoting and preserving Indigenous Australian culture, and contributing to education – Esther Charlesworth has indeed travelled a long way, forging a distinct identity for herself as an architect who believes architecture can be an ethical tool for social change.

Dr Charlesworth is a professor in the School of Architecture and Urban Design at RMIT University, and also the academic director of the Master of Disaster, Design and Development degree, a study programme set up by her to equip students with the skills and knowledge to become humanitarian architects.

Following an architecture degree from RMIT and a stint with the City of Melbourne as a senior urban designer, she completed her Masters Design of Architecture and Urban Design at Harvard University in 1995, as well as her Doctorate of Philosophy at the University of York (UK) in 2003.

While studying for her Masters at Harvard, she gave up a prized internship at IM Pei’s New York office to spend a summer working with an international team of architects on the rebuilding of Mostar, a war-ravaged city in Bosnia as part of an Aga Khan Trust project. This was her first exposure to the role of design in humanitarian crises affecting conflict and disaster areas, and a major turning point in her professional career.

Together with Beau Beza and Garry Ormston, Dr Charlesworth founded Architects Without Frontiers (AWF) in 1998 as a design not-for-profit organisation committed to transforming lives in communities affected by disasters or conflicts by improving the built environment.

Twenty-two years later, the organisation continues to make an impact in several countries across the world, working collaboratively with local partners on health, education and community projects that deliver long-term benefits. During this period, AWF has designed and helped build 43 health and education projects in 15 countries, primarily in the Australian and Asia Pacific regions.

From rebuilding communities and schools in tsunami-hit Sri Lanka, developing shelters in Afghanistan for women and children left destitute by the decades-long conflict, masterplanning a new campus in Tanzania for at-risk Maasai girls, creating low-budget designs for preschool centres and planning a green campus for special needs children in India, developing a masterplan for a school and orphanage in Uganda, to designing a state-of-the-art education centre and museum for bushfire prevention and recovery, AWF has put into practice, their belief that architecture can be a powerful tool to address humanitarian crises globally.

Working with architects who provide pro-bono services as well as facilitating funding for community projects through various agencies, AWF leverages their partner network to make a difference in the lives of communities in distress through good, sustainable design.

“Architecture is not a static object. We must factor in issues of risk – ecological, geological, political, social – and adopt a transdisciplinary mode of designing and delivering projects. We must then seek out the multiple narratives of the impact the designs, through diverse social, health, and education projects, have on people's lives,” says Dr Charlesworth.

In recognition of her contribution to education and humanitarian architecture as well as her work with Indigenous communities, Dr Charlesworth was included in the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours List as a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).

She has also authored seven books including Divided Cities (2009), Humanitarian Architecture (2014), and Sustainable Housing Reconstruction (2015). 

Image source: Architects Without Frontiers