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86 | Disaster, Design and Development

Dr. Esther Charlesworth is a Professor in the School of Architecture and Design at RMIT University, where she founded the Master’s of Disaster, Design and Development [MoDDD] program. In addition she is the Director of the Humanitarian Architecture Research Lab [HARB], and the founder of Architects Without Borders.

86 | Disaster, Design and Development

In 1998, Charlesworth started Architects Without Frontiers (AWF). AWF was founded as a way to recognize the role of design disciplines in the way cities and communities are structured after a crisis or natural disaster, or in response to a pandemic. In essence, AWF acts as a consultancy, linking clients with design needs with “network partner” firms that collectively fund AWF’s $120,000-$150,000 annual budget and take on the work as part of their own corporate social responsibility efforts. The goal is to ensure that high-quality design skills are put to use to solve the problems of poor people, not just the wealthier ones.

Projects so far include a disability day center for children in Vietnam, a resource center for a rural women’s group in Fiji, and an Aboriginal arts and culture precinct in Maningrida in Arnhem Land. AWF recently started work on developing a center for teenage girls subjected to sexual violence in Tanzania’s former capital, Dar Es Salaam, and has just completed a small renovation of a women’s crisis center in Northern Melbourne suburbs.

In addition, in 2015 Charlesworth founded RMIT University’s Masters of Disaster, Design and Development [MoDDD] program in Melbourne, Australia– a mostly online graduate degree (open to non-designers from Australia and internationally) that seeks to transform the careers of both designers and non-designers through transitioning their careers into the disaster management and humanitarian sectors.

Charlesworth is the author of seven books on the theme of social justice and architecture, including Divided Cities (2009), Humanitarian Architecture (2014) Sustainable Housing Reconstruction (2015), and the soon-to-be-published Design For Fragility: 13 Stories of Humanitarian Architecture (2022).

We had a chance to speak with Dr. Charlesworth on Social Design Insights, join her and our host, Eric Cesal in conversation.


Social Design Insights would like to thank all those who make our weekly show possible: Baruch Zeichner, our Producer and Sound Engineer, Donna Read, for producing our video content, and Leah Freidenrich, Director of the Curry Stone Foundation. Our theme music for 2018 is "Alright With Me" by Reggie Young from his album "Young Street."The break music for this episode is "Dingo Hang Dog Blues" by Bullamakanka from their album "Bullamakanka."