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Curry Stone Foundation Director of Educational Initiatives and Social Design Insights Host Eric Cesal and Social Design Circle Honoree Esther Charlesworth included in ABC Australia’s coverage of “activist architects”.


The children in Dien Ban, in Vietnam, are paying for a war before their time.

They were born with disabilities blamed on Agent Orange, the herbicide and defoliant used by American forces during the war.

“Their lives were relegated to the back rooms of the house … they had no future or hope,” says Esther Charlesworth, the founder of Architects Without Frontiers (AWF).

AWF designed a disability day care centre for the children, “the first of its kind” in South-East Asia.

“This centre has enabled them to get physiotherapy treatment, occupational health. It’s given them and their families a future and a life,” Professor Charlesworth says.

“It’s one building, but it’s affected about 3,000 people.”

She is among a growing breed of architects working in a field that’s variously dubbed “humanitarian”, “activist” or “disaster relief” architecture.

It sees architects stepping out from behind their drawing boards to redesign and rebuild in areas of need across the globe.

“I think we can, working with other disciplines, play a really essential role in rebuilding communities after social marginalisation, economic vulnerability, natural disasters and war,” says Professor Charlesworth, who also leads the Humanitarian Architecture Research Bureau (HARB) at RMIT University in Melbourne.

AWF has designed 42 projects in 10 countries, from remote Indigenous communities in Australia to an orphanage in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul.

“Given the millions of people affected by disaster and probably the thousands of lawyers, engineers, doctors and logistical workers in this space, there are actually very few architectural designers I come across,” Professor Charlesworth says.

‘A call to arms’

Eric J Cesal had worked in commercial practice and was undertaking his master’s degree when Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005.

It ravaged areas from central Florida to eastern Texas, with an estimated 1,245 people dying in the storm and subsequent flooding.

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AUDIO: Architects are putting their skills to use in disaster zones. (Late Night Live)
Mr Cesal travelled to the disaster zone to volunteer, and has since seen architecture on a “completely different level”.

“Hurricane Katrina was like a call to arms for me,” says Mr Cesal, the special projects director for the Curry Stone Foundation.

“I got to understand … how good architecture saves lives and bad architecture costs them.

“I never looked back — once I started doing that I never returned to commercial practice.”

Bamboo and mud

Only a few months after Hurricane Katrina, in October 2005, a magnitude-7.6 earthquake struck the disputed South Asian region of Kashmir.

Pakistan’s first female architect, Yasmeen Lari, “rushed to the area”.

“I didn’t know if I could do anything. I’d never done this kind of work, but once I got there I felt ‘this is something that I really want to do’,” says Ms Lari, who founded the non-profit Heritage Foundation with her husband in 1980.

More than 85,000 people are estimated to have died in the quake and about 500,000 families were affected.

Ms Lari designed a shelter with locally available materials, like bamboo and mud, which were cheap and have a low carbon footprint.

In the past, she’d worked for big corporations like Pakistan’s state oil company.

Now, with her UN-recognised NGO, she has been focusing on humanitarian relief work and conservation projects around Pakistan.

“It’s been a long journey, but it’s been very interesting and very rewarding work,” she says.

Widespread poverty in Pakistan, coupled with recurring disasters, makes humanitarian architecture vital, Ms Lari says.

“Every year we are either hit by earthquakes or floods,” she says.

“We need a holistic approach to deal with shelter, water sanitation, stoves for women — it’s really a whole package.”

No quick-fix
Mr Cesal says architects aren’t trained to work in disaster zones, so nothing can prepare them for it — except “doing it”.

He says when architects arrive in a disaster zone the first task is to find people shelter, then rebuild structures to be more resilient and sustainable.

Architects are both “a first responder and last responder”, Mr Cesal says.

“You’re there for years, or decades in some case, rebuilding these places.”

Professor Charlesworth says architects are just one part of a wider solution.

“It’s never just architecture. It’s the capacity of architects, planners, urban designers to ask questions and look towards long-term development plans, rather than quick-fix strategies,” she says.

Mr Cesal says in the past, these quick-fix strategies by the global aid community have created dependence, rather than self-determination.

“I have always favoured long-term development,” he says.

“You want these communities to be reconstituted as the sort of communities that you would want to live in.”

Ms Lari says her “humanistic barefoot social architecture” approach teaches people to build better homes by themselves, using simple techniques and local materials.

“We’re talking with people who really have nothing and seeing how you can bring them up and make them self-reliant,” she says.

Rethinking design to combat climate change

Ms Lari believes architects need to take a lead on climate change. She only works with “mud, lime and bamboo”.

“It is very interesting to change from using materials that were highly energy-consumptive like clay and concrete, and now using very sustainable green materials,” she says.

“Everywhere we have disasters we build structures … that add to global warming and carbon emissions.”

Mr Cesal agrees, and says architects need to “radically rethink” the way cities are organised in the face of climate change.

“And that may include redesigning many of the buildings, it may include redesigning the cities, it may include a managed retreat from the coastlines,” he says.

“The next evolution for architects, in terms of the way that they see the world, is to join the global conversation about the better world we all need, as opposed to fulfilling a client-service role.”