Back to the Ground: Esther Charlesworth at the GSD

Back to the Ground: Esther Charlesworth at the GSD

“Thank you for a painful and inspiring lecture,” said one of the guests during Q&A for Esther Charlesworth’s “War, Disaster and Design Responsibility” lecture at the Harvard GSD. Indeed, the issues she brought up were as painful as they were revelatory and inspiring to a crowd of designers, students and faculty looking for ways to make their own impact.

Charlesworth, who had been invited by Loeb Fellow Brett Moore, ended her lecture with the perhaps too-often-quoted words of Mahatma Gandhi, “be the change you want to see in the world,” yet in her case, this was not misconceived. Her work, spanning the last 20 years after her graduation from the Urban Design program at the GSD, is paradigm changing. It shifts the way architecture and architects operate in the world.

Moore met Charlesworth about four years ago through their mutual interest in humanitarian aid, and she became his mentor, including his work in her recent book “Humanitarian Architecture.” In her talk she told the personal story of her transformation as a designer, educator, and activist in the field of humanitarian aid.

After she took her degree in 1995, she abandoned a plan to intern at a famous practice in New York in favor of working in the Bosnian city of Mostar. Her time there changed the course of her career and led to her first book “Divided Cities.” Inspired by her experiences in Mostar, Beirut, Belfast, Jerusalem and Nicosia she founded “Architects Without Frontiers” and went on to work in other crisis locations – Fiji, Sri Lanka, Haiti, New Orleans and her own homeland, Australia.

“Humanitarian architecture is no longer a hobby, but a full-time job.” Social justice, humanitarian aid, and disaster relief; in the reality of our world, fluctuating daily from climate catastrophes to natural disasters to migration crises, these cannot be things that architects do in their spare time. The cultural, social and ecological conditions have changed and so must we. They require our full engagement, intellect and professional abilities. The “fly in – fly out” approach, which Charlesworth labelled detrimental, still characterizes so much of design practice in crisis situations. It must be supplanted by a hands-on field and onsite approach, which extends and aims beyond the aesthetics of a well-designed solution.

Historically, moments of crisis have always been accompanied by technological leaps and perhaps architectural (and other) revolutions. If there is one thing to take from Charlesworth’s words and story it is this: crisis is no longer a singular moment in time, but an ever-evolving condition happening at multiple scales, locations and times. Our responsibility as designers is not to react to a specific crisis in a specific moment but rather to understand that our role and our practice must inherently change.

“What is good design?” Charlesworth asked and immediately answered, “Water and sanitation are the first things I would imagine.” And so, we are obliged to think of design not in functional terms but in terms of necessity. Her work brings the architect to the very primal core of the profession. Architecture seen this way becomes engaging with a community and meeting the most basic needs.

What greater impact could one ask for?

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