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Designing for Dignity

Launch of Esther Charlesworth & John Fien, Design for Fragility: 13 Stories of Humanitarian Architecture, (Routledge, 2023), Melbourne, 16 May 2023

The word that kept leaping out at me when I was reading about the 13 brilliant schemes whose story Esther Charlesworth and John Fien tell in this book, was not so much ‘fragility’ — though that makes an evocative title, accurately describing the context in which each project was conceived and executed – but ‘dignity’.

Whether the project involves vulnerable children (‘Design for Fragility and Children’); or adults made vulnerable by maternal and other health issues (‘Design for Fragility and Health’); or families made desperate for shelter by natural disaster, ethnic violence or poverty (‘Design for Fragility and Housing’ ); or whole communities feeling unjustly treated and left behind in the rush for progress (‘Design for Fragility and Justice’) – and the book ranges over projects in all these four contexts – what is striking about all the architectural solutions described is the sensitivity with which they respond to the humanity of the individuals involved.

This is not design by numbers, formulaic design, design for profit, design for show – it’s deeply personal design, responding to deeply personal human needs, and recognising the individuality, and agency, the inherent human dignity, of those who will be living, working, playing or being treated or assisted in the spaces being created.

It’s design which is not imposed on those for whom the buildings are created but grows out of close and intensely respectful consultation during the creation stage, and often direct participation in the execution stage.

And it’s design which recognises that even the most utilitarian, most modest, and necessarily most cheaply-constructed, buildings should strive to avoid ugliness - to be as beautiful as they possibly can be. To recognize that people have not just basic material needs but psychological, spiritual and aesthetic ones as well – to recognise, again, their inherent human dignity – is important everywhere, but never more so than for those individuals and communities who are distressed and demoralized by the various unhappy hands that fate has dealt them.

This is all, of course, what humanitarian architecture is all about, this field that Esther Charlesworth has made very much her own, and has done so much to promote with her founding of Architects Without Frontiers twenty years ago, her extraordinary dedication to building a regional and global network of design agencies with a similar commitment, and her prolific writing, including her book Humanitarian Architecture: 15 Stories of Architects Working after Disaster, which I had the pleasure of launching in 2014.

For those of you who might be a bit puzzled about how an old political has-been like me, with no professional qualifications remotely related to architecture, came to be even marginally engaged in this enterprise, I won’t repeat at any length the story I told at that launch nine years ago. But basically it comes down to two things:

  • my long exposure around the world, in successive professional role, to crisis and conflict and grinding poverty, including in Australian Indigenous communities, which have made me acutely aware of their often devastating human consequences; and
  • the fact that I’ve always been a bit of an architectural junkie – with all my birthdays coming at once when I spent several weeks, back in 1980 as a very junior parliamentarian (because none of my ALP colleagues wanted the job) sitting alongside Australia’s then enfant terrible John Andrews and the global super-star IM Pei judging the international design competition for the new Parliament House. IM and I remained good friends for the rest of his long life, and listening to him to talk, as I often did in my visits to New York, about his own design principles, and how he married the interplay of mass, and space, and light with the demands of functionality, was like having a decades long private master-class.

Of course it’s a long way from grand public buildings in the world’s capitals, ‘high design’ of the kind IM Pei made his own, to the kind of structures that Esther and John and their fellow humanitarian architects – including Brett Moore, who has done such superb work for UNHCR, and with whom I’m delighted to be sharing this launch today – have been engaged in creating. But I vividly remember IM emphasizing over and again how crucial it was to get the human dimension right in every architectural project, whatever its scale. And there could be no architectural contexts in it is more crucial to get the human dimension absolutely right than those situations of acute fragility, and vulnerability, with which this book is concerned.

The focus here is wider, and gives a broader focus to the concept of ‘humanitarian architecture’ than just the full-on man-made and natural disasters that were the central preoccupation of Esther’s previous big compilations of project stories. As Brett describes it in his Foreword, we have to recognize that needs and fragility, are everywhere – in our cities and towns, rural areas and countrywide – ‘not relegated to only the global south’, and with that comes the need to recognize ‘adequate habitation and living conditions as a human right’.

But wide as Esther’s lens now is, there are plenty of continuities with her earlier work on disaster response that are evident in the underlying storyline of her and John’s new book. Among those themes that stood out for me:

  • The relevance to this wider array of challenges of the practical skillsets that all good architects bring to projects – an understanding of technology, materials, planning, organizing, scheduling and liaising with authorities;
  • The importance in this context of the spatial awareness, aesthetic and design skills, the focus on creating beauty, that all good architects bring to projects, whatever their scale: as Esther and John put it so succinctly in their Introduction, ‘poverty does not exclude aesthetics’;
  • The irrelevance of cookie-cutter solutions to humanitarian architecture challenges: the need for intensive, sustained consultation with local people, the use so far as possible of local materials, and the employment so far as possible in the execution of these projects of the people who will benefit from them;
  • Recognition that good humanitarian architecture practice means architects leaving their egos at home, accepting that getting in place low cost, and hopefully easily replicable schemes, may mean foregoing big, visible, signature flourishes of the kind that have traditionally been the pathway to professional success and reward;
  • The importance of humanitarian architecture, the rewards it brings for the communities it benefits, and the rewards in terms of deep personal satisfaction it brings to those who practice it, being more widely recognized, not least by new entrants to the profession and those engaged in educating, training and employing them.

Esther and her colleagues have done as much, if not more than, anyone in the world – not just in Australia – to inspire and foster that recognition and understanding of the nature and importance of humanitarian architecture, and to ensure that it gets the place in the professional sun it so richly deserves.

With this new book – beautifully written, designed and produced, and a credit to its publisher, Routledge, and all who contributed to it – Esther and John have taken that inspiration to a new level, and I am delighted to declare it duly launched.