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Humanitarian Architecture

Launch by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC, Chancellor of The Australian National University of Esther Charlesworth, Humanitarian Architecture: 15 Stories of Architects Working After Disaster (Routledge, London & New York, 2014), Melbourne, 12 August 2014

When Esther Charlesworth asked me some time ago to become Patron of Architects Without Frontier, and now to launch this book, I guess there were a few boxes that I might seem to have ticked, but one that I very obviously did not.

On the one hand:
-  As Australia’s Foreign Minister for eight years I had ministerial responsibility for an aid program that was constantly involved in wrestling with the consequences of both natural and man-made disasters.
- As Co-Chair of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, and wearing various hats since, I helped give birth to the new international norm of “the responsibility to protect”, which extends very much to the responsibility to rebuild communities shattered by the man-made disasters of genocide and other major crimes against humanity.
- And as head of the International Crisis Group for ten years after I left Australian politics, I was involved in advising governments, regional organizations and the UN on how to prevent, react to and respond after the event to conflicts and catastrophes in all parts of the world.

The box which, on the face of it, I did not seem to tick, as I am sure that many of you will have noticed, was to have any qualifications, experience or demonstrable interest in architecture.  But what Esther knew, and I guess it’s time to let you into the secret, is that while I remain, professionally-speaking, a rank amateur, with no qualifications whatever, I have for a long time been a bit of an architecture junkie.

It goes back to the time when as a very junior Senator in 1979-80, I was the Parliamentary Opposition’s representative on the jury to choose the winner of the international competition to design Australia’s new Parliament House: no one else in the Caucus having expressed the slightest interest in the role, and with the shellbacks who then made up the majority of my colleagues no doubt regarding it as a poofterish kind of enterprise in which I was welcome to indulge.

As I result I spent some of the most fascinating weeks of my life – and it did take over six weeks in total – as the jury first reduced 329 schemes submitted down to a short list of ten, and then a few months later, judged the final submissions and wrote a full report explaining why we chose Giurgola Thorp as the winner. It was all the functional equivalent of an advanced postgraduate degree in the principles of design, with my tutors being the two extraordinary, world-renowned, architects on the jury – one the Australian enfant terrible (although by then no longer quite so enfant or quite so terrible) John Andrews, and the other IM Pei.

As a result of the relationship we then developed, I have been a friend of IM Pei’s ever since, visiting him in New York at least once a year for the last 30+ years, spending two hours or so each time over dinner, lunch or coffee, discussing – along with how to solve America’s and the world’s political problems – why he did what he did in designing everything from the East Building of the National Gallery in Washington, Kennedy Library, and the Louvre reconstruction, to the Bank of China tower in Hong Kong, Cleveland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,  Miho Museum  outside Kyoto, and his last great work the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha.

So I feel that from the Parliament House jury days onwards I’ve been privileged to sit in on a kind of continuing master-class, from one of the world’s most sophisticated, thoughtful and elegant designers of grand public buildings, as he has talked to me over and again about form and function, about massing volume and creating great spaces, and – overwhelmingly – about the crucial importance of context, physical, social and cultural in determining design solutions.

It’s a long way of course from grand public buildings – what is described in one of her interviews as ‘high design’ – to the kind of building with which Esther Charlesworth and her interviewees and contributors are concerned in this wonderful book we are launching today, but Pei himself got his start in major urban reconstruction projects – working for the New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf - and emphasized to me over and again in our conversations how important it was to get the human dimension right in every architectural project, whatever its nature.

There can be no architectural context in which it is more important to get the human dimension absolutely right than in creating emergency shelters, transitional dwellings then permanent housing for those caught up in earthquakes, floods, fires or other major natural disasters, or – although this is not the primary focus of this book – those displaced or whose communities are shattered by deadly conflict.   While there is a sense in which all architecture should be humanitarian – and some contributors to Esther’s book want to resist for this reason her application of this label just to disaster situations – I think she makes a good case for “humanitarian architecture” being seen as a distinct sub-discipline.

Through the fifteen interviews with humanitarian architects – private practice based, university based and international NGO and development based – which make up the core of the book, there are a number of core themes, five in particular, which recur over and again, and which I for one found quite compelling.

First, professionally trained architects do have practical skill-sets which – although still only beginning to be fully appreciated – are of real utility in post-disaster situations, among them an understanding of science, engineering, technology and materials; planning, organizing, scheduling and managing; and working with legal and governmental constraints.

Second, the spatial awareness, aesthetic and design skills that good architects bring to projects, the ability to create beauty – and perhaps in the most unlikely environments – do add real value to psychologically distressed and demoralized individuals and communities. This is not likely to be a high priority in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, when the overwhelming need is simply the need to provide emergency shelter more or less simultaneously for thousands, and maybe hundreds of thousands, of displaced people. But it certainly becomes very relevant indeed in the transitional and permanent stages of rebuilding and resettlement: one stunning example in the book is Shigeru Ban’s paper-built atelier  in the Oginawa post-earthquake reconstruction.

Third, there are no cookie-cutter solutions to humanitarian architecture problems, and certainly no joy to be found in unventilated polyurethane igloos or converted shipping container ‘future shacks’ that periodically attract attention as  possibly universal solutions to emergency or transitional housing needs. The most successful schemes, in terms of both their affordability and their benefits, are those built around intensive, sustained consultation with local people; the use so far as humanly possible of local materials; and the employment of local people – often in situations where there is no other employment available – in the construction process.

Fourth, humanitarian architects have to leave their egos at home when they go into the field. As Esther notes in her introduction, most architectural students dream of working in a super-star’s practice and taking off from there with signature projects of their own. The kind of mindset that most architects understandably develop during their training is that what matters in getting noticed, getting ahead, being successful, is putting your own visible fingerprints on buildings. Maybe just occasionally humanitarian architects can pull that off – and Shigeru Ban’s paper-tube atelier, almost IM Pei-like in its distinctive refinement and elegance – is an example. But overwhelmingly in post-disaster situations, there is just not going to be the opportunity for personal signatures and fingerprints: what matters will be getting very low cost, easily replicable, schemes in place that will work for the relevant local community.  The rewards may come in World Habitat awards – or getting a chapter to yourself in Esther’s book – but most of the time they will just have to be in the form of the deep personal satisfaction of knowing that one has done something worthwhile well.

Fifth, and finally, a theme recurring in Esther’s book is that humanitarian architecture is not an easy field to get into, or stay in.  Just being keen is not enough to get started– you need, desirably, some specialist training, not easy to get in most architecture schools, and, necessarily, a few years of real practical experience developing basic design and construction management skills. And it’s almost by definition not a very remunerative field: if not employed full-time by an international NGO or intergovernmental organization, or sympathetic university, you are only likely to be able to survive by having a simultaneous profitable private practice. As the Epilogue notes, winning World Habitat Award in 2011 was not enough to stop Paul Photeros losing his Australian government funding slashed that year.
Maybe that lack of general recognition, within and outside the profession, for the quality and importance of the work that humanitarian architects do, is something that will be rectified and remedied by the publication of this book.  Esther, and her collaborators and publishers, certainly deserve to succeed in this respect. She, and they, have done an outstanding job in producing a groundbreaking work in a highly readable and attractive format, one that should and I believe make a real difference in changing the way humanitarian architecture is perceived and supported.  They all deserve our warmest congratulations.

With that, I declare Esther Charlesworth’s Humanitarian Architecture duly launched.