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Architects Without Frontiers.

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Tuesday 10 June 2003

Esther Charlesworth, founder, Architects Without Frontiers (Australia)


Architects without Frontiers  


The idea for the Architects without Frontiers (AWF) organisation developed when I was working, teaching and researching in the cities of Mostar, Berlin, Beirut, Jerusalem and Belfast between 1994-2002. This leap into my post-war odyssey came about almost by chance. In 1993 I was invited to participate in a Mostar reconstruction workshop in Istanbul, facilitated through the Aga Khan Program at Harvard University and MIT. This working group of international architects and students focussed on creating design concepts for the rebuilding of Mostar, a small town destroyed by the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. 


I arrived at that workshop that summer, knowing little about Bosnia, the war which had been raging within its borders, and even less about how architects could be useful in the social reconstruction process after the catastrophe of civil war. Ironically, while we in Istanbul (we couldn’t get into Bosnia at that time) were drawing up seductive drawings of glass and steel structures to replace the famous and fallen Stari-Most bridge, the city had no water, sanitation and adequate housing for the thousand of refugees then flooding Mostar. The great emerging void between the stark reality of the social violence of war-destruction (gained through listening to many personal narratives of the war and observing the sinister ruins of war in the city) and our fictional and highly romantic design attempts to re-configure the city, ultimately set me on the comparative investigative path of other models of post-war reconstruction. 


That summer, working on the Mostar project, also subsequently transformed my view about the future role and capacity of architects and made me aware that providing a final design blueprint or masterplan was not always the solution to the post-conflict chaos. Rather, by way of a better understanding of the multiple social and political causes of the disaster and by viewing architecture as a collaborative and consultative rather than individualistic and object-obsessed profession, the architect’s position in the divided-city scenario could be much more effective: Effective in articulating multi-disciplinary planning and architectural approaches to the dilemma of segregation, partition, and environmental degradation.  



II. What is Architects without Frontiers (AWF)?  


Ten years after my first expose to the post-war field in Mostar, I have set up Architects Without Frontiers with some Aussie colleagues, as a non-government organisation based in Australia. The focus of the group is on assisting in the rebuilding of cities and communities, which have been, devastated by war or natural disaster, specifically using Australian design expertise (architecture, urban design and landscape architecture.) The strategic roadmap for Architects Without Frontiers developed from the experiences of diverse groups of Australian designers and policy makers operating independently in war ravaged communities. These countries included Bosnia, Nepal, East Timor, Lebanon and Cyprus. A series of meetings between those concerned were organised between 2000-2002 to discuss and compare their reconstruction experiences, and debate how Australian architects could contribute effectively to alleviate the accelerating epidemic of war-destroyed cities 


III. Architects Without Frontiers objectives 


The primary objective of Architects Without Frontiers is to assist in the rebuilding of communities devastated by natural or man made disasters and armed conflict, irrespective of race, religion, creed or political affiliation. Other objectives include: 


· Effective use of Australian design expertise in the redesign and reconstruction of post-war and post-disaster communities. 

· Building stronger links between Australian aid agencies and other international development organizations working in the fields of post-war and post-disaster reconstruction. 

· Fostering an exchange of knowledge between Architects Without Frontiers, Australian educational institutions and the people of post-war and post-disaster areas in the reconstruction of their communities.  

· Incorporating sustainable design solutions into the redesign and reconstruction of post-war and post-disaster communities.  


In summary, contemporary architects working on the rebuilding of cities such as Mostar and Dili have an ambiguous role: Is their mandate to act as social reformers or obedient bureaucrats confining their expertise to aesthetic issues of post-war architectonics? The challenge faced by those involved in the Architects Without Frontiers project, we believe, lies in redefining new roles for architects, as mediators, urban peace builders and design politicians rather than architects as ‘heroes’ or ‘artists’ who make seductive but ultimately useless diagrams and ‘cyber-architectural poetry’ for cities after the trauma of war. Architects Without Frontiers thus proposes a potentially more liberating future for architects; as roaming, collaborative and socially responsive mobile agents able to work without frontiers and outside traditional sites and methods of producing architecture.  


Guests on this program:


Esther Charlesworth  

Esther Charlesworth is founding director of Cityedge International Urban Design Series (Australia) and recipient of a USA Macarthur Grant for Security and Sustainability. She set up Architects Without Frontiers (Australia) and is involved with urban planning and design projects on war-devastated sites, from Mostar to Katmandu.