Last year we celebrated the 10th anniversary of our Master of International Cooperation Sustainable Emergency Architecture. Over the years, we have built an amazing community within the humanitarian architecture field. The strength of our program lies in our diverse collaborations, and RMIT University has been one of our closest allies to promote design as a strategic tool to help resolve complex global challenges including poverty, conflict, disasters and climate change. 

We spoke to our director Dr Carmen Mendoza Arroyo and Dr Esther Charlesworth, Professor in the School of Architecture and Urban Design at RMIT University and Academic Director of the Master of Disaster, Design and Development degree (MoDDD), about how this fruitful collaboration started, their personal highlights and future plans.

The role of design in emergency and development is the strong focus of your work and research. What influenced you to steer your career path to train young architects to tackle migration, climate change, disaster and rapid urbanization?

CM: My interest has always been in the urban sphere, and how to incorporate the social layer as part of the urban systems in our design practice and interventions in cities, neighborhoods and urban spaces. My PhD, based on a comparison of Barcelona and London as models of regulation and deregulation in urban planning (respectively) during the 1980’s and 90’s, helped me reflect and understand the political and social lens and the actors through which urban models and change can be implemented. My first interest was the exploration of tools and methods that understood these power relations in the urban space, specifically in places without any planning department or formal plans – the informal city –  but where social movements fill this gap and are the changemakers. This theoretical grounding and methodology coincided with work I developed through my architecture firm and projects in Latin America, my continent, but also in the metropolitan region of Barcelona. Urban plans and projects were developed as part of the Neighborhood Act of Catalonia to enhance the urban betterment of socially and physically degraded neighborhoods in this region. Nine years ago when we started directing our Master of International Cooperation Sustainable Emergency Architecture, the urban sphere and its relationship to the emergency and development context became the focus to where to continue exploring these social and spatial methodologies. 

EC:The catalyst for me to get involved in the disaster, design and development sectors was enabled as a graduate student at the GSD at Harvard University in 1994. During that summer break I got involved in an Aga Khan Program (AKP) workshop to rebuild Mostar, a city that had been destroyed during the Balkan wars. My thoughts about furthering my career in the corporate sector of architecture somehow imploded and I wanted to know how I could contribute as a designer in the aftermath of conflict and disaster. There were not many options to do this in the mid 1990’s, no one was discussing ‘humanitarian’ or ‘disaster architecture’ (except maybe Lebbeus Woods) and having met Dr Sultan Barakat during the AKP workshop, who suggested I join his PhD program at the Post War Reconstruction Development Unit at the University of York, I was determined to further explore my interest in cities like Mostar divided by war and conflict initially through doing a PhD there. During this same period 1997-1999, I also set up Architects Without Frontiers (Australia) as the first design not for profit in the Asia Pacific region.

You both have distinguished careers in architectural practice and academia, and established pioneering postgraduate studies in humanitarian architecture and development. What are your experiences as women working in those fields that are usually quite male dominated – considering that gender perspective is also an important aspect of building urban resilience?

CM: I think we are far from reaching gender equality in both the professional and academic field. If you look at who is head of the architecture schools of the world and the leading humanitarian organizations, the balance is way off towards a male dominated sector. However, our classroom is mainly made up of women in our Master which is very hopeful. I still feel as women we are always having to work harder and prove our worth in every sector. I still encounter colleagues which have to be constantly reminded of gender balance for they don’t even acknowledge there is a lack of it. Our Master enhances a feminist perspective and we think that in our field  this perspective facilitates an understanding of how disasters, conflict and migration impact differently men and women.

EC: Earlier on in my career working as a more traditional architect in corporate design firms in Melbourne and in Sydney, there were few role models for women working in the sector and I often felt second best and somehow lost. However in the not for profit, public and academic worlds, I do not feel I have been discriminated against as a woman but of course have many female colleagues who have had terrible experiences in their work, which have forced them out of design education and design profession at large.

Our universities share a close friendship and successful partnership. Some of our favourite memories include the joint international field trips to Ecuador, Greece and Peru. How did this collaboration start and what were the highlights for you so far?

CM: It all started thanks to Esther and the team of RMIT Europe’s invitation to talk about synergies in our programs when the MoDDD was being created. Since then our collaboration has grown, and as a result, our programs are linked, as MoDDD students enrol in our international field trips as an elective to their program. So, for the past years they have been part of our UIC team in these field trips (Chamanga, Thessaloniki and Piura), and their participation has been a great asset, as their backgrounds are diverse which enriches the group with different disciplines and approaches. 

EC: We were lucky for Carmen to invite MoDDD students to enrol in the UIC annual field trips. These trips have been amazing learning experiences for our own students given that the bulk of the MoDDD degree is online and can become a bit lonely for the student cohort dialing into webinars from across the globe but not ‘getting their hands dirty’ on site, so to speak.

Both Master’s programs have their own unique composition with regard to the thematic and geographic focus, organisational structure and educational methods – which leads to a richer experience for our students during our joint activities. What does in your opinion distinguish the two programs and how do they complement each other?

CM: The main difference is that we are a face-to-face program. We are also different in that we focus on teaching professionals from the built environment to work in the humanitarian design field and also have a strong emphasis on the urban scale in this program as we are part of a double degree master program Mundus Urbano with TU Darmstadt, Universite Grenoble Alps and Tor Vergata of Rome. Our differences are a good way of complimenting each other as these years of collaboration have shown. 

EC: As discussed earlier the fundamental difference in the teaching format and design between the two degree is that MoDDD was developed as an online degree from its outset and also caters to mid career professionals (most in their thirties and forties) from a diverse range of social science, business, IT and environmental fields. While approximately 60% of our student cohort come from design, it is not a prerequisite for enrollment.

Over the last years, you also created a forum – the Design, Disaster and Development Research Forum – for European universities in the field of emergency architecture to discuss teaching and research in areas including disaster risk reduction, mass immigration, city resilience and recovery processes in both industrialized and developing countries. The idea behind the forum is to build teaching and research collaborations across European universities and establish an Australian/European university and industry research network on Design, Displacement and Recovery. How important is a strong network of universities and agents to advance the field of research and education in the humanitarian architecture and development field?

CM: This initiative developed by Esther is a wonderful opportunity to continue and expand  research and teaching in these fields with other architecture schools. The topics we teach are still not mainstream, but are starting to be more and more known to other architectural schools, a fact that is great, as it enables there to be more research on tools and methods of implementation from a design perspective.  We are very happy to see that this research forum is expanding and that  industry partners also participate and bring current research needs to the forums. 

EC: I established the Design, Disaster and Development (DDD) Research with Carmen and other academics from Oxford Brookes, UCL and a range of European universities as a way to both share teaching and research in the DDD fields. With RMIT’s Europe campus based  in Barcelona, we were able to host the meetings in Europe and also invite key practitioners in the sector from IFRC, UNHabitat, UNHCR and Catholic Relief Services. This consortium has now grown this year under the leadership of Professor John Fien from MoDDD as we collaborate on an EU grant, to a larger group of 14 design and planning schools working in the complex terrain of training the next generation of humanitarian, disaster and development practitioners.

What joint activities are you currently working on and what is planned for the future?

CM: We are working on presenting a large funding scheme for an  ‘Innovative Training Network’ (ITN) which operates under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie initiative of the European Commission. It brings together (now virtually)  a wonderful group of universities and most importantly great academics and professionals wanting to delve into better research and knowledge transfer in these very important and urgent topics. Our collaboration in this network would never have been possible without the great work and coordination of Esther and John Fien.  

EC: The objectives of our ITN scheme are to develop knowledge and skills in using systems thinking and design thinking (systemic design) to develop resilience and building programs in the fields of:

    •  Disaster Risk Reduction;
    •  Post-Disaster Recovery through
      ‘Building Back Better’;
    •  Refugee Settlement and Re- settlement;
    •  Emergency and Crisis management.

We hope we will work on other future large funding schemes to enable us to continue training the next generation of humanitarian, disaster and development practitioners as well as creating a support network for the growing cadre of European and Asian design schools now teaching and researching in these critical fields.


Images: Field trip to Piura, Peru, courtesy of Universitat de Piura

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