An “extraordinary act of philanthropy” is how Professor Alec Tzannes described Judith Neilson’s $10 million endowment to the Faculty of Built Environment.

“Her generous gift to UNSW represents a groundbreaking commitment of global significance for the research, teaching and public debate of architecture with the specific social purpose of improving the lives of displaced and disadvantaged people,” the Dean said.

The Judith Neilson Chair in Architecture will take the lead in researching the design of affordable housing for the tens of millions of people displaced by natural disasters, geo-political conflicts, and economic and environmental factors.

Ms Neilson – founder and director of Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery, which is home to one of the world’s most significant collections of Chinese contemporary art – said she was motivated to invest in research to investigate how architecture and design could be used as a powerful force for change.

“We have massive populations who move to temporary housing that they end up living in for years and that in no way meets their needs. Giving people whose lives have been shattered the opportunity to live in affordable dwellings that have been thoughtfully and sustainably designed with enduring materials can help improve their quality of life.”

It is important for me to ensure the next generation of architects has as many opportunities as possible to learn from the best.

The donation closely followed the announcement of the Seidler Chair in the Practice of Architecture, funded by a gift from architect, businesswoman and arts patron Dr Penelope Seidler. UNSW’s Pritzker Prize–winning lecturer Professor Glenn Murcutt is the inaugural recipient of the Chair.

“We salute Penelope’s philanthropy in funding the first endowed Chair of its kind in Australia dedicated to advancing design education through leadership in professional practice,” said Professor Tzannes.

“This investment is recognition at the highest level of our commitment to excellence in design studio education and to ensuring our students have access to the best practitioners and inspiring teachers.”

Dr Seidler, whose husband, Harry Seidler, was UNSW’s first Visiting Professor in Architecture in 1980, has also funded a PhD scholarship and an international design studio for graduating students.

The Judith Neilson Chair in Architecture

UNSW’s research record in the Built Environment, along with the Dean’s vision of the power of research to transform lives, made the faculty a natural fit for this endowment, Judith Neilson says.

“Architecture is often the domain of the very privileged, but it’s much more than that. We’re talking about socially transformative design and bringing about policy change.

“I feel very strongly about contributing to a greater culture of philanthropy in Australia. There’s a big element of luck in being wealthy – I believe people have a responsibility to give back,” she says.

Professor Alec Tzannes says the Chair positions UNSW as a centre of excellence in Australia and internationally for architecture for a social purpose. “The level of funding gives UNSW the opportunity to recruit at the highest levels and build a critical mass of scholars and students in a way not currently seen in Australia.”

The faculty is honoured to be entrusted as the “custodian of Judith’s vision to build new knowledge in architecture and to promote the education of future generations of architects”, he says.

Ms Neilson’s gift will also fund an annual public lecture.

Read more about the motivation behind Judith’s philanthropy in Conversation with Edmund Capon at