Building Dignity in War-Torn Sudan: Part 2

This is the second of a four-part installment of my article on Studio TAMassociati and their Pediatric Center in Port Sudan for the new PUBLIC Journal, the first publication dedicated solely to public interest design and architecture. Read the first part on the studio here.

In this post, we discover how the history, culture, and architecture of the evoloving Port Sudan inspired the design of the new Pediatric Center for Emergency. Plus a partnership with an artist brings a unique perspective to the project. 



tamassociati’s most recently completed healthcare facility continues to fulfill Emergency’s “outrageously beautiful” design mandate. Adopting typical Arab building principles and forms observed throughout Sudan, the gleaming white Pediatric Center, which provides free healthcare to children under 14 years of age, wraps around a central garden, providing a place of peace and rest to a rapidly emerging refugee neighborhood in Port Sudan.

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The city sits on the edge of the Red Sea as Sudan’s main port, drawing tourists for scuba-diving and sandy beaches, as well as devout Muslims for the once-in-a-lifetime ‘Hajj’ pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In recent years, Port Sudan has been inundated with an enormous amount of refugees escaping surrounding areas fraught with conflicts, draughts, and instability, for the work available at the active port. This influx of residents has grown the population from 30,000 inhabitants in 2000, to nearly 500,000 in 2007—a population increase of just over sixteen fold in a matter of seven years.

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In order to accommodate these new residents, makeshift refugee settlements sprouted towards the edges of the city, creating isolated, underserved suburbs of raw earth huts and not much else. “When we [went] there it was a very desperate situation. It was the middle of the desert. Nothing around. There was a school but [it was] very poor and desperate. It was great to design a hospital but it needed something more,” recalled Pantaleo.

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The solution to address this deficiency was to create a public park around the Pediatric Center, along with a healing garden–a tamassociati trademark–and a sports field to fill in the 54,000 square foot site.  As one enters the site through the public park, which contains some of the only trees in the surrounding area, the main entrance to the 8,400 square foot, single story facility greets visitors with a blend of familiar materials.


Four traditional materials—coral stone, brick, wood, and bamboo—found in old and new Sudanese buildings, are composed like a three-dimensional quilt on the front facade. Fragments of coral stone, which have all but disappeared from local quarries, were repurposed from demolished buildings and used to complement the masonry cavity walls, constructed with locally manufactured bricks. Sixteenth century Ottoman-era buildings found in the center of Port Sudan brought inspiration for large, wooden lattice screens, which were originally used to allow women to observe activity on the streets without being seen. These organic screens offset against the white monolithic masonry walls provide ventilation and privacy to the entrance hall.


As visitors move through the exterior hall and enter the building, they are met with serene white walls and a warm gray floor covered with a barrel vault ceiling painted in shades of blue, altogether creating a cool, calming effect in comparison to the arid, dusty desert outside. Patients traverse through a single circulation artery, which unfolds into rooms containing three outpatient clinics, a 14 bed inpatient ward, a 4 bed intensive care ward, diagnostic exam rooms, and a pharmacy. Although openings have been minimized to avoid sun exposure, the lightness and airy feeling within the spaces provide enough ambient light to minimize the need for electric lighting. The architects’ careful selection and combination of materials paired with an easily navigable spatial layout creates a sanctuary of restoration and rehabilitation—an oasis of calm in an area of chaos.

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Along with the architecture team incorporating Sudanese architectural tradition through material selections and the building form, the burgeoning area’s recent history (largely transformed by the new hospital) was documented by a unique artistic partner who elevated the level of participatory design for the Pediatric Center.

Italian artist Massimo Grimaldi, an avid collaborator and supporter of Emergency’s efforts, saw the new hospital in Sudan as the perfect subject for creating a useful piece of art. He wrote in his artist’s statement,

My work explores the nature of what we call ʻartʼ, the way that it is perceived, judged, and understood. It is an ongoing investigation of the criteria used to produce and circulate images, the power and limitations of aesthetic speculation, the possibility of redefining it in an ethical way. My desire to rethink the basic utility of my role as an artist, in an art system that is so often self-absorbed and vacuous, has led me to collaborate with EMERGENCY…

As Grimaldi’s fourth and largest collaboration with Emergency, the Pediatric Center in Port Sudan was the focus for his submission to the MAXXI Museum’s 2per100 Award—an annual competition that adheres to Italy’s ‘2% law’, which requires all public organizations who construct new buildings to devote a minimum of 2% of the construction costs to the production of artwork. Upon submission into the international competition, Grimaldi was awarded the top prize, which included an exhibition space on the museum’s main exterior wall and an award of €700,000–92% of which he donated to cover the cost of the hospital’s construction. Grimaldi then relocated to Sudan’s port city to join the team and photographed the entire design and construction process for the Pediatric Center.


Upon his return from Sudan, Grimaldi arranged a large-scale photo exhibition on the exterior of the MAXXI’s main entrance. Images of Sudanese people, the urban landscape, and the completed hospital transported Italian passersby to a distant, foreign place. Along with the captivating image display, the MAXXI Education Department collected drawings donated by Roman children that were given to each Sudanese child as they were discharged from the Pediatric Center, like an artistic interpretation of pen pals. Emergency and Grimaldi continue to work together to replenish the supply of drawings so all children who stay at the center continue to receive a drawing.

Grimaldi’s generous gift and artistic eye were not his only contribution to the project. “He would talk to people, play with the children, take photographs, and participatein some activities, like gardening–he loves gardening,” Pantaleo reflected. “I was talking a lot with him while we were there on site. He wasn’t interfering [with] the aesthetics of the building but rather was focused on the concept. He was very involved in the idea of transforming the hospital into a public park.”


Construction began with clearing the site and leveling the ground. Once the area was prepped, it was immediately overtaken by local children playing a game of football (soccer). After seeing this reaction, Pantaleo and his team knew transforming the hospital’s site into a public garden, playground, and sports field was exactly what the local residents needed most, making the hospital just a small part of the bigger community space. And with Grimaldi leading the enthusiasm for gardening, the local community has created a thriving green area amongst a brown field of desert.


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For all you designers interested in the technical details of the building, next week we’ll look at the mechanical and plumbing systems designed for efficiency and longevity in this arid climate where temperatures oftentimes exceed 120°F and “The Haboob” dust cloud suffocates Port Sudan.

Image sources: Massimo Grimaldi for Emergency NGO and Raul Pantaleo, Studio TAMassociati

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