Building Dignity in War-Torn Sudan: Part 1

This is the first 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. Available in both print and digital formats, it’s a must-have for anyone looking for in-depth articles on people and projects who are leading this movement (and I’m not just saying that because I wrote one of the articles ;)–I mean it!)

It was an absolute delight to interview the firm’s partner Raul Pantaleo, who’s humility, design ethos, and commitment to third sector clients is an example that all social impact, humanitarian, and public interest designers can learn from. Their story brings to light the raw humanity that exists in this field and the reason why I constantly surround myself with these types of designers.

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Picture this scenario—you and your closest relatives have just moved to a foreign area in your country. The promise of work, and the desperate search to find it, has lead you here in order to feed the people you care about most.  With metal scraps, tree branches, and other materials that you scavenged from the roadside, you made a hut to provide shelter from the harsh environment—heat, wind, disease, maybe even some neighbors.  As you walk to fill jugs from a distant well, clouds of dust make your eyes water and your throat scratchy, leaving a reddish coat on your clothes and skin. Inside some huts you pass, people lay on reed mats, alone and recovering from some sickness. Children weave in and out amongst neighboring shelters, kicking a soccer ball, coughing, hungry.

For some, this is the reality of living in Sudan.

Thousands of miles away in their cozy Venetian garden studio, a team of architects from tamassociati is working on a new hospital design for a community such as this.  From organizing room adjacencies, drafting up plans and elevations, and selecting materials, their decisions will have a profound influence on the health, well-being, and vitality of this Sudanese community. And unlike some of their disconnected, first-world contemporaries, who’ve never seen or experienced such a place (like many projects sprouting up in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East), this consortium of architects is refreshingly unique.

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Founded in 1996 by Raul Pantaleo, Massimo Lepore and Simone Sfriso, tamassociati has been designing healthcare facilities since 2004 in some of the world’s most war-torn countries, including Sudan, Sierra Leone, the Central African Republic, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The firm has grown over the past fifteen years, keenly focusing on social-oriented design for the “third sector,” a term which loosely encompasses non-profits, non-governmental, and voluntary organizations. The studio’s first healthcare project in Sudan came in 2004, when the Italian NGO, Emergency posted an opening for a site construction managerial position. “I made an application and then that started the adventure,” chuckled tamassociati partner and senior architect Raul Pantaleo.

After being notified of his selection, Pantaleo moved to Sudan’s western Darfur region for six months in order to oversee the renovation of an operating theater. By working and living amongst the people served by the hospital, tamassociati and Emergency discovered they shared many of the same guiding principles, and a relationship was solidified.

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Emergency was founded in 1994, on the ethos of promoting peace, solidarity, and respect for all humans.  The non-profit builds hospitals and trains local staff in providing free medical treatment to victims of war, landmines, and poverty.  As one of the largest Italian NGOs, the organization operates in 16 countries and has served over 5 million people.  Since their first project in Darfur, tamassociati found in Emergency a value-aligned partner with a shared vision about the power of architecture in its ability to transform people’s lives. “We bring to Africa a hospital that sends a message,” said Emergency’s Program Coordinator Pietro Parrino. “And that is to recognize equal dignity and equal rights.” Every Emergency health facility adheres to these two values, not to mention one other simple requirement that tamassociati satisfied with ease—quality design.

Near the end of the renovation project in 2004, Pantaleo was approached about designing Emergency’s second health center in Sudan, which came to him as a shock. “I had a meeting with the director and he asked me if I was able to design a heart center. I said, ‘Gino, look, I have never designed a hospital in my life.’ He said, ‘That’s perfect! It just has to be outrageously beautiful.’ That was the mandate.”

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Now with seven healthcare facilities designed, built and fully operating around the world, tamassociati has established a thriving cross-continental work methodology. This entails having one designer living onsite, absorbing the place, people, and needs, while a team in Italy translates the experience into the building’s design through drawings, modeling, and continuous feedback. “You have to live there, you have to be part of the organization… It’s not something that you can just apply to as an architect,” explains Pantaleo about the absolute need of an embedded presence on the project site. “You have to be aware of the people. You have to speak with the people.”

Next week we’ll get an inside look into how tamassociati translated the current situation in Port Sudan into an elegant health facility, along with how a unique team member brought a fresh perspective to the design.

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

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2 Responses to Building Dignity in War-Torn Sudan: Part 1

  1. […] dedicated solely to public interest design and architecture. Read the first part on the studio here, the second part on the design of the building here, and the third part on the systems design […]

  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. […]

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