Architect Raul Pantaleo shrugs when talking about how busy TAMassociati, his firm, has become. “Unfortunately,” he says, “business has exploded over the last few years.”
Any architecture and design firm with a growing client base and international billings, like TAMassociati, should be happy. But when your stock in trade is humanitarian construction projects such as hospitals, medical centers, and refugee housing, you don’t see business models and market share in the same way.
“The building is the first message you give people, the first step in the healing process,” Pantaleo says during a discussion of his firm’s philosophy. “It’s a strong message in a war-torn area to say that you believe in a possible future. It’s not about bringing charity; it’s sharing something. Why should I design any different for myself than for the guy having a miserable time in a refugee camp?”
Along with his partners Massimo Lepore and Simone Sfriso, plus a team of eight other designers and architects, Pantaleo doesn’t just build efficient shelters in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sudan, where the firm has worked for more than a decade. (Most notable is the Salam Centre for Cardiac Surgery in Khartoum, Sudan, which won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2013). Beyond promoting sustainability while integrating local styles and materials, the studio collaborates with partners worldwide to bring a sense of beauty to areas where the focus is often on functionality.
“We believe we can create relationships, empathy between the user, the patients, and the building,” Lepore says. “It’s very much about using local technology, craftsmen skills, and native materials. But beyond function, you need beauty. When you welcome someone with beauty, you give a message of hope and respect.”
It’s not an accident that Lepore and Pantaleo talk about architecture’s emotional power in the excited tones of two students, steeped in theory and impatient to change the world. They met in the early ’80s while studying at the University of Venice and working on Utopica, a pan-European periodical dedicated to contemporary theories of architecture, social housing, and public space.
The formative experience of debating and writing about the possibilities of the built environment made the founding of TAMassociati a natural transition. One of its first projects, a curvaceous wooden bank for the socially responsible Banca Popolare Etica in Padua, Italy, tied together themes that inform the firm’s practice to this day: responsible and practical construction, a focus on social welfare, and the elevation of beauty within the constraints of a mostly nonprofit clientele.
The firm’s international footprint began in 2004, when it began a project in Sudan and struck up a long-term partnership with the Italian relief agency Emergency. Finished in 2007, the Salam Centre in Khartoum exemplified the TAMassociati approach. Extensive on-the-ground research (according to Pantaleo, for at least the past 10 years, the team has spent half the year in Africa) gave the team better understanding of local customs and how to design for staff and patients.
A center courtyard covered in tapestry-like walls (made from rope) used traditional craft and employed local artisans to make the design more culturally relevant and site-specific. Adapting local elements—such as the badgir windcatcher, a traditional architectural element from Iran—saves money in the long run and ensures that the building belongs to its location.
“Looking at traditional modes of settlement is pragmatic,” Pantaleo says. “It’s not about catching the style as much as it’s about catching the atmosphere. When you’re working in extreme conditions and have little money, often the easiest option can be the best option.”
With an array of projects across the globe in the works, including the forthcoming new headquarters for the Maisha Film Lab in Uganda and a sustainable eco-village prototype for Senegal, TAMassociati relies on AutoCAD to communicate with local builders in numerous countries. The firm has worked with other programs in the past, but it’s so much easier to work with “the real international standard,” Lepore says, and it’s essential now that TAMassociati is taking on more work.
When he looks at the numerous areas of conflict his company is currently working in, Lepore laments: “It’s a bad world.” But in the same breath, he’s optimistic that his company’s projects and process can make that much more of a difference.
“I spend a lot of time in our hospitals after they’re built,” Pantaleo says. “You’ll see a mother come with her children, feeling comfortable and happy, and you realize architecture is more than walls. We have a clinic with a healing garden that uses some wastewater to grow. The message of planting a tree in a desert area is so strong. It becomes more than just a building.”
TAMassociati is a member of the Autodesk Foundation, the first foundation to focus investment exclusively on the people and organizations using design for impact. Find out more about the field of impact design at www.ImpactDesignHub.org.