Interview with Simone Sfriso and Raul Pantaleo

The Architectural Ethics of TAMassociati

John Hill
9. April 2020
Children’s Surgical Hospital in Entebbe, Uganda, by Renzo Piano Building Workshop & TAMassociati (Photo courtesy of Emergency NGO)

TAMassociati, based in Venice and with offices in Bologna and Trieste, is working on high-profile projects with Renzo Piano and for the Aga Khan Development Network. But the studio has been active in social design and building sustainably since its inception decades ago. World-Architects recently spoke with two of TAMassociati's three founding partners.

TAMassociati was cofounded by Massimo Lepore, Raul Pantaleo, and Simone Sfriso in Venice in 1996. Their motto, "Taking Care in Architecture," clearly expresses the firm's goals of helping communities, treating resources responsibly, and striving to create beautiful buildings that make a difference. With the studio's firm stance on the role of the architect in society, their portfolio of healthcare projects in Africa and Europe, and their presence in Northern Italy, it made sense to reach out to TAMassociati for their take on architecture in these days of the coronavirus pandemic. World-Architects editor John Hill spoke with partners Raul Pantaleo and Simone Sfriso via Skype. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

"Taking Care," Italian Pavilion at 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale (Photo © Andrea Avezzù)
First, how are you doing and how are you dealing with the situation in Italy?

Simone: In a way we are lucky because we started “smart working” a long time ago, dealing with projects abroad, especially on the African continent and in the Middle East. Also because we have three offices — one in Venice, one in Trieste, and one in Bologna — we were already used to working with Skype conferences and activating our network of contributors, both our partners and the people working with us as well. So no big changes for our working flow at the moment.

The situation is hard in Italy, but not so hard here in Venice, and in Trieste and Bologna as well. We have to be careful; we are all at home and will probably stay at home for one more month. We are going on with our work, but with great attention. I’m lucky because our office is just 700 meters from my house; I’m allowed to go to the office in this very strange condition of a completely empty Venice. We have 30 million tourists a year, but only 40,000 inhabitants. It’s a weird condition.

Raul: Our organization has proven to be very resilient in this situation because over many years we developed a sort of collective intelligence in our creative approach. We have many tools for sharing our creativity since we have been working from a distance for many years. For architects, sometimes the workflow can be very difficult, but for us it didn’t really change anything because we are used to brainstorming on projects from a distance. The fact that we have kind of a satellite structure helps us a lot at this time. For the work we are doing right now — we are working with Arup on a competition for a master plan in Rwanda — we put on the table a our experience of working remotely and dealing with this strange flux of work. Basically we are working all over the world but from home.

I must say this strange experience of staying home, of quarantine, has proven that our organization is very modern. So what looks like — I wouldn’t say weakness — our marginality, in terms of organization and approach, has become crucial in recent years. The world needs to have a big change to move toward an ethical and ecological approach. What happened after the 2016 Biennale [TAMassociati curated the Italian Pavilion, "Taking Care – Designing for the Common Good”] — a growing awareness about the ethical approach — is proving more and more right now to be the right direction. We are working now on a hospital, we are working with an organization that is working on COVID, we are helping to design an emergency hospital, but we are not marketing it. It’s annoying, I must say, to see how architects are marketing themselves through this. We just do it. The ethical approach is to get away from the marketing approach.

Mobile clinic, 2014-present (Photo courtesy of Emergency NGO)
You say you’re working on new projects. Does that mean people are approaching you? Or are you instigating projects yourself?

Raul: We are in that workflow. We got a call on Saturday about a hospital for emergencies and they asked us to help on doctor flow — nothing special, just a service. All our mobile clinics are working toward COVID; they have been working for many years, they are around — because we were there. I have seen a lot of architects that are promoting smart projects — blah, blah, blah, COVID this and that. I don’t want to name names but they are around. If you do it, just do it. You don’t need to market it.

I don’t want to name names either, but recently there was a proposal for extensions to hospitals in Italy to be built out of containers. With your experience in using shipping containers on a project in Sudan, does such a proposal make sense to you?

Raul: Mobile clinics are there, already on the market. The army has been doing it for thirty years. All of the emergency situations are using mobile clinics, not shipping containers. You need to refurbish shipping containers, rip out everything. But you need it now. There’s nothing to design, it’s there, just type in “mobile clinics” and you get hundreds of examples. So what’s the point? It’s a marketing issue. The architects that want to jump on the stage. Now it’s COVID, tomorrow it will be a tsunami, an earthquake, whatever. I rather like the designer who just designs jewelry, doing it well and in an ethical way. They don’t need to behave like “Wow, I’m trying to help.” That’s an ethics issue about design.

In terms of design, something that needs a Compasso d'Oro are these guys that adapted these snorkel masks with a valve.

Simone: It was a diving mask already on the market and in sports shops. And somebody had the good idea to transform the cheap masks into something else. That’s a brilliant idea. What Raul was talking about with the containers is that maybe before doing something, maybe you can find something that is more affordable and more convenient and already on the market. Why do you have to do it? We have worked with containers, but in a different context, in Sudan for a housing compound. We decided to work with them because end-of-life containers were available, so they were the most affordable approach. But the first thing to do is ask, “Is there something already available? Can I do something better — or not?” Otherwise it’s just advertising, as Raul was saying.

Raul: Shipping containers are not cheap. We succeeded doing something cheap because we had them available, we didn’t have an alternative, and the labor in Sudan was very cheap. But the smart containers on magazines, what they call low-cost … That is what annoys me about this stream of social engagement in architecture. It’s good, but we have to be realistic. Good design is design that faces reality. I challenge a team to design a house that’s $100 per square meter. It’s difficult, but it’s a challenge if you want to be engaged. This should be the occasion to stress the idea that if we want to act and be present, we have to be hooked into the reality. And reality is also resources, and resources are also money. The mask provides a great example: it’s a great design using very little resources. 

I always put together ethic, economy, ecology. They have the same roots and same goals. Hopefully that’s what can happen in the future. Otherwise we’ll go on again as business as usual. But there’s no time for business as usual.

Container medical compound, Sudan, 2009 (Photo © TAMassociati)
With your knowledge of how the health care system in Italy works, are there any recommendations you have for those architects who really want to help?

Raul: In terms of emergency, our role as architects is really marginal. The hospital they did inside the Milano Fiera, it’s a nice surprise, somebody there had a clue about design. Basically, in these cases the main role is the engineer. Architects have a challenge to be in the process, but it starts earlier. Maybe starting from the university, we need to build up a new generation of architects who are able to be part of the process. But now we are not part of the decision making. 

Maybe not everything is consumption; there are issues that are not consumable. So I think we should take a step back, be more silent, be more careful with what we say, to use the word sustainability in a proper way. It’s exactly the contrary of what’s happening. The next crisis will force us to be in that direction; there will be no time for marketing, no space for sustainable design that costs double. Resources will be less, there’s no way. We should be prepared. Ourselves, we are prepared, it’s nothing new for us. 

Simone: We have to return to the idea of the architect as a sort of civil servant. We are living in this very difficult condition of shared vulnerability. I really don’t like to say that a crisis is an opportunity — I hate this definition because a crisis is just a crisis — but we have to learn how to do things in a better way after a crisis. From the other side — as architects and designers —we have to work on projects that are responsible models of reducing consumption and pursuing an idea of appropriateness, in terms of use of materials, relations with places, and the needs of the social context where we are called to work. I think this is really important for us as architects and responsible designers for the future.

In my point of view it’s a place where we have to make a connection between environmental justice and social justice. Raul was talking about our role as architects. Maybe it’s a marginal role, but we don’t have to forget the important task of designing beauty. We should give it an appropriate word. Beauty means appropriateness. There is a very nice quote by Giancarlo De Carlo, a master Italian architect, that beauty is the purpose of design but what is really important is the process that brings you to produce beauty. We can read beauty in terms of necessity, appropriateness, responses to needs of places and communities.

La casa di Altromercato: new headquarters for fair trade in Italy, ongoing (Image © TAMassociati)
In regards to working in Africa, there’s this notion that architects from Europe, the United States and other places bring their expertise to places affected by conflict, poverty, climate, and so forth. But I’m curious about what you have learned from that context. What are some of those lessons that are particularly relevant now?

Raul: When we started working in Africa in 2004 we had the idea of sharing our knowledge, of helping poor people. It’s parsimony. If you work in a war context, in extreme poverty, you have very little resources, time, everything. So the design is surgical: one choice, one shot, straight to the point. They need a hospital in two months, the budget is this, the workflow is that, etc. So with that you learn about how creativity can make the difference: It’s giving life to the project and place. This surgical approach is something we have brought into our daily work in Italy. And it’s been quite successful. It’s no different for us to design a hospital in a war-torn area or an office in Italy or Switzerland. It’s the same approach: limited resources, limited time. This is something that we have improved after many years, and we think it is the right approach for the future.

Simone: We have been very lucky. Working in the Global South has been a back-and-forth journey in which we relearned how to be architects. In 2004 we were working on two projects. One was a headquarters for a bank in Padua, here in Italy. It was envisioned as a manifesto of sustainable architecture, so we had the opportunity to work with natural materials and every available innovation in architecture and technology. At the same time we were asked to do a cardiac surgery in Africa. In a way the goal was the same: a high-quality building but simple and cost-effective, both in the building phase and the maintenance phase (the running costs were part of the project). Working in those conditions was a lesson in which we have learned to reduce gestures, reduce matter, just getting to the real point of a project. It’s a sort of continuous process of simplicity, while keeping a high level of quality — in the South but also here.

Aga Khan Hospital, Kisumu, Kenya, ongoing (Image © TAMassociati)
I'm not sure I have a question here, but some of the most gripping stories about COVID-19 deal not with the hospitals where people are sick but with the homes where people care for their loved ones, where effectively their homes have been turned into intensive care wards. And the news bring to the fore the importance of public spaces, where people can recreate but maintain distances.

Raul: We are now designing four hospitals in war-torn areas: in Yemen, Uganda, Rwanda, and Kenya. We have worked a little bit with ebola and now a little bit with COVID-19 on emergency hospitals. The main issue is to separate clean and dirty. I do it at home. When I go out I change my shoes, my clothes, my gloves … and I have the good luck that I can keep them out. And I have a line on the floor of what is clean, like in a hospital. 

We were thinking of doing now — but maybe in the future, as it needs a team to prepare it — of preparing basic health guidelines, recommendations like that. They could be useful in hospitals. Infectology and similar departments are ready for COVID, but the emergency areas weren’t ready. The big disaster in Italy, and now in other parts of the world, is that you arrived at the emergency area but you infected the whole area before they knew you had the virus. Now there is triage at the entrance, but it’s too late. It’s not a matter of designing hospitals, it’s a matter of providing useful information and giving shape to it.

Simone: We are now facing a health emergency, but the next emergencies will be psychological and economic. With the lockdown we have reduced exposure, but we need more prevention, more spaces for community, more places where we can build up a different kind of public awareness and capacity for communities to face the next crises. This is the other task we have to deal with tomorrow.

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