This article was originally published in Domus 949/July 2011
In the experience of Emergency, creating a hospital is something more than constructing a functional building. It is the designing of a place suited to human reconstruction.
We work in zones torn by war or afflicted by dire poverty. Our patients are often people who have to learn to live in suddenly mutilated or invalided bodies. For this reason we want our hospitals also to be beautiful, "scandalously beautiful", because that beauty becomes a token of respect towards people devastated by war or disease, and a beautiful place offers the conditions essential to regaining dignity in suffering.
For this reason in all our hospitals the utmost importance is attached to children's playrooms, social spaces and gardens. Treatment is not confined to operating theatres and wards only, but applied through care devoted to each person as an absolute human being.
Surgeon and founder of Emergency NGO
Evidence of Decline
Building in Darfur provides an opportunity to reflect on a possible alternative to a development pattern that seems to have made much of the West lose its sense of measure.
Africa is an opportunity, because through all its countless contradictions and backwardness it maintains a strong link with the reality and memory of the past. It is where consumerism represents a promised mirage that is never attained. Paradoxically, it can be a workshop for the entire planet, as it still coexists, creatively and often lightly, with the lack of everyday necessities and comforts—a condition that the West may also have to face in the not-too-distant future.
Building architecture where a long conflict has just ended might
thus serve to explore the void resulting from the aftermath of
war. Everything has to be reinvented. Against this background,
the children's hospital run by Emergency in Nyala, the capital of
South Darfur, has great symbolic value. It is not just an answer
to the emergency, but also an example of how to reconsider the
future from an unconventional angle: by focusing on genuinely
sustainable development for the planet as a whole. So we felt
that the only effective way of tackling the project was to seek
maximum simplicity. That meant reducing the superfluous, as
an experiment in "degrowth" to be tested in this corner of the
world and indeed elsewhere too.
The result has been a combination of modernity and tradition, adopted concretely and not ideologically. The innovation consisted not so much in the technology adopted as in the way it was harnessed. This experiment in "technological degrowth" was carried out in a difficult context but without lowering the high level of comfort required by a hospital: an example of how a technology for tomorrow can be interpreted through the difficulties of today.
This eco-friendly hospital is built round an enormous tabaldi
(baobab) tree, a focal point from which the whole scheme
radiated. Constructed in double-ended bearing brick tiles (produced in the
city's furnaces) with a ventilated chamber, the building exploits
the principles of the Arab courtyard house while minimising
the sides exposed to the sun. This is achieved by using woven
bamboo shade-screens inspired by the same traditional fence
systems adopted for refugee camps.
For the roof, a technique very common in Nyala was chosen. Lowered brick tile vaults called jagharsch (from harsch, which in Arabic means "arch") are protected from direct sunlight by a false roof in metal with a ventilated air chamber.
Particularly harsh climatic factors with temperatures often above 40 °C are aggravated by the problem of dust raised by strong desert winds. It was therefore necessary to carry out an extensive study regarding innovative cooling, insulation and filtration systems. Plant facilities are reduced to the essential, while maintaining the high degree of comfort and standards required by Emergency.
The air recycling is thus inspired by traditional Iranian systems
of natural ventilation. Called badgir, these are combined with a mechanical system that uses industrial-type water coolers.
Prevailing desert winds are captured by eight-metre-high ventilation towers and conveyed into the basement where the air is directed through a sort of labyrinth. By impacting the maze of walls, the air reduces speed, cools down and deposits much of the dust carried in suspension.
The cooler and cleaner air is then scrubbed and further cooled by adiabatic absorption machinery, through an air evaporation process similar to that of a water cooler. This treatment creates a thermal delta of about 10 degrees and a 70 per cent reduction in electricity consumption compared to standard air-conditioning systems.
The Emergency hospital is unmistakably a public building that
seeks to exorcise the reality of a still precarious world. It speaks
the language of a different modernity, where degrowth affords
an opportunity to build a modicum of justice.
Architectural design: Tamassociati—Massimo Lepore, Raul Pantaleo, Simone Sfriso with Laura Candelpergher and Enrico Vianello
Project manager: Pietro Parrino
Coordination: Rossella Miccio, Pietro Parrino
Plant design: Franco Binetti with Nicola Zoppi
Structural engineering consulting: Francesco Steffinlongo
Site supervision: Roberto Crestan, Alessandro Tamai
Client: Emergency NGO