How important was the relationship with local communities and their territory in developing the project?
When I was approached to participate in the competition for the new hospital, I was initially sceptical. How can I, as an architect based in Basel, develop a design proposal, and hence suggest a “solution” for a region that I have never visited, for doctors and patients that I have never spoken to, and for a climate that I have not experienced? Eventually I participated, but rather than handing in a definitive “solution”, I instead proposed a process how to approach the project, that is embedded in research about the local condition, and that relies on collaboration with local partners.
Can you tell us more about the passive technologies used in the project to address local climate challenges?
The reaction to the local condition therefore went much further than issues of climate, taking also craft, culture, resources and local economies into consideration. Nevertheless, climate is of course a major force, shaping the design. Tambacounda has a dry, very hot, subtropical climate. It rains for two months with temperatures around 35-40 degrees during the day, while the long dry season regularly sees temperatures around 40-45 degrees (Celsius), though very little wind. My intention was to develop a building that shades it’s interior, keeps sun and rain out, while allowing wind to pass through. The temperature differences between slightly hotter cooler and (because of shading) slightly cooler areas, creates air movement. The building is therefore its own climate machine, creating a local micro-climate that is more temperate than its surrounding.
Besides the climate, which other factors were taken into consideration?
But beyond climate, other considerations were also very important. We planned and built the building with Senegalese engineers, using a local contractor (who is also, by the way, a medical doctor), employing only local builders and craftsmen, and relying almost exclusively on local resources and building material sourced from the Tambacounda region or from Senegal. The only equipment that was imported were the medical arms for the operation rooms, and some of the other medical technical equipment. This ensures that virtually the complete financial investment remains in the region, and benefits the local community. It also ensures that the building is seen as coming from within the community, and not imported from outside.
What made you realize a very slender and curvilinear building?
Eventually, I developed a design with a building in a curvilinear shape, that is as long as possible, and as thin as possible. The curvilinear shape is a direct reaction to the existing circular hospital buildings on the site. The new maternity and pediatric clinic embraces the existing buildings, curves around them, thereby creating several new exterior courtyards.
Throughout the length of the building, we can offer many spaces for waiting and for lingering. In many cases patients arrive at the hospital with their families, and often stay for several days, as they travel from far away or from the rural parts of eastern Senegal. Hence, it is very important to offer an abundance of social spaces, where people can linger, wait for appointments with the doctors and nurses, and spend their time. Along the length of the corridor, several different kinds of waiting spaces are therefore offered.
The thinness is in direct response to the climate. I intended to create a building that does not need air-conditioning (apart from the operation block and the intensive care units) The corridor has rooms only to one side, while the other side features a brise-soleil brick work that allows for wind to cross ventilate every room in the building. The brise-soleil keeps the sun and rain out, and lets the air move laterally across and through the building.
The climate is a given, and we developed an architectural response that tries to work with the climate and not against it. In this way, the building is much more responsive to the local condition, and resilient to power outages, or the need for technical maintenance. The medical services that are offered in the new hospital fulfil all the needs of the population of eastern Senegal, with approximately 150 beds, several incubators, two operation blocks, and intensive care units.
Is there more to this project than a hospital?
As already mentioned above, I developed the design in close collaboration with local actors, with the doctors, the nurses, engineers, the general contractor, and the craftsmen and women. Alongside the building we also realized a small village school together with the general contractor, we are building a small playground, as well as staff housing for the medical staff. Hence, the project cannot be just reduced to the new hospital, but is thouroughly embedded in a local context on a cultural, social and economical level through many additional smaller and larger interventions. This ensures that neither myself, nor the hospital building, are seen as foreign ‘aliens’, but are well immersed in a local setting.
Do you think that these innovations can be incorporated also at our latitude for a more sustainable design?
I believe that wherever we build, we have to respond intelligently to the local situation, to the local context, and to the needs, desires and potentials of the local community. The climate in the northern hemisphere is very different from the climate in eastern Senegal, and requires a very different architectural response. This also means (and I’m only stating the obvious) that the architecture will be, and needs to be, quite different. But it can be as responsive, as I believe I have worked in Tambacounda.
One of the many things we learn when we build in places like Tambacounda, is that comfort cannot just be narrowly defined by a thin temperature and humidity range. Our European norms often dictate very specific parameters, such as that rooms should have exactly, for example 19-21 degrees Celsius for temperature, and a precise level of humidity. But this means that our architecture becomes overloaded with technology to sustain this narrow margin, and that we, on the other hand, dumb down our architecture, because suddenly only these few factors count, and are taken into consideration. Architecture can be, and should be, so much richer than some officially-assigned norms and values.
That is, why I am also not fond of the term “sustainable design”. Of course, we need to practice sustainable design, and I hope that I am doing that. But in the end, this is not what drives my architecture. I want to practice architecture that explores the potential of a specific place, that reacts intelligently, but also surprisingly to the specific location, the given resources and the given task. I want to practice architecture that questions the given norms, and that eventually also produces beautiful and inspiring spaces. This is, in my opinion, what is important in architecture.
Maternity and Paediatric Hospital in Tambacounda, Senegal, by Manuel Herz
Architect: Manuel Herz
Photo: Iwan Baan
Courtesy of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and Le Korsa