For Raul Pantaleo, an architect and the founder of architecture firm TAMassociati, beauty is as much a right as food and shelter for people living in catastrophe areas.
On a foggy morning in Venice in November 2015, I sit by a kitchen table in a cosy, slightly mismatched bread-and-breakfast kitchen under a glaring fluorescent light. I’m only some blocks away from the offices of TAMassociati, an Italian architecture firm working internationally on socially oriented projects: architecture, urban planning, landscape design and more.
Some months earlier, I was listening to Raul Pantaleo, the founder of TAMassociati, in an architecture conference in Finland. In his talk, Pantaleo repeatedly brought up beauty as an essential part of their practice. This point of view is rare in the field of socially oriented design and architecture — and even rarer when designing and building for the communities in catastrophe areas and refugee camps.
Despite coincidentally being almost on the doorstep of TAMassociati’s offices in Venice, we meet over Skype with Raul Pantaleo. As so often, he is on the road, off of his Venice office.
Instead of the word ‘beauty,’ Pantaleo actually prefers to use the word beautiness — from the Italian word bellitudine — even though the word doesn’t officially appear in the English language. In an interview, he speaks of the meaning and consequences of beauty — beautiness — in his work in refugee camps, and the impact of ambition in the designed environments to human dignity.
‘Beauty’ can be defined as “a combination of qualities, such as shape, colour, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight.” You prefer using the word beautiness to the word beauty. How would you define beautiness?
Beautiness is just taking care of people. It’s a very practical issue — it’s listening to people and just giving them a place, a beautiful place. Beauty is not the goal, but the goal is the respect towards people. It can be anywhere — in Finland, in Italy, or in Afghanistan. It’s just a matter of respecting people.
This is somehow the philosophy behind all our works. I see a strong relation between beauty and respect. In my view, beauty comes from respect.
Working for people in war-torn conditions is often focused on fulfilling physical needs and less the psychological needs. In your work, you speak of fulfilling psychological needs in conflict areas. What does this mean to you?
It goes back to the issue of respect, again.
You know, you can try to think of yourself living in a refugee camp. People living in the refugee camps have lost their houses and perhaps their families. Of course, the first that is needed is food and shelter. But then you can think, what would I need in that situation? Hope for the future. That is, of course, food and shelter, but it’s also dreams; something that helps you to believe that your future is going to be better. This is the engine that will help you to overtake this tragedy, because then you will have the psychological resources to imagine doing something else than escaping from war.
Once, when I was working for the Italian NGO Emergency, we were at a refugee camp in Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. We had a small hospital given to us by [World Health Organization] WHO. The first thing we did there was a small garden — just four trees in the middle of nothing. It’s not a matter of cost, but a matter of care. A tree is also a symbol of life. One of the four nurses of the hospital — she had escaped from Kobane in Syria — came to say that she wants to pay the trees out of her own salary, because this means to her and others in her situation that there is hope and life.
That proved that it’s not a matter of money or time, it’s just a matter of culture. In this camp, we were working on very small healthcare facilities, but with the same standard container modules that everyone is using, with the same budget and timing, we were trying to build a place, not just a shelter.
I strongly believe that in an emergency situation, there is a strong need of good design; a different good design than the ordinary standards in those conditions. It’s design that I was calling beautiness — design that has capacity of giving life to a space. It’s not just designing something functional, but designing something that makes sense. For instance, you cannot design a refugee camp for Arab people without thinking that they will build a souk. It’s just nonsense. And it’s just so easy — you need to make a road wider and the shelters that are on the road have to have a small capacity to enlarge of to build a shop. That’s it. It’s not a matter of money. Or, you cannot build schools at the edges of a camp. Schools in or cities are in the cities, and the school has to be the heart of the camp.
There is quite some documentation that the experience of beauty has been a carrying force for people who have survived from war and prison camps. How do you see the role of beauty in survival? Or does beauty as a healing element come along in the situations of recovery — after the initial survival?
It’s an absolute essential part of the healing process. As I was saying before, survival depends on food and dresses and shelter, of course. Recovery is a matter of what comes after these. It’s about the future, because the psychological recovering is not now, but tomorrow. If we want refugees to have capacity of recovering from the trauma they have been living, they need the experience of a place of respect. This is especially true to people who have suffered from war, because war basically means the opposite to respect.
I’m not saying that beauty is the only thing. It’s a complete approach of respect. This kind of human reconstruction starts from the capacity of the people to imagine a possible future. If you’ve been suffering from war, the only thing you might have is your imagination. A refugee camp has to be where you recover not only physically, but also mentally — and you have hope for the future.
What we experience beautiful is strongly understood to be related to our own cultural backgrounds. When you design in war-torn areas, you are the most often outside your own culture and innate cultural understanding. How do you strive for the experience of beauty in culture you are not originally familiar with?
It’s very difficult to be in harmony with different cultures, especially with different religions. But, I find that there are more things that are in common than things that separate. We can talk about children in healthcare facilities, for example. It’s natural: you’re protecting the children, because they are small and undefended. Of course there are differences coming from the religion, attitudes and other things, but if your attitude is the attitude of respect, then you can clear your brain from all your cultural background. You’re just doing what you feel is good for the people. Also a participatory process is essential, because you have to have the capacity of listening and understanding people.
And still, of course, you can make a mistake. That’s life.
The goal is to design for people. If you are a good designer, it will also come out as good design. But, your goal is trying to be modest in your approach and try to listen, understand and be there. Be empatico, emphatic, to the people. That’s it.
This is why I was talking about beautiness in the beginning. When you talk about beauty, you go back to the Greek ideals and to the classic idea of beauty. I just experience my work as very simple and very basic. I don’t know if I’m a good designer or not. But, I think we have proved in these years of work that we have created spaces where people feel good, safe and respected, no matter if they were Muslim, Christian, black, white, yellow, or whatever. When they enter, they are just human beings. That’s it. Punto. Period. You feel good in a place with natural light and where you have colours…very basic things.
Then, of course, someone can come to you in a conference where you are speaking and say that there is no cultural reference in you building. From my viewpoint, this is not relevant. What is relevant is that it’s a place where people feel good.
In your talk at the International Alvar Aalto Symposium in Jyväskylä, Finland, you also mentioned escapism in war situations. In architecture, escapism is usually related to something completely different than conflict conditions. Could you specify what you mean by bringing escapism to a war area?
It’s the same we have been discussing until now. When somebody is asking me what is the difference of designing in a war-torn area and designing in Italy or wherever you work, I always say that there is no difference. It’s just changing the context.
For me, the basic issue is respect of the people; to participate to the will and the need of the people. I don’t think that a garden is luxury. It can only be one tree, but it’s an essential part of a healing process. A hospital or a building is not just a functional structure, but part of the reconstruction of the future of people. I don’t consider beauty as luxury; I consider it as a right as important as having food and having a shelter.
How are others working in the same emergency situations addressing these issues? How is your approach perceived?
We can take an example: once we were in a very big camp in a war area in Iraqi Kurdistan. We built a small clinic and made the clinic red. That was probably the only colour in the middle of nothing on the desert.
The clinic was located on the secondary entrance of the camp, with other healthcare facilities. All the official buildings were located on the primary gate. Soon our medical coordinator told us that the officials had started using the secondary gate as an entrance gate on official visits, because the clinic was the only building that made sense.
Strangely enough, a couple of days later, a medical coordinator from another camp told me that the Minister of Health of Iraqi Kurdistan had called them. They were asking the NGO, Emergency, to build a new clinic. The head of office had shown my medical coordinator a drawing of the red clinic we had just built, because they liked it. They adopted the standard we had used as a good example.
It’s just a matter of very simple things. You cannot have a clinic without floor in a place where it rains; it’s rarely hygienic, when people come in with mud.
And having said these, by any means I’m not blaming those who work on the camps. I’ve seen the incredible work they are doing. When you have 20.000 or 30.000 people arriving to the camp in one day, of course the first thing you have to do is to provide food and shelter, and have facilities and build schools. But, what I want to say is that it can be done better.
Could there be a set of models, for instance, to be used in camps? Models such as the clinic you were speaking about.
It could be that in the process of designing a camp, there should be an architect and an urban designer involved. It’s just a matter of culture. In one of our camps, there was a school. It was well designed and working, but it was grey and with a high fence around it. In that sense, it was not a school. I mean, would you like to have your children in a grey box?
I cannot believe that there is a standard to buy grey aluminium sheets, when the cost of buying blue, yellow, or red ones would cost the same. And even if there was a one or even five per cent difference in cost, it’s worth it because it makes a difference.
The interview is a part of ‘Beauty in Exile,’ a research project by Brussels-based design and research agency Raven & Wood Agency. ‘Beauty in Exile’ looks into the meanings of beauty, design and architecture in societal contexts.