Building in African countries with 3D printing

Raul Pantaleo, co-founder of TAMassociati, tells us what it means to become designers for the NGO Emergency to construct a 3D-printed pediatric clinic prototype in Africa.

TAMassociati is an international architectural firm distinguished by its ethical, humanitarian, and sustainable approach. Their building solutions worldwide improve lives, strengthen communities, and offer creative responses to climate change.

What’s your idea of the future? 

A million-dollar question… Certainly, we struggle to have a collective vision of the future and where we are heading. This deficiency is closely related to the fear of climate change. 

As a Western society, we’re heavily reliant on a comfort we’ve gained at the expense of the rest of the planet, a comfort that now seems irreplaceable.

One thing is for sure; we’ll need to tackle our economic model. I emphasize this point: our economic system is just not sustainable. It leads to equally unsustainable social and environmental patterns.

We must rethink how we inhabit this world, how we consume – I mean, we’re living in a crazy world.

Yesterday, as I was reading Vitruvius, he mentioned that cities work when they have agricultural areas around them that allow them to survive. For us, this concept has completely fallen apart; our cities lack any kind of autonomy or resilience.

What does innovation mean to you?

There are two different strands, especially when we think about the world of sustainability.

One argues for a reevaluation of the economic and consumption model, while the other, more positivist, places faith in technological development.

Now, these two strands, though philosophically opposed, must converge and move forward in parallel.

I mean, it’s pointless to think of solving the CO2 problem through machines built by people exploited like slaves.

Technology plays a fundamental role, but it can’t be separated from a philosophical perspective. We need to frame our actions within philosophical frameworks.

I always emphasize this point: in all universities, there should be mandatory philosophy courses, regardless of the field.

What are the challenges and difficulties that architecture faces when working in the most disadvantaged places on our planet?

We’ve learned to be resourceful. When you operate in settings with limited finances, energy, and minimal security, you become resourceful and focus on what’s truly necessary.

For instance, if the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) allocates $150 for each refugee shelter, it’s clear that if you can build one for $300, you’ll only be able to assist half the people.

Architecture should prioritize the themes of economy and resourcefulness in its designs.

The issue is that the linear process that has traditionally governed the field of architecture, with the architect at the helm, is no longer sustainable.

we need to encourage a systemic, collaborative approach involving designers, economists, scientists, researchers, and anthropologists.

Architecture isn’t quite ready for this shift; we are still attached to the idea of the individual author or star architect.

Palladio and the other great architects of his time constructed 2% or 1%, but it’s obvious that you can’t ask Palladio to make the columns shorter due to budget constraints.

The problem arises when we think we can build an entire city using the same criteria as Palladio. Personally, as a professional and ethical choice, I am interested in that remaining 98%.

When you work in extreme contexts, how much importance do you give to design and beauty?

What’s useful is automatically beautiful. In fact, the word “beauty” in Greek etymology means ‘beautiful and useful.’ I’ve started using the word “bellitudine”, which is a bit of a mishmash from the English “beautyness.” Bellitudine is a kind of raw, ethereal beauty.

And here, I come back to the theme of architecture. Creating a facade with well-proportioned windows doesn’t cost more, just like having the right proportions or working with colors. I always remember Gino Strada; when he gave us our first assignment, he said:

Create a shockingly beautiful hospital, and we were talking about Sudan in 2004, amidst war.

He was undoubtedly a great visionary in this regard.

For him, beauty was a healing tool. After all, whether you’re the most destitute refugee or the wealthiest elite, if you arrive at an ugly, run-down, and unwelcoming hospital, you’ll assume that you’ll be treated accordingly. 

Let’s talk about 3D printing: could you share your thoughts on integrating 3D printing technology into the traditional construction industry?

Out of all industries, construction is perhaps the most behind the times. 3D technology can be integrated, but at the moment, it’s not quite mature. Let me give you an example that explains exactly what I mean. During a technology fair, a researcher said: “I think 3D printing is like the big-wheeled bicycle from the late 1800s. The bicycle existed, and the technology was more or less there, but we hadn’t invented the right one yet.”

While it’s true that the technology is still economically unsustainable, I believe it could provide answers in the future. 

What do you think will be the factors leading to the full utilization of 3D printing technology?

Working in extreme conditions, like in the project we’re currently undertaking in Sudan, is, in my opinion, a kind of toolbox for perfecting technologies in the Western world.

This is because, if it works in that context with those limitations, it will undoubtedly work here too. The essence of our project was primarily to learn how to work in 3D.

We have chosen to build the clinic in a critical and fragile area, such as an African country, to validate the functionality and efficiency of the printing system.

The prototype will be built in collaboration with local labor and local businesses. The training and transfer of knowledge regarding the technical aspects of 3D printing will be of paramount importance.

The fundamental issue is that adopting 3D printing technology isn’t just about bringing in the machines, finding local technicians, training them and so on. Much of the work lies in constructing a sophisticated social project.

The world and architecture need to evolve significantly on this. Our approach to architecture in these contexts is highly formal. I say this as a critique of my own profession, to which I also belong. Perhaps I too fall into this trap. The new generation must be a systemic generation.

I provocatively suggested at a European university conference that I would abolish architecture and mechanical engineering faculties. Our education is extremely technical.


How do you inspire and encourage your team to embrace innovation and continually seek new technologies and problem-solving approaches?

I want to be very honest. For us, it’s a matter of survival, as well as culture. Innovation, for us, is not a choice but is part of our DNA and our identity. We have chosen to deal with humanitarian issues, so the people who work with us necessarily share the same values. 

We want to be citizens, even before architects, and we all have an attitude for research and innovation, without which human progress would not be possible.

Problems cannot be solved without a vision of social, technological, economic, and other forms of innovation. We don’t create authorial works; our projects are always different because the contexts and the people we work with are always different. 

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This interview is part of our dossier on 3D printings of buildings. Other content:

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