One hundred years after Anni and Josef Albers met, their work, philosophy and funding clout have made possible a stunning hospital that is saving lives in one of the hottest places on Earth
When Anni Albers began weaving at the Bauhaus in the 1920s, little did she know that her geometric patterns would one day adorn the doors of a hospital in rural Senegal. Shadows play across the surface of the staggered wooden blocks set into the doors of Tambacounda’s new maternity and paediatric ward, creating a woven effect echoed by the pattern of dappled sunlight streaming in through the perforated brick walls. These are small details, but they go some way to lightening the ordeal of being here, poetic touches that make the clinical environment feel like a place of care.
The art-world-philanthropy-complex works in mysterious ways. One hundred years since Anni and her husband Josef Albers met at the radical Weimar design school, the construction of a new hospital has been enabled, thousands of miles away, by the astonishing sums that their work now sells for, along with the fundraising power their name commands. Located in one of the hottest places on the planet, yet designed to function without air conditioning, the result is a building that aptly embodies the German duo’s philosophy of “minimal means, maximum effect”. And it happened almost by chance.
“It’s thanks to my dermatologist in Paris,” says Nicholas Fox Weber, the energetic American art historian who has run the Albers Foundation since Josef’s death in 1976. “One day he told me that he had started a small non-profit organisation to help hospitals in Senegal. I asked if I could go with him on his next trip. Six weeks later we arrived in Tambacounda with supplies: a suitcase full of blood and hundreds of toothbrushes.”
Fox Weber was appalled by what he found. In the maternity ward he was shown an “incubator” that consisted of a tray on a table, where three newborns were huddled beneath a desk lamp. Hypodermic needles were scattered on the floor, while an operating table was barely standing on three legs. Women lay crammed together at different stages of labour, or having just given birth, while others waited outside on bamboo mats on the floor.
What he saw led him to found Le Korsa, a non-profit organisation funded by the Albers Foundation (which itself is mainly funded by selling Albers paintings), dedicated to improving healthcare and education in eastern Senegal. Since 2005 they have built rural clinics, a women’s refuge, an arts centre and the first secular school in the strictly Muslim region, the latter two designed by Japanese-American architect Toshiko Mori. There are also plans for a new museum, with the architect to be drawn from an all-African shortlist. Four years in the making, the €2m (£1.7m) hospital building is their most ambitious project so far.
Winding its way for 125 metres in a serpentine curve, the two-storey structure is a surprisingly subtle addition to the 1970s hospital complex, creating the maximum number of rooms with the thinnest possible footprint. Rather than adding another doughnut shaped building to the campus of circular wards, it weaves between them instead, hugging the former paediatric ward on one side before curving the other way to enclose a new playground courtyard shaded by a mature acacia tree.