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NOVEMBER 11 Bauhaus in Africa: the hospital in sweltering Senegal inspired and funded by the Albers Oliver Wainwright, The Guardian

SEPTEMBER 1 Paris art exhibitions to visit this month Harriet Lloyd-Smith, Wallpaper*

AUGUST 17 A Senegal Hospital Extension Responds to the Local Context Vera Saccetti, Metropolis

JULY 15 Visionary Textiles: How Anni Albers Staked a Claim for Herself as a Key Modernist Tessa Solomon, Art in America

MAY 4 Josef and Anni Albers Foundation to unveil new maternity and paediatric hospital in Senegal Anny Shaw, The Art Newspaper

FEBRUARY 22 The Philanthropic Genius of Josef and Anni Albers Claire Wrathall, Financial Times

JANUARY 25 The Revelations of an Unlikely Pairing Peter Schjeldahl, The New Yorker

JANUARY 22 Three exhibitions to see in New York this weekend Gabriella Angeleti and Wallace Ludel, The Art Newspaper

JANUARY 21 The T List: Five Things We Recommend This Week Thessaly La Force, The New York Times Style Magazine

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Tambacounda Hospital’s new maternity and pediatric ward designed by Manuel Herz. Photo by Oliver Wainwright

Bauhaus in Africa: the hospital in sweltering Senegal inspired and funded by the Albers

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 pediatric 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.

"We tried to create a model that the hospital could use for future extensions," says Manuel Herz, the Basel-based architect behind the design. He had never designed a healthcare facility before, but he was chosen in 2017 after being the only invited architect to refuse to come up with a design without first visiting the site to properly understand the context. His previous research into modernist architecture in Africa helped to tip the balance, too. "It was crucial to come here and talk to everyone involved and find out what they really needed," says Herz. "Our solution was to make the building as narrow as possible to encourage cross-ventilation, while creating as much space as possible for hanging out."

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 meters in a serpentine curve, the two-story 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 pediatric ward on one side before curving the other way to enclose a new playground courtyard shaded by a mature acacia tree.

Space for hanging out might not seem like an urgent hospital requirement, but, as Herz discovered on his research trips, a hospital stay in Tambacounda is very much a family affair. The campus sees people gathered on every possible surface, with patients' relatives making food, washing clothes or resting on bamboo mats. It has the look of a chaotic campsite, with pots and buckets lying alongside stray cats, while newborn babies shelter under mosquito nets beneath the trees.

"It's a big problem," says Dr Thérèse-Aida Ndiaye, director of the hospital since 2016. "Each patient comes with four or five family members, who bring their own habits. I recently found one relative having a shower here. We are a hospital, not a house."

They come out of necessity: there simply aren't enough staff to provide every aspect of the patients' care, so relatives are needed to pick up the slack, running errands and buying medication from the nearby pharmacy. Many have travelled miles to get here. Tambacounda hospital sees about 40,000 patients a year from all around the region, including from across the border from Mali, the Gambia and Guinea, with families often forced to travel together, unable to leave dependents behind.

Herz's design embraces the inevitable entourage. Along with space for 150 beds, tripling the previous capacity, there are plenty of social spaces, including semicircular balconies off the first-floor corridor, with curved seating overlooking the playground so parents can keep an eye on their kids. Two spiral staircases descend gracefully into the courtyards, offering an alternative processional route to the more functional steps inside. The playground was the idea of Herz's wife, Xenia, who suggested there should be laughter audible from the wards (and the couple helped to fund its construction with donations from their wedding guests). Herz says it is the first and only playground in Tambacounda—a city of almost 180,000 people.

The project's most important lesson is in what it lacks: air-conditioning. Tambacounda gets swelteringly hot, reaching more than 40C (104F) in April, giving it the nickname Tangacounda, "house of heat" in the local Wolof language. It is located in the middle of the wide, flat, tropical savanna, where the air barely moves. But by using basic climate design principles—drawn from Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew's 1956 book, Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone—the wards can be kept cool with just ceiling fans (although air-conditioning is still required in the operating theatre).

The first trick is the double-skin vaulted roof, with a corrugated metal layer suspended above a concrete one below, creating a thermal buffer that helps to draw air up through holes in the ceiling. The walls are built from hollow concrete bricks that allow air to pass through, while being deep enough to shade the interior from direct sunlight. Rammed earth was considered, but Herz says it was safer to use a technique that local builders were familiar with, given other logistical challenges. The 50,000 bricks were made on site using a single mould, and dyed a reddish colour with iron oxide. Echoing the patterned doors, the exposed concrete ceilings were given a woven texture by sticking bamboo mats to the formwork.

"It's important that everything was made locally," says Herz. "The windows were all fabricated in a nearby metal workshop, and all the builders come from here. It means that all the money goes to the region, not to an international consortium, and they will be able to operate and fix everything themselves." The more hi-tech foreign equipment that is imported, the more there is to go wrong – as the doctors have found, with a faulty new operating table and anaesthetics equipment that has delayed their move into the building.

The local production process also allowed further experimentation, which led to an unexpected bonus. At one point, Herz asked for a mockup facade to be built on site to test the effects of different sized holes in the bricks. Leading the construction process was Dr. Magueye Ba, a medical doctor-turned-builder, who has overseen a number of Le Korsa's projects.

Ba realised that a local village school was in need of a classroom, so rather than simply building a test wall that would be demolished, he made a little building for them, formed of several bays of the hospital. It stands proudly on the edge of the village, its jaunty roofline poking up from the grassy savanna, almost doubling the capacity of the school. Ba has since used the hollow bricks on another kindergarten project, their distinctive curved silhouette spawning something of a new local vernacular.

"It's the perfect outcome," says Herz. "I'm not in control any more—the design has taken on a life of its own."

For more information on the work of Le Korsa, see aflk.org.

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Josef and Anni Albers in Dessau, Germany, ca. 1935, photographer unknown

Paris art exhibitions to visit this month

For centuries, Paris has served as an epicentre for the arts. Home to some of the most lauded museums and art schools, it's served as a cultivator of radical art – from the impressionists, surrealists, dadaists and far beyond.

In contemporary times, the French capital continues to live up to its reputation as the '​​city of art' with a thriving community of artists, and landmark incubators for contemporary creativity, from the Centre Pompidou to the Palais de Tokyo, and leading art fairs such as FIAC (21–24 October 2021), Art Paris (9–12 September 2021) and Paris Photo (11–14 November 2021).

Next month, artist duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude will posthumously unveil their final work: L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, in the city where they first met. As its title suggests, the piece will shroud the Parisian architecture icon in 25,000 sq m of silvery-blue polypropylene fabric, a testament to the duo's fearless artistic vision, their adoration for the city, and its lasting relevance in the contemporary art landscape.

As life tentatively re-finds its rhythm, we distil the best Paris art exhibitions to add to your summer calendar.

. . .

Exhibition: Anni and Josef Albers: 'L'art et la vie

Location: Musée d'Art Moderne

Dates: 10 September 2021–9 January 2022

The creative bond between Anni and Josef Albers was one built on mutual respect and a belief that art has the power to transform our perception of the world. At Musée d'Art Moderne, the first exhibition in France dedicated to the couple surveys their unique contribution to building the foundations of modernism. Through 350 paintings, photographs, furniture, drawings and textiles, 'L'art et la vie' unfolds like a conversation between the pair, who brought function to the heart of their thinking, prioritised the democratisation of art and forged a path for the next generation of creators. As Anni Albers once said: 'We learn courage from art work. We have to go where no one was before us.'

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The Maternity and Pediatric units at Tambacounda Hospital, Senegal, designed by Manuel Herz, complement the existing circular buildings. Photo: Iwan Baan

A Senegal Hospital Extension Responds to the Local Context

In 2017, the executive director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Nicholas Fox Weber, launched a competition to design an extension to a pediatric hospital in Tambacounda, Senegal. Initiated by Le Korsa, a philanthropic arm of the Albers Foundation that has been active in eastern Senegal since 2005, the project was aimed at radically transforming the conditions under which mothers and newborns receive care in the region.

An invitation found its way to Switzerland-based architect Manuel Herz, who has done extensive research on African architectural contexts. In 2015, he authored the first volume of African Modernism, which explored Modernist architecture throughout Ghana, Senegal, Côte d'Ivoire, Kenya, and Zambia. (A second volume is currently in the works.) One year later, he presented his research on the refugee camps of the Western Sahara, which host the Sahrawi population in the border zone of southwestern Algeria, at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale, marking the first time a nation in exile was represented at the event.

Upon receiving Fox Weber's message, Manuel Herz hesitated and initially declined—but ultimately he submitted an entry that focused not on a final project but on a proposed approach to the hospital.

A few weeks later, Manuel Herz found himself in the streets of Tambacounda, in eastern Senegal, conducting the first step of long-term research in the region. He visited the existing hospital buildings—a set of circular constructions that he estimates are from the 1970s or '80s—endured harsh 100-degree-plus summer days, studied local construction techniques and materials, and, in meetings with local stakeholders and hospital staff, compiled a series of sketches detailing their spatial and programmatic needs, which then became the basis for the new building's design.

Herz's concept called for a curvilinear building that embraces the existing round structures, "a building that is as long as possible and as thin as possible," he says, "with a one-sided structure where we have a long corridor and all rooms to one side." This kind of spatial organization allows cross-ventilation while creating a variety of outdoor and indoor courtyards, and nooks with benches and large corridors that act as gathering spaces for patients' families and visitors.

Other passive ventilation measures are embedded in the construction's doublevaulted brick-and-metal ceiling, and in the perforated brick screen that clads the undulating structure. Together, they work to create a breeze in what Manuel Herz calls "a surprisingly windless area." The ground floor hosts the maternity clinic and operating rooms, and the upper floor harbors the pediatric clinic; the only spaces requiring mechanical ventilation are the intensive care units and operating rooms.

After bringing the first concept back to Tambacounda, Manuel Herz recalls hours of transformative discussions with detailed feedback from local authorities and hospital staff—from the director, Dr. Thérèse-Aida Ndiaye, to the doctors, midwives, and janitors—which helped round out the final design. Construction was conducted in close collaboration with local doctor and contractor Dr. Magueye Ba, who supervised the process, including the brickwork: Workers produced 50,000 bricks for the project, 100 per day, over 500 days, which follow the local typology of hollow bricks. The hospital expects to start receiving patients this summer.

Herz is now working on an additional project in the hospital complex for staff accommodation, allowing visiting doctors from the capital city of Dakar to extend their stays and bring their families. In the meantime, the signature brick pattern has taken on a life of its own, with Magueye Ba using it for other buildings in the surroundings. In this dynamic, Herz's project begins to exist as part of a network—of stakeholders who become coauthors in the intervention, and of buildings themselves, as his extension touches upon existing structures and conditions new ones. "The project becomes not only an architectural intervention but a territorial intervention," Herz says, noting the project's economic impact in the area. "This kind of coherence is incredibly important to make sure the building really is accepted by the population."

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Installation view of the Anni Albers retrospective at K20 in Düsseldorf, Germany (2018). Photo: Federico Gambarini/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP Images

Visionary Textiles: How Anni Albers Staked a Claim for Herself as a Key Modernist

At the storied Black Mountain College in North Carolina, Anni Albers often instructed her students to return to what she called "point zero." Imagine, she said, that you have traveled to the Americas in the 10th century, via the Bering strait. You have no available tools, technology, or clothing. You're hungry and it's hot and windy. The waters are plentiful with fish. Branches, shells, seaweed and skeletons have washed up on shore. What will you use to weave a net? How will you survive?

It was a thought experiment meant to imbue the basic stuff of design with importance. An artist and survivalist were not entirely separate entities in Albers's view. Both have to collect, stretch, braid, and manipulate materials into beautiful and functional forms. In Albers's classes, first one created unexpected juxtapositions of synthetic and organic, then one wove them with purpose.

She and her husband Josef arrived at the pioneering college in 1933, having fled the Nazi party that was rising to power in Europe. The influential Bauhaus school was closed indefinitely, and its members, who had spent the past decade merging painting, sculpture, and design, were scattered across the world. "In a world as chaotic as the European world after World War I, any exploratory artistic work had to be experimental in a very comprehensive sense," she wrote. "What had existed had proved to be wrong; everything leading up to it seemed to be wrong, too." Total chaos, she maintained, was "not human."

Her practice, which included wall hangings, architectural innovations, jewelry, and tapestries, was influenced by a desire to actively take part in contemporary life through objects. Among her architectural commissions was a wall-covering for a Trade Union School established by Walter Gropius. She used cellophane, a new material at the time, in addition to plain cotton to create both soundproofing and light-filtering walls. Its deep solid color, she thought, would not distract the students.

Albers is today accepted as a seminal figure within the history of modernism, despite the long shadow of her husband and her close friends Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. It's safe to say the gendered sidelining of her medium is over. A traveling retrospective of her work that began in 2018 at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf was met with rapturous reception, and a major show this September at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville in Paris aims to place the Alberses on equal playing field, with both artists surveyed in depth. Given that the Josef and Albers Foundation is marking its 50th anniversary this year, the moment is ripe for renewed attention to her art.

Below, a look at some of Anni Albers's greatest achievements.

At the Bauhaus

Born into a wealthy family, Annelise Elsa Frieda Fleischmann rebelled early against the expectations of upper-class women. She joined the Bauhaus school of design in 1922, but she was unable to study painting, which was instructed mainly to male artists. Instead, she explored craft. The gender divisions continued even in that discipline, however. (Sometimes those boundaries were even literal—she first saw Josef, who was foremost a painter, through a window into a stained-glass workshop where he was working.) Women were restricted to weaving, which she considered a "rather sissy" craft. The particulars of textiles—the utility of their material, the medium's inauspicious status—soon provided her with a breakthrough, however.

The Bauhaus of the 1920s was a time of exploration, and only more so was that the case once Gropius departed the school he founded in 1928. In his wake, the idea of industry as art gained popularity among its students. Under the tutelage of experimental weaver Gunta Stölzl, Albers tested the technical limits of textiles, eschewing pictorial representation for abstraction. Her earliest works depict vertical panels of color woven from traditional yarn as well as more unusual materials—horsehair, cellophane, and silver thread. A work such as Unexecuted Wallhanging (1926), in which vertical panels of solid color are overlaid on a grid, reflects the logic of Klee and Kandinsky, both of whom were teachers at the school.

Experiments in Form

In 1933, after the Nazi party closed the Bauhaus, the Alberses fled Europe of U.S. alongside many others in the art world, among them Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Mies van der Rohe, and László Moholy-Nagy. The couple was invited to help form the art and design curriculum at Black Mountain College. There, Anni translated the aesthetic philosophy she formed as a student and instructor in Berlin into a workshop which emphasized theory and materiality.

Albers began to take up automatic weaving, which involves the use of a machine that can work faster than the human hand. She sometimes lamented having to rely on the technology, believing that it curbed the spontaneity and immediacy of working with raw materials. "Creating means reacting to material rather than the execution of a dream, as the layman conceives it," she wrote in her landmark text On Weaving. "The first vision of something to be done gives more the mood of the work than its final form. The form emerges as the work progresses." She illustrated this point with the textiles of the Andean people, which she praised as the purest fusion of technique and design.

Albers taught at Black Mountain College until 1948, a period when her own work underwent significant developments in form. Knot (1926), a gauche drawing, captures an early interest in twisted threads that would culminate in later masterworks like Open Letter (1958). In that piece, she utilized leno weaving, a technique in which two threads are braided tightly around a weft, allowing for empty decorative space left between. Albers's modernist aesthetic had a clear influence on students of the college, such as Robert Rauschenberg and Ruth Asawa, who were influenced by her use of interwoven textiles, which placed a greater emphasis on the process of their making than the final product.

Lessons in Latin America

Between 1935 and 1967, the Alberses made some 13 visits to Mexico, encountering traditional weaving styles that exerted strong influence on both artists' use of design and color. Anni amassed a collection of hand-scaled fragments of pre-Columbian textiles, which have since been acquired by museums including the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. In Oaxaca, weavers taught her how to use a backstrap loom, a simple device consisting of sticks, rope, and a strap that is tied around the weaver's waist. She was enamored with it, and brought a loom back to her students at Black Mountain College. She told the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, "The Peruvian backstrap loom has embedded in it everything that a high power machine loom today has."

Many of Albers's textiles created after her initial visit honor the Mexican artists she admired, whose techniques rhymed with—and predated—modernist abstractions coming out of Europe. Her textile Monte Albán (1936) references a spiritual archaeological site she visited and its Zapotec architecture, while the wall-hung weaving Ancient Writing (1936) nods at the pre-Columbian weavers' technique of encoding their belief systems within a series of knots. In Albers's work, intricate configurations of threads float atop her woven fibers. It was one of the first pieces she dubbed a "pictorial weaving"—a textile that transcends the hierarchical distinction between craft and fine art.

'A Whole Out of Single Elements'

In 1949, Albers was given a solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. At the time, only rarely had art making use of craft techniques been given such a showcase. For the show, she created a group of free-hanging room dividers woven from disparate materials like cellophane, cotton, yarn, and jute. They were an unexpected pairing of soft and coarse materials that tempted the viewer to run their hands along their surfaces. She developed the room dividers in response to developments in modernist architecture of the era, which privileged open-floor plans and loft apartments framed by tall glass windows. Light and air moved subtly through her dividers.

Albers considered architecture the closest creative field to weaving, once saying, "It is building up out of a single element, to building a whole out of single elements." The Albers were given teaching positions at Yale University, and though she never held a formal post in its architecture department, she often gave lectures to its students. At that time she developed the idea of the "pliable plane," which described the duality of textile: a source of stability and a material to manipulate in response to its environment. The grid of great cities, she maintained, had much in common with the contents of a loom.

Six Prayers

Albers was a secular person (she claimed to be Jewish only "in the Hitler sense"), but undertook a series of religious commissions in the late 1950's and the '60s, including the design for an ark covering for a Jewish temple in Dallas, Texas. Six Prayers (1966–67), one of her masterworks and the largest of her "pictorial weavings," was commissioned by New York's Jewish Museum as a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Reminiscent of funeral shawls, the elegy is composed of six vertical panels woven from beige, white, black, and silver thread that lend a subtle, unearthly luminescence to the work. Keeping in line with her religious ambivalence, the work avoids overt references to the Torah or Jewish iconography, instead focusing on form and function. Each color dominates its own panel, while black and white yarn meanders upward with irregularity, a nod to the individual spirit that endures amid uniformity. Albers later said of the work: "I used the threads themselves as a sculptor or painter uses his medium to produce a scriptural effect which would bring to mind sacred texts."

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The maternity and pediatric hospital in Tambacounda, Senegal, designed by Manuel Herz. Photo: Iwan Baan

Josef and Anni Albers Foundation to unveil new maternity and paediatric hospital in Senegal

Around three years ago, Nicholas Fox Weber, the director of the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, was standing in the paediatric unit of Tambacounda Hospital in Senegal, looking at a broken incubator.

"It was basically a refrigerator tray with a light bulb hanging over it, with three babies squeezed together on it," he says. "We quickly got a new incubator from Dakar, but then I thought, 'Why is this necessary in our world with all this privilege? I'm in the art world, a world where people are worrying about which gallery is representing Jeff Koons for however many millions of dollars of art. Why is it necessary to have this pathetic hospital?'"

Three years, one design competition and multiple trips later, a new maternity and paediatric hospital is being unveiled this month.

The German architect Manuel Herz, who has written extensively on African Modernism, won the competition, chiefly because he chose to visit Tambacounda before submitting his design. "Manuel paid such attention to the needs of the people there, to the reality of living in 45 degree heat," says Fox Weber, who first visited Tambacounda in 2000.

Though Herz's practice had not previously been influenced by the Albers's work, "he incorporated what I would call 'Albersian' thinking in a lot of what he did", Fox Weber says. The white wooden hospital doors, for instance, are based on a Bauhaus-period design of Anni Albers.

"Manuel has the qualities that they cared about. He has a tremendous sense of rhythm and a great knowledge of materials. He designed the roof structure so that it traps heat, and the building doesn't require air conditioning," Fox Weber says. "Anni and Josef often talked about minimal needs for maximum effect. And I would say that the hospital exemplifies that."

Throughout the process, Herz worked in close collaboration with local leader Dr Magueye Ba, employing craftsmen and engineers from Tambacounda and the surrounding villages to build the 150-bed hospital.

The new, snaking building, which is just seven metres in width, joins the paediatric and maternity wings, as well as providing toilets for the families of patients. "Sometimes Manuel's concerns were purely practical, but he immersed himself in the culture of Tambacounda, the way that the Alberses did in the culture of Mexico," Fox Weber says. "He discovered that families were camping out at the hospital, so he incorporated toilets for the families of patients. This is the sort of thing I know that Anni and Josef would have been very pleased about. They focused on the realities of life."

Herz's "great sense of economy" was another winning factor. "This is not an expensive building for what it is," says Fox Weber, who estimates the project to have cost less than €2m. The new maternity and paediatric unit at Tambacounda Hospital is financed with funds raised by the non-profit Le Korsa, which Fox Weber says is supported substantially by the Albers Foundation. He adds that gallery sales have been important for funding, as "it certainly helps us immensely that we've done so well with David Zwirner. It puts us in a much stronger position to undertake projects like this".

The foundation and Le Korsa—the philanthropic arm of the foundation that Fox Weber established in 2005—is now trying to raise an additional $500,000 to building housing for hospital staff. The building's design is based on a print by Anni Albers.

As Fox Weber points out: "It can be hard to attract doctors and nurses to Tambacounda. It's remote and it's terribly hot, even by Senegalese standards. The solution, in part, would be to have really nice housing for the staff."

In a bid to raise awareness and funds, Herz will present an installation, The Many Lives of Tambacounda, at the Venice Architecture Biennale, which opens without guests later this month.

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Maternity and Pediatric Hospital, Tambacounda, Senegal, construction site, July 2020. Photo: Manuel Herz

The Philanthropic Genius of Josef and Anni Albers

One spring day in 1971, Nicholas Fox Weber, then a graduate student at Yale, was taken by a friend's mother to meet the by-then elderly German-born Bauhaus artists Josef and Anni Albers. Their home—not something in the style of Mies van der Rohe, but "the most ordinary, understated, American raised-ranch house"—took him by surprise. As did the impromptu lunch of Kentucky Fried Chicken. "But Anni had made it look so beautiful the way she presented it," he recalls. "She could transform anything."

The seeds of a friendship were planted. That same year, the Albers established a foundation to further "the revelation and evocation of vision through art", which Fox Weber was hired to run in 1976, the year Josef died, and which he has overseen ever since. This spring it celebrates its 50th anniversary with the opening of a new 150-bed maternity and paediatric hospital that will serve a population of 650,000 in the rural Tambacounda region of eastern Senegal.

The journey to west Africa from Connecticut—where the Albers settled in 1950 and where their foundation remains based—was a serendipitous one. In 2000, Fox Weber was living in Paris when his dermatologist, Gilles Degois, mentioned that he and some colleagues ran a non-profit in Senegal and had built a medical centre. "I wanted to know more," says Fox Weber. "Gilles said, 'Come on our next trip.'"

Within weeks they were on their way. Instructed to bring an empty duffel bag, Fox Weber found himself carrying 250 toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste for a convent school that had just got running water, "so the girls could at last clean their teeth". The doctor's duffel bag, meanwhile, was filled with bags of blood, which were needed in Tambacounda. "I had never seen a more effective way of helping other people. Josef used to talk about minimal means and maximum effect." This initiative struck him as a perfect expression of that maxim.

Fox Weber was looking to expand the work of the foundation. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Anni—whose once-affluent Jewish parents had fled Germany for the US in 1939—received an unexpected legacy of almost $2m from the restitution of her family's property, which in turn buoyed the finances of the foundation. Some of this had been used to build the Albers Foundation's campus in Bethany, Connecticut, a handsome complex of gallery space, library and archive, as well as studios for visiting artists. Run as a non-profit, it is self-sustaining, not least through the licensing of the Albers' designs and commercial partnerships with, among others, the rug designer Christopher Farr, Hermès, Roksanda, Paul Smith and Uniqlo.

In 2005, a new philanthropic venture, Le Korsa, was born. At first its remit was to support the work of Dr Degois's no longer extant NGO in Senegal, constructing a kindergarten and a residence for teachers. Then, in 2015, it built a cultural centre, Thread, designed pro bono by the Japanese architect Toshiko Mori, which not only serves the local community but has also benefited a succession of visiting artists and designers, among them Damien Poulain, Tomma Abts and Grace Wales Bonner.

Next came a school, the first in its region to provide more than traditional Koranic instruction. "I had to get the permission of the grand marabout [the area's religious leader], which wasn't easy in a largely Muslim region of more than 100 villages where there had never before been a secular school," says Fox Weber. "And I thought I would run into difficulty when we made it clear that we wanted boys and girls to be taught together. But there was no resistance." And in a village that had been largely illiterate, "there are now 220 children learning to read and write."

This April will see the inauguration of the hospital, designed, again pro bono, by the Swiss architects Manuel Herz. Working almost exclusively with local craftsmen and engineers, it—like the school—not only provided employment and training but has also advanced passive-building design. Its S-shaped footprint is, for example, just 7m wide, so that rooms can be cooled through cross-ventilation to minimise the need for air conditioning; and an ingenious double-layered, barrel-vaulted roof creates a chimney effect, drawing the heat up and out of the rooms below. "It's groundbreaking architecture, absolutely," says Fox Weber. There will be an exhibition of Manuel Herz's designs for Tambacounda Hospital at this year's Venice Architecture Biennale.

But the hospital's impact on infant and maternal mortality in the region, currently the joint highest in Senegal, should be yet more profound. "The image of homeless newborns, gathered under the trees of the [existing] hospital for want of a crèche, will soon be a bad memory," says Dr Magueye Ba, the local leader with whom Le Korsa has collaborated on most of its projects in the area.

Of course, all will continue to require funding, for which money still needs to be raised. "I don't think it's fair to build a school and a hospital and give people enormous hope and then not sustain every programme," says Fox Weber. "But as Josef once said, 'To distribute material possessions is to divide them; to divide spiritual possessions is to multiply them.' I'd say that's what we're trying to do."

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Josef Albers
Study to Homage to the Square, 1954
oil and casein on masonite
12 x 12 in. (30.5 x 30.5 cm)

The Revelations of an Unlikely Pairing

In a show at Zwirner, the soft cosmos of Giorgio Morandi's domestic tableaux is relieved and refreshed by the architectonics of Josef Albers's squares.

Imagine bits of wood trapped in eddies of a stream, going round and round atop the waters that flow beneath them. The image comes to mind in response to a surprising show—surprisingly great, contrary to my skeptical expectation—at David Zwirner's New York gallery. The works on display are by two artists who can seem bizarrely mismatched: Josef Albers, the starchy German-American abstract painter, Yale School of Art professor, and color theorist, who died in 1976, at the age of eighty-eight, and Giorgio Morandi, the seraphic Italian still-life painter of bottles, vases, and other sorts of domestic objects, who died in 1964, at the age of seventy-three.

In 1950, Albers wedded himself to a format of three or four nested, hard-edged squares on square supports—Homage to the Square, he called them—centered a bit below the pictures' vertical midpoints. That was it, for him. His occasional departures from the formula in the following years availed little. The point was color, explored through often arcane contrasts between the central squares and the ones that border them. The combinations never feel familiar or predictable, and you would need acres of color charts to denominate Albers's palette.

Morandi spent half a century transfixed by items in his studio, often arranged on a single high tabletop that he had built so he could work standing up. Often woozily drawn and always tenderly brushed in muted colors, the tableaux look but don't feel repetitive. Each could be the first and only one, quietly struggling with the defining problem of pictorial representation—the reduction of three dimensions to two. A fixation on that challenge seemed to bar Morandi (the odd tentative landscape notwithstanding) from extending his scope in either subject or form. It's as if, every day, he had to finally get right something that can't be got at all: reality as it is, at one with our perception of it.

Albers, who spent thirteen years studying and teaching at the Bauhaus, is academic and even pedantic in spirit, easy to admire while hard to like. Morandi is deeply poetic. What does displaying their paintings together accomplish? In terms of formal art history, nothing in itself; they're so different. But then I think of those circling bits of wood. Both artists worked independently of the canons of modern art without being outsiders—they were in the stream but resistant to its direction. They weren't eccentric, even. Rather, their approach proposed artistic visions that deviated from the forward march of modernism: alternative movements of one. The artists' insistence can seem exasperated, as though they were waiting for the world to catch on to truths that were obvious to them. They were brothers in perseverance. To my amazement, viewing them together electrifies, as their works' extremes play off each other. Think of it as a pas de deux of a drill sergeant (Albers) and an enchanter (Morandi). There's a crackle in perception when you turn from works by one artist to those of the other.

The Zwirner show is one of the best installed that I've ever seen. Its four large rooms host rhythmic arrays and alternations that induce that crackle: the soft cosmos of Morandi is both relieved and refreshed by the architectonics of Albers, and vice versa. The artists share an intensity of artistic vocation. Neither looked over his shoulder at trends of the day. Most of the pieces in the show (twenty-three by each artist) are small. This was Morandi's habitual scale and Albers's most successful one. Albers shines when his superimposed squares deliver their color rhymes and clashes at a glance. His strongest proportion is little more than a foot square—head-size. Extended to larger canvases, the dynamic weakens. Having to shift your gaze from one part of a painting by him to another is tedious: no new information awaits you. The ambition implied by bigness—a fashion made almost obligatory by Abstract Expressionism back then—calls unwelcome attention to the arbitrary parameters of Albers's style. You've stopped looking at the work and fallen to only thinking about it. His strong suit was condensation.

Naming the colors that Albers used is a non-starter, even with an allowance for the physiological fact that all of our color perceptions are hopelessly subjective and indescribable—an evolutionarily primitive function of our brains. (Tell me what red is. Take your time. I'll wait.) By wizardly variations of tone and chroma, he explores the secret lives of hues that seem startled to find themselves conjoined. The result is, remarkably, never decorative; Albers may even be at his most compelling when he flirts with ugliness, throwing monkey wrenches into our instinctive quests for harmony. Colors may never be more themselves than when, in juxtaposition, they don't work. A philosophical commitment rules, governing decisions at a high, rather stern pitch of consciousness. This effect can intimidate when it is taken as an indication that someone, the artist, understands phenomena that you and I will always fumble to grasp. Albers exalts expertise. But be brave. You'll be better from having undergone the salutary ordeal.

The only possible impediment to appreciating Morandi is incredulity at the idea of small, grayish, unresolved images of mundane things as major art. But I believe that no one who is sentient can indefinitely discount Morandi. His efforts to negotiate pictorial depth yield one fresh epiphany after another. It feels not quite right to think of the works as pictures. Morandi cares less about what his painted objects are than about where they are: standing alone or overlapping at variable distances while, of course, occupying the same paint surface. He describes a metaphysical predicament between what's there in the world and what's here in us. This doesn't require precise drawing or balanced composition. He is not a realist. Sometimes the surface of the shelf appears porous, and gives no felt sense of support for the things atop it. At other times, he alters the level of the line that indicates the junction of the shelf and a wall, from one side to the other of what is rendered in front of it. What's a shelf? What's a wall? What's their interrelation? (Both are flat, as is painting.) Morandi drains our seeing of complacency. He occults the obvious. Normal physics of mass and gravity don't apply to adventures of the eye in space that is given material presence.

I'm leaving out the charm and, on occasion, the beauty of Morandi's repertory company of performing objects—a certain fluted white vase wins kudos whenever it is onstage—because they are incidental to a spatial conundrum that is kept in tension by beautiful over-all brushwork. I'm also setting aside the role of color in Morandi: the practically infinite variations of grays and browns, tinted or patched here and there with subtle coloration, often orangish, that imparts emotional moods to the works, no less affecting for being ungraspable. Morandi painted a zone of reality that is within reach yet cannot be touched, infusing vision with a delicate frustration of tactility. The result is an ontological mystery, confounding sight with touch and both with wonderment at their mutuality.

The Zwirner show provides a capital jump start to sensibilities deadened by nearly a year of scant physical encounters with art. Commercially, the show plainly aims to boost the allure of artists who, while well known, remain at the fringes of major fame. A cynical thought of the marketing motive hardened my heart in advance of my visit. But "money talks" is a vulgarism disarmed when money says something intelligent and exciting. I had forgotten, after previously having taken for granted, the free services to cultivation, and to sociability, of good galleries. Nearly a year of being disheartened by the online garishness and promotional smarm of digitized images has set me up to rediscover the pungency of direct aesthetic experience. There can be no meaningful discourse about art divorced from that. Intellectual appreciation starves for want of it. The less you see, the dumber you get.

I feel passably smarter now, thanks to the Zwirner show, and returned to the flow of sensation and reflection that constitutes a life in art. Mixed feelings about Albers and renewed reverence for Morandi give my lately wandering mind work to do. Not incidentally, I'm reminded to rejoice at being a New Yorker, in (well, nearby—upstate, pending vaccination) the world's premier city of art galleries.

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Installation view, Albers and Morandi: Never Finished, David Zwirner, New York, 2021. Photo courtesy of David Zwirner

Three exhibitions to see in New York this weekend

Albers and Morandi: Never Finished

Until April 3 at David Zwirner, 537 West 20th Street, Manhattan

With a two-person show of works by Giorgio Morandi and Josef Albers, David Zwirner has unloaded an unlikely exhibition of a pair of art historical heavy-hitters whose work, when seen side by side, dances and duels in surprising albeit logical ways. Born just two years apart (Albers in 1888 and Morandi in 1890) the two have singular visions. Albers's motif of nested geometry from his Homage to the Square series, which the artist worked on from 1950 until his death, created a vehicle to explore what would become modern colour theory, while from the early 1920s onwards, Morandi dedicated himself to deceptively simple still lifes of bottles and other ephemera that became the vehicle for endless exploration. Juxtaposing the two artists teases out what can happen when a question is probed for so long that it creates a microcosmic universe, birthing worlds of infinite possibility.

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Left: Josef and Anni Albers in their living room at 8 North Forest Circle, New Haven, Conn., ca. 1965. Photo © John T. Hill. Right: Anni & Josef Albers: Equal and Unequal by Nicholas Fox Weber

The T List: Five Things We Recommend This Week

When it comes to great creative partnerships, there's perhaps no better example than Josef and Anni Albers, two artists who met in Germany in 1922 at the Bauhaus school. Later, the couple immigrated to the United States to teach at North Carolina's Black Mountain College and they ultimately ended up in New Haven, Conn., where Josef was chairman of the design department at Yale University. The two were teachers, colleagues and friends of a number of prominent 20th-century artists, including Ruth Asawa, Buckminster Fuller, Ray Johnson and Robert Rauschenberg. Now, a new monograph, published by Phaidon and written by Nicholas Fox Weber, who runs the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, and who met the couple in 1971, when he was 23, captures in masterful detail the many sides of the Alberses, including their rigor as artists (Josef as painter and designer; Anni as textile artist and printmaker), their deep commitment to pedagogy and the way in which their work was both connected to and still fiercely independent of each other's. The book weaves artworks throughout biographies of both artists and features portraits of the people who surrounded them (the architect Philip Johnson, the painter Jacob Lawrence), as well as lively anecdotes about the couple's working relationship. When Josef designed a fruit bowl in 1924 with ebony bearing balls, a glass disk and a chromed rim, Anni commented: "Oh, but think of what happens with blueberries." (The bowl was more suited to larger fruit, such as apples, oranges or bananas.) And, for those of us unable to afford an artwork by either Albers, the book also serves as a beautiful object. Anni & Josef Albers: Equal and Unequal, $150, phaidon.com.

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