Raluca Șoaita, the architect who envisioned the future Children’s Oncology Hospital currently built at Marie Curie

Raluca Șoaita is an architect and the founder of Tesseract Studio, the first medical architecture studio in Romania. She doesn’t admit to having competition, so she says that the field is not thoroughly explored and that there are few specialists available. She studied in Paris, has been an architect for 12 years and about 80% of her projects have been in the medical field. Medical architecture is a very important domain because, adding to the medical utility and functionality of the building, the whole project has to impress all senses and to draw attention from suffering and death.

So she bore a hand to what is probably the most important socio-human project so far – the future Children’s Oncology Hospital soon to be built by Dăruiește Viață Association in Marie Curie’s Children’s Hospital courtyard.

What do you mean medical architecture? Was it a place on the market or much more than that?

Medical architecture is an architectural niche that is not very present in Romania through specialists. Outside our country there are design studios that have about 80-90% of their work done in medical spaces. Designing these spaces requires specialized knowledge gathered mostly through direct contact work with the field itself. Back home, very few hospitals have been build after the Revolution and then, the architects who designed such spaces used old normatives and standards. During uni, the hospital programe is rarely approached and even then, not in a detailed manner.

Sure, the private sector has generated a few hospitals and clinics projects designed by architect who dared to tackle the field and whom learned with every project. These people are rare and most of the time design studios can’t stay only in the area of these projects because they can’t be the subject of long-term work force material. Most of the times the design was made based on our worn-out Romanian normatives, based on the beneficiary’s reduced budget and too little based on the patient’s experience or the medical staff’s comfort.

What we manage to do here at Tesseract Studio is to add a forth dimension to medical architecture projects, meaning that alongside the technical requirements to be respected in the programme, we manage to generate an architectural space that participates in the patient’s healing. For the patient that is frightened by the doctor’s appointment, by the medical equipment, by the hospital in general, the forth dimension is a world in which there is no room for worries and pain. How do we achieve that? Using sneaky things that delight the senses and thoughts from suffering and death to nice emotions and sensations. We use colors, materials, background sounds, aromata to generate a pleasant atmosphere.

Let me give you an example: remember how traumatizing is having to meet MRI equipment, usually making these awful noises that makes one’s thoughts hard to hear. This experience can be made easier with small gestures so that the patient goes through the exam confident and fearless for the next one. There are hospitals and clinics out there that understand that the psychological factor is a key aspect in the patient’s healing process.

Didn’t you have any other kind of projects? A house? An office building?

I started working as an architect since 2006, still in college. In these twelve years I have designed various architecture programmes, but about 80% of my work was healthcare related. It’s a field I am interested in and one I have thoroughly researched. I’ve founded Tesseract Studio in 2015 with this idea at heart: a design studio specialized in the medical field and as a result, today we are known because of our medical projects.

What projects did you design so far in the medical architecture programme?

In the past 12 years of work I have gone through many projects of this type, from clinics, dialysis centers, pharmacies, dental clinics, laboratories, research centers, pharmaceutical products warehouses and factories, to hospitals. We are currently working on a few hospital projects with 50-200 beds. One of them, already well known and very public is Marie Curie, where alongside Dăruiește Viață Association we are extending the hospital with a new oncology center wing.

How do you feel working alongside Carmen Uscatu and Oana Gheorghiu at what seems to be the most important socio-human project?

Marie Curie’s new wing is indeed a very important project for us, but for the whole society as well. Moreso, it is already proven that it is the result of the biggest common effort of the Romanian society. For us, the architects, it was truly a challenge because we are talking about children patients with severe health problems. We’ve walked in their shoes and also in their parent’s shoes and we envisioned a design based on their needs. One of the greatest offsets in a cancer suffering child is the long hospital visits and lack of activities. The architectural concept comes to help the treatment and the medical staff by generating a story tale space where the child forgets that he/she is in the hospital, a place where the tree of life is the main presence.

At some point Carmen was telling me that she had to bring experts outside the borders so that the building would be optimized per sqcm, with no wasted space and everything perfectly functional. How was it actually?

As I’ve said earlier, Romania has very few experts in this field. During the design process we were accompanied by a team of French experts (that have designed multiple hospitals with these certain wards) in the search for the drafting theme, the specific needs of pediatric oncology and who helped us with the functional schemes. I did study in Paris, but that doesn’t mean I have two extra hands or an extra brain, just that I bring an outside view over the project, from a place that actually works as a medical infrastructure system.

Was architecture a passion for you? Did you always know that you will become an architect?

The story starts when I was three years old, when I loved to explore my dad’s wonders box, whom, having painting and drawing as a passion, had a box where he deposited his crayons, watercolors, brushes and so on. One day I’d pick up the blue crayon from the box and I’d drew onto the yellow wall in the apartment we were living in, at about a three years old child’s height, a house with smoke coming out its chimney. The house remained on the wall, with us, for a long time. It wasn’t until I was 15 years old that I have realized I wanted to become an architect after I’d met one. I had just started high school; I remember how impressed I was and how I told my parents that’s what I wanted to become. They supported me and I started early on preparations for the University’s admission exam. One of my other passions was biology, I used to love it in school and I was always curious about how the surrounding environment, the plants, the animals, the people work. Today I can say that I’m doing exactly what I wanted and that through medical architecture I’m combining the two passions.

I understand you have an art gallery as well. Can you tell me more about it? Where did the passion from art came from? Is architecture an art?

Yes, in partnership with Andrei Breahna, I have a contemporary art gallery in Bucharest: EASTWARDS PROSPECTUS. The passion for art arose while in college, when exposed to contemporary art for the first time. During my travelling outside the country I always spared time for art museums. I participated in the cultural activities in Romania with much interest. We became collectioners when we came back to Romania and realized we had access to quality artworks for reasonable prices.

Back in the days, architects used to work with artists. Our office is in the same space as the gallery and the contact with the contemporary art world is amazingly helpful. Sometimes we find our inspiration in the art or in its concepts and the gallery is a debate place where the main subject is the society’s status. Through our architecture projects we envision spaces for the contemporary society, and we look towards the future just as contemporary art does.

What would you say to a parent who’s child will be hospitalized in the new Marie Curie oncological wing?

I would tell the parent that when we designed the hospital, we considered the little patient’s needs and that the architectural space comes to fully endorse an efficient medical act. This aspect comes together with the medical team’s professionalism and presents the very concept of the hospital: the patient’s needs are being brought into focus.