The Tecnópolis Sanitary Park in Buenos Aires: from isolation center to place of conviviality


This text reflects on our intervention in the opening and closing process of the first COVID-19 Sanitary Park (Parque Sanitario Tecnópolis or PST) in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area, between July and December of 2020. 

Since the year 2000, we’ve been transforming the tools and conceptual limits of architecture and urbanism. In 2005 we, Mauricio Corbalan and Pio Torroja, founded m7red to try and define a field of perception, analysis and operativeness we call ‘complex scenarios’, in relation to the local economic and social crises, but also to global ecosystemic ones. Complex scenarios try to describe the intermediate state where tensions and phase-shiftings prepare the conditions for the existence of the new: of that which emerges. We’re interested in new types of spaces, systems, processes, or ecosystems, understood in the sense of their inhabitability and their inherent tension. By complex scenarios we understand the process of retracing the road that goes from the architectonic object and the urban structure towards an unstable state that is potentially as constructive as it is destructive. 

On the methodological level, we explore relationships and differences inside scenarios and actors that incarnate them, as well as the way in which the future can give shape to the present. In this sense, while our work may seem more analytical than constructive, it can be said that we focus on composition and not on those of project or design. Our interventions are process oriented; they are made of multiple translations and interweaving points of view more than final images or advanced prefigurations, but always imply material consequences of a situation. 

During the first months of the pandemic, we were called to think out an experimental protocol for the communication and information management inside a soon-to-be-opened COVID-19 isolation center in the periphery of the city of Buenos Aires. The challenges were many, especially because of the fast-changing dynamics of the pandemic. How to develop a communication system that could go beyond the top-down approach of the sanitary authorities and security experts? How to make this situation an opportunity to compose different types of knowledge?

Chronology – The Tecnópolis Sanitary Park

The Tecnópolis Sanitary Park (PST) was created during the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the national government’s implementation of their public sanitary policy in Argentina. It was intended to assist those who had been infected with the virus and were not able to remain isolated from their families at home. By staying in the health complex, the patients would avoid spreading the virus to others.

Although the PST ran under the direction of the Health Ministry of the Province of Buenos Aires, there was a strong social approach as opposed to only a medical one. Along with doctors, nurses and psychologists, there were many social workers occupying different roles. 

>March 13th 2020: Public emergency law in Argentina

‘That as per Law N° 27.541 the public emergency in matters of the economic, financial, fiscal, administrative, energetic, sanitary and social was declared, and certain faculties therein comprised were delegated in the National Executive Power. 

That, with the date of the 11th of March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO), declared the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as a pandemic, after having verified on a global level to that moment, registered cases in more than ONE HUNDRED AND TEN (110) countries.’ 

>April 7th 2020: Tecnópolis, a cultural park, is transformed into an emergency sanitary center: Parque Sanitario Tecnópolis

In April, the Culture Ministry ceded several pavilions of the Tecnópolis facility so that national and provincial authorities, with the cooperation of the Argentine Red Cross and White Helmets, could begin the planning of a place at the service of community care. The infrastructure’s assembly was undertaken by the Argentine Army. 

After hosting the country’s largest campaign hospital, Tecnópolis was transformed into a sanitary center. This huge facility, located in the Metropolitan Area of Buenos Aires (AMBA), is added to a relocatable military hospital, twenty mobile sanitary units and modular hospitals.

As stated by the then National Health Minister: ‘It’s going to be one of the biggest places in the world, the sick there will be mild, but in that way we will make a massive expansion of the sanitary system.’ 

>May 2020: The PST’s management is left in the hands of political scientists and territorial referents 

Management of the PST is handed over to the Argentine Red Cross and the government of the Province of Buenos Aires, which includes the AMBA.

Probably due to the territorial complexity of the park, and with the goal of accruing political support, the formation of the team centered on community leaders of the neighborhoods where most of the PST recipients would come from and people from social and political sciences that could understand the local dynamics of these populations. It was through the lens of social complexity that caring and healing practices and sanitary, technical and scientific knowledge started to be articulated. As the park coordinator Mario Escalante told us, the PST ‘had as a goal being able to take in those people who were infected and that do not have the necessary conditions to isolate in their homes, therefore preventing the contagion of others. While the direction was under control of the Province of Buenos Aires’ Health Ministry, the park incorporated a strong social outlook with aims of approaching the complexity and integrity of the receivers to be assisted, one that breaks to a certain point with a hegemonic look centered on the biological installed in certain sanitary institutions.’ 

For the team in charge of envisioning the park ‘To plan, to execute and to manage an isolation center under a ‘convivial’ scheme out of a hospital facility, it is a decision which should not only be supported by the spatial and building characteristics of the facilities. It must also depend on the formation of the work team that can accompany the integrality of the subject – the former ‘patient’ of the medicalised system – that is going to be the ‘recipient’ of the task of the caregivers but also to the interactions of the same with its peers; those people who will share your stay and in most situations heir ailments.’ 

>May 2020: Isolating and connecting

The government, through the Cabinet Headquarters’ Modernization department, closed an agreement with telecommunications companies so that they would freely provide more internet bandwidth for people isolated in the PST. ‘Cell phones are the only tools that patients are going to have to connect with their families, because they won’t be able to receive visits’, explained a sanitary source. The phone-based contention was essential for those who went through their illnesses in isolation, far away from their relatives and close relationships. 

>May 2020: Offer to join the Sanitary Park team

In May, Daniel Daza, from the Digital Anthropology team at UNSAM (University of San Martín), called us to be a part of the team that was being assembled for the Sanitary Park’s management. 

We accepted to join the team since the focus was experimental, and the indeterminate nature of the problem was compatible with our complex scenarios methodology. For a week we discussed the political and ethical risks of supporting an isolation facility that could become repressive and which gave no guarantee of how it would develop in the uncertainty of the pandemic. But we decided to take the challenge because we already knew many in the team, since we had worked on isolated experiences previously. We also thought it was better to involve ourselves rather than merely observe the transformations from outside and through the media, it was perhaps better to provide critical thinking from within.

>May 2020: Models vs. Practices conference  

During these first months of the pandemic, expert groups arose and attempted to model the sanitary crisis’ possible future data. A group in the city of Córdoba that was publishing data through a real-time map contacted us and invited us to a conference organized by Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute. During the conference, peoples of various disciplines that were dealing with the pandemic came together to share and reflect on what was being done in different parts of the world. The conference focused specifically on one aspect of the debate between John P. A. Ioannidis and Nassim Taleb on the question of whether predictive models should be produced with available data, or whether models should be built more consistently but slowly, avoiding making models that could trigger erroneous, perhaps irreversible, policies. One thing emerging from the debate was the realisation realization that there was no subordination between the global and the local. During the pandemic, experts trying to forecast the evolution of COVID by means of global and abstract data models, were challenged by local territorial networks of caring and conviviality. The pressing issue was how to handle the crisis in specific territories impacted by months of severe lockdowns. Modelling and data science was too abstract for social workers and community leaders working on the ground on a daily basis.

It must be remarked that many of the first responses to the pandemic, especially in 2020, implied on one side the formation of teams and processes composed by heterogenous, multidisciplinary and especially ‘trans-scientific ‘ actors, and on the other a heated debate between positions, visions and theories from experts and non-experts. This collective possibility was undermined on the political, cultural and mediatic level in early 2021, coinciding with global vaccine rollout.  

>May 2020: The park

‘The Tecnópolis Sanitary Park occupies a surface of 28 thousand square meters (7 hectares of the 52 that the facility has in total) where there are five naves which count with 821 rooms of two, three and four beds. The initiative has – besides five naves for men and women – nonbinary spaces and the possibility of sheltering entire families. Each of the zones that are part of the Sanitary Park are represented by a colour: the green zone is where administrative and general coordination tasks are developed; the yellow zone is where logistics activities (storages and cellars for material storing) are undertaken, also linked to clothing elements decontamination through mobile laundry and the one that counts with a pharmacy space and places for personnel breaks; lastly the red zone is the one where the recipients are lodged. This zone has two dining halls with the capacity to house more than 300 people and have the names Cecilia Grierson and René Favaloro.’

>June 2020: Proposition regarding a multidimensional communication system

While the park and the debate in which we were involved didn’t have technology as their central topic, social and governmental pressure led to it. Beyond developing a communication and information management system, we proposed the challenge of a technological process that started to compose, and synthesize if possible, the procedures, protocols and tools already in use (mobile messaging system, google spreadsheets and Slack management tool). We tried to see whether this system could take shape based on the wider discussion that was already developing in the park regarding sanitary paradigms and the socio-political role of these spaces. 

>May 2020: The PST and rights restitution

The forming of the PST’s particular focus implied a larger discussion about the articulation of actors and knowledge. Where should this situation of exception and emergency lead, and what sense should this unprecedented mobilization of resources have? Did it imply the solution of a biological problem or, paradoxically, the widening of collective opportunities and capacities? In the words of Mario Escalante: 

‘The Tecnópolis Sanitary Park is thought of and approached from a perspective of rights restitution and social justice. A public health policy where the integral care of people is the device’s central axis. 

The whole team of Tecnópolis intervenes from a focus of integrality, basing the strategy on three fundamental principles: First, the placing of the recipient as center and axis around which all interventions are articulated. Second, the composition of a genuinely interdisciplinary team with medical and non-medical in the first line of attention, supported by highly skilled personnel. Third, the investment in quality services, some of which are not usually part of the default sanitary package.’

Two other problems that the team had to respond to were, on one side, the sanitary (which protocols, which objectives, which means?) and, on the other, mediating a territorial situation. An example of this in the words of Escalante was ‘instead of placing only sanitary or legal experts, the goal was to consolidate a team directed by political scientists and community referents that walk the neighborhoods.’ More than half of the coordinators and operators of the PST came from the more complex AMBA neighborhoods.

>July 2020: Interviewing Silvio Funtowicz, postnormal science for uncertainty and ignorance? 

For several years, m7red has been reading and studying the work of Argentine epistemologist Silvio Funtowicz, who along with Jerry Ravetz, has set the basis of postnormal science and for the establishment of a precautionary principle for the EU. Since the beginning of the pandemic we established a conversation with Silvio. For postnormal science, the political and democratic implications overcome the closed cycle of experts that feed the executive powers’ decision-making process.

extended post-normal scheme

Postnormal science has become a fundamental conceptual tool for the cartography and critique of the relationship between science, politics and factual power. If we move through postnormal science’s heuristic schema from pure science (the origin of the axes), going through applied science, expert consulting and then postnormal science (where risk, social problems, ecosystem and political crises, trans-science and wicked problems converge) we could lead in a new ring where we’d have not a political epistemology and epistemological politics problem, not an heterogeneity of values, but a clash of epistemes or a state of ‘cognitive war’. This means that by extending the postnormal schema we’d have a wider view to understand the extreme conditions in which we are forging rudimentary but exploratory democratic operations like that of the PST. 

As Alejandro Galliano has stated, ‘Funtowicz took its Argentine experience of precarity and uncertainty to the scientific discussion. The climate, energetic and sanitary crisis will be growing, sciences and experts won’t be able to cope with them alone. The game must be opened: to extend peer revision to community, elaborate contingency plans and continue trying. ‘New methods should be developed to make our ignorance usable’.  

>July-November 2020: Thinking about the crisis inside the crisis

‘The Sanitary Park is a lodging center for people diagnosed with mild COVID-19 symptoms, which proposes coexistence as a way to transit the disease, it seeks to be a social, affective and health refuge in an encounter with peers in the same temporary situation. This way of understanding the situation is removed from sanitary measures in which it is proposed to quarantine in hotel rooms, placing each person as an ‘island’. Counter to that, the Tecnópolis Sanitary Park tries to be a place outside the hospital that, starting from a focus in integrality, finds in shared activities and coexistence a way to build a daily life, and in doing so achieving the required internment days for recuperating and strengthening the encounter with others. In coexistence important events take place: people who lodge in Tecnópolis can, in the course of their stay, take part in a cultural workshop, receive some training, establish links with people they do not know, share matters of their intimate life, read, participate in activities organized by the work team, and more‘.

One of PST’s characteristics is that its configuration implied many adjustments and articulations, the information system we developed didn’t come about in a straightforward or pre-conceived way: it was a process. We reacted to the changing pandemic situation through a process of real-time composition. In the words of Mario Escalante, this meant ‘to think the crisis inside the crisis’. While there were constitutive parts (protocols, infrastructures, expertise), there were others that were still taking shape or that simply had none.

We started from a focus on security issues because conflicts were expected from the beginning between heterogeneous social groups coming from different areas. The importance of security declined as territorial operators and psychosocial teams widened their follow-up work for the PST residents’ specific needs as the rest of their families were still at home. The connection between recipients at the park and their relatives that remained in their respective neighborhoods was crucial to overcome feelings of isolation on both sides. 

Another characteristic was the establishment of a series of optional social, recreational and educational activities which inverted the ‘social distance’ mandated by epidemiological protocols, generating a strange sociability during confinement. People experiencing homelessness were also part of the experiment, and some recipients even wanted to remain lodged in the park beyond their quarantine period. Another unexpected situation was the addition of a sector for families, since certain groups of mothers/fathers with their children or other parenthood configurations would experience the separation as too traumatic, especially those where children and the elderly were to remain alone if the adults in charge quarantined in the park. Towards the end of the cycle, near November, several talks were hosted with the recipients regarding the working of the park.

We participated in some PST team meetings where we imagined the continuation of the relationships network that was taking shape not only inside the park, but even in the neighborhoods where recipients came from. It should be remembered that many of the coordinators and operators were inhabitants of those neighborhoods and that some of them were community leaders. At the same time, the park had served as a buffer zone for the pandemic’s impact on the territory, as a visualizer for the neighborhood’s problems and as an experimental zone for the redistribution of public services. ‘When I saw the beds, the showers and all the facilities I felt amazed, this place is going to be for many of my neighbors the first opportunity to enjoy hot water and a comfortable bed’ described Erica, a student on psychopedagogy, from Jose Leon Suarez, a troubled neighborhood located nearby.

In those same meetings we discussed the park’s extra-sanitary character, its need to transform in a moment of social urgency, even incorporating the idea of creating an atmosphere of festivity for the recipients. 

The problems we witnessed in the eight months we worked there were mostly related to social and economic deprivation, where the most critical factor was the situation in the recipients’ neighborhoods of origin. The sanitary problem inside the team meant a strong dispute with the medical and nursing team, who conceived of the PST as a deeply hierarchical hospital device, even with its military characteristics due to the emergency’s exceptionality.

>June 2020. Establishing the role of Territorial Operator

The role of the ‘territorial operator’ consolidated inside the park’s structure, in which years of experiences and experiments of political struggle and vital network construction decanted. The park operators are almost all people who lived in the most marginalized neighborhoods of the AMBA, and they were referents either because they created community dining halls (similar to soup kitchens), because of their political activism, or because they managed to achieve municipal or educational administrative positions. Some of them were ex-addicts that became social workers specializing in addiction. All of them know the territorial dynamics and its groups and institutions. In the park, operators occupied the specific role of connecting different administrative and affective planes; they could understand technical processes and territorial realities, neighborhood strategies and histories, specific ways of life, and at the same time the administrative language. They were known figures that had won the trust of their neighbors and colleagues, ‘they are a hybrid of referents, activists and social workers,’ according to Mario Escalante. The role of ‘operator’ itself implies a critique of the abstraction of the role of ‘expert.’ 

>November 2020: Proposition of a badge system for the PST

In November we proposed to the team a badge system to formalize and make visible the experience and production process of specific knowledge of the park, which we thought could extend to the work that communities and groups have done for decades. Work that is still considered a contingent form of action which produces no relevant knowledge. In the project’s text, which was a part of the debate that went across the park, we wrote:

‘PST is a high complexity specific local scenario where knowledge and experience in a critical subject are being produced on a social level. It is in this scenario where knowledge and practices are created and reconfigured, therefore the PST members are part of a teaching and self-teaching process and of socio-technical resource construction, beyond normal institutions and their legitimation system.

PST is not only a provisional solution to an ongoing crisis, but also a localized knowledge laboratory, specific/generalizable knowledge that can obtain an institutional hierarchy that permits other knowledge to arrive, just like other knowledge can recognize and then synergize with this experience.’ 

>December 1st 2020: After 270 days, no deaths

Nearing the end of the PST, collective reflection processes began to take place as internal assemblies with representation from all groups (operators, coordinators, nurses, doctors, psychosocial teams, maintenance, etc.), where some recipients were invited to be a part of the evaluation based on their experiences. We could say this reflection process expresses the existence of an ‘extended peer community,’ a postnormal democratic forum in the midst of an extreme sanitary crisis.

The park’s infrastructure and systems are disassembled. The sanitary balance is unbeatable, no deaths and minimal urgency internments. The collective evaluation opens new roads in the fields of action and knowledge, concluding that the clash of epistemologies and paradigms (for example sanitary and social, technical and territorial, etc.) has given place to the post-hospital and post-security scheme. Above all, the evaluation served to systematize a certain existent territorial dynamic that could be amplified. 

Political defeat, however, awaits the team, since they will all be transferred to the emerging vaccination campaign that today, one year later, we see has abstracted the problem of the territorial. It has diverted funds from complex urban problems and centered a technoscientific solutionism that depoliticized this experiment and many other situations that happened at the start of the pandemic. 

On December 2nd the Tecnópolis Sanitary Park was officially closed. 

Translated by Bruno Borgna.