“You can change a lot of things by doing small things”
One year after the completion of the wildlife and landscape observatory in Armenis, the first bison rewilding site in the south-west of Romania, we take a look back at this amazing experience with photos from behind the scenes and an interview with the architects who coordinated the design&build camp. Text by Mara Cazacu Minculescu, WWF-Romania Senior Communications Officer, photos by Bogdan Comanescu and Sebastian Apostol.
(a few minutes read)
Tara sits quietly on the border between a rich forest and an open mountainous landscape, on a hill in the Tarcu Mountains, south-west of Romania – one of the last and largest wilderness strongholds in Europe. You can see Tara from afar, down from the dirt road that takes you from the village of Fenes to the Bison Hillock, the home sweet home of the mighty bison which made its comeback here in 2014, after 200 years of absence. Tara’s presence is subtle, as it blends into the surroundings, but once you’re in the right spot in the valley or on a nearby hill, it promptly catches your eye and invites you in for an all-sense encounter with nature and your own self. This is Tara’s mission, the landscape and wildlife observatory built in the scorching heat of August 2017 by a multicultural crew of architects, designers, carpenters and naturalists gathered in the Bison Hillock for a design and build on-site marathon workshop.
Organised together with the Italian architecture practice of Camposaz and with financial backing from the EU, the workshop had its starting point in our desire to build something special in a beautiful place with almost no visitor infrastructures; a short design brief followed, which spoke of the need of a pit-stop for hikers with sufficient space for gatherings of small groups of tourists and locals, and designed to show off the panorama of the Bison Hillock and the Tarcu peak (alt. 2190 m). A few emails and an evaluation fieldtrip away, and Camposaz agreed to the challenge, then calling up some 20 young and trusted professionals from its European architecture and design network and helping us in listing all the necessary ingredients, in exact quantities, for the job: wood, screws, wood processing tools and machines, and advising on organisational aspects, based on an experience spanning more than five years of design and build camps.
Over here, in Romania, and more specifically in the villages of Armenis and Fenes, at the foot of the Tarcu Mountains, preparations burst into an all-absorbing one-month flurry to find and secure local transportation services and food for the camp-ers in an area of dire scarcity in terms of tourism services, to source the construction materials, and to ignite solidarity amongst various companies with a fondness of nature and artisan manufacturing to support our challenge with eco-friendly dish soaps, personal hygiene products and sunscreens, speciality coffee and artisan beverages, comfy tents and sleeping bags. Our hearts skipped a beat seeing all the people we contacted at this very diverse range of companies responding positively to our call, and generously offering for free all the items in our shopping cart. During this time, basic living facilities and spaces also had to be arranged and put up on the camp site, on the property of Mr. Matei, a good-hearted local with a big family, who happily agreed to “sacrifice” part of his land and privacy for this public observatory and to host people coming from all corners of Europe in his orchard, for 10 days. Mr. Matei’s old and semi-abandoned traditional mountain hut had to be cleaned and repaired, a cooker had to be brought in and installed, and outdoor showers and loos had to be mounted.
At the end of a month of tribulations and hope-in-humanity-restored type of moments, new friendships in the urban world and consolidated relations with villagers, the campsite was ready for its guests. Glamping-ready with you name what – from 100% natural toothpaste and soaps, to sleeping bags made of spoiled geese feathers, Instagram-able outdoor showers and loos with a view of the valley, homemade jams and freshly roasted coffee, three village lady-chefs able to cook delicious specialities day in-day out, plus features that would make any free or adventurous spirit enjoy an experience in the wild to the fullest: no phone reception, no electricity, a guitar, a safe place for campfires and a shepherd’s dog – Tara, that from the very first day left her sheepfold from the hill across the White River valley to stay with us and guard us at night and escort us during the day, on our one-hour hikes down the hill for supplies; Tara, the dog, did this for the whole duration of the camp, ignoring the shepherd’s everyday calls from the other hill and his visits to our camp to take her home.
Another 10 days on, Tara was also the name given by the camp-ers (and now friends) to this new wooden observatory that emerged from technical talent, a strong connection to the local landscape and a commitment to personal discovery and growth. While infused with a raw sense of accomplishment and joy, I invited the workshop tutors, Tatiana, Giovanni and Paul to speak to me about the experience while still fresh in our memory, and also about the roots of Camposaz. I felt (and still do) that the concept and philosophy used by them to (re)activate spaces with a meaning, ignored or abandoned places, be it natural or urban settings, has the power to inspire people, especially people with a mission to build things, to give closer consideration to the human dimension of their endeavour, both in terms of self discovery, and the history of the place and quality of experience and life their brick-and-mortar creations facilitate amongst their present visitors or inhabitants.
My chat with Giovanni flowed smoothly on the morning of our departure day, as we set two rugged wooden stools in the yard of Mr. Matei’s mountain hut, by the fire where the few others camp-ers that didn’t catch the first rides back to civilisation cooked an impromptu stew from leftovers (mainly potatoes). This was definitely a big upgrade from the conditions in which I managed to chat with Paul the day before, which was on a super-speed hike around the hill towards the Long River valley, where we had to collect a WWF car to take Paul to Armenis, where ranger Matei was waiting for us to further give him a ride to the airport of Timisoara, where Paul finally caught a flight home to Rotterdam. To find the car, me, Paul and Georg, our dear and long-time collaborator on bison tracking tours in Armenis, hurried one behind the other, Georg leading through thorny wild bushes, zigzagging up and down the hill, with me shouting questions at Paul from the back and occasionally stopping for quick insights from our expert guide about various signs and tracks of animals he was spotting on the way with his eagle-like sight.
(Sample dialogue: Paul: What are we looking at? Georg: Some scat. Paul: Of what? The answer to this differed, based on Georg’s analysis of the respective finding.)
Our hearts almost popped out of our chests with fear of being attacked by the legendary sheep dogs, as the winding path to the car suddenly took us straight through a sheepfold, with no alternative, escape route; luckily, on that day, it was empty – nobody was home, but that thick smell of wool and cheese still filled the air, as we tip-toed on the bare, hardened ground.
Camposaz was founded in Italy, in 2013, by a bunch of longstanding friends who wanted to experiment with building site-specific structures in groups of people of a diverse academic background, but who didn’t have an exact business plan or a well-defined vision to guide their work. They just started it, I suspect out of an impulse to do something “informal”, small interventions but with a social and cultural stake. Giovanni (Gio) himself tells me they didn’t really know how it was going to be. […] then this became bigger and bigger and every year we increase the number of workshops. This year we have six workshops: four in Italy, one here and one in Lisbon. Their first project was for a local festival in the region of Trento, north of Italy, and it consisted of two wooden outdoor structures: an “urban living room” and a “landramp”, both of which had the ultimate role of “enhancing the landscape” while covering clear functions such as providing a “multifunctional and comfortable” “stage-set for concerts and public activities” and a place “where people can sit or lie down to admire the flying paragliders and the profile of the Dolomites”. The name Camposaz, Giovanni continues, comes from ”sotta la zopa” which is in [northern Italian] dialect and means “underground”. Literally under the soil, but it also means underground in a [cultural] way. […] the “saz” is the acronym of “sotta la zopa” which is the festival that started in our place and where we built the first structure and “campo” means a square in Italian – a place for meeting, dialogue.
Giovanni is one of those founding friends, maintaining a central role and coordinating the work of the practice; he’s the informal leader and a visionary mind, though he shows a very humble, down-to-earth and introspect attitude and stresses that his role is actually very practical and in front of the movement, let’s call it like this, ‘cause it’s kind of a movement this way of doing architecture. We have […] communication, administration, but I don’t do that, my role is more on site, constructing and working with the team. The core team of Camposaz is formed of a mere 4-5 people, which seems little for an organisation that holds multiple design and build workshops per year around the world and where no two projects are even remotely the same, except for the process and the ethos behind them; the strength and energy and ability to deliver consistently at the same standards are though significantly boosted by participants who go through more than one workshop and keep very close to the core group as both organisers of Camposaz workshops themselves, and tutors at the respective workshops. A case in point here are Tatiana (Tati), also living in Italy, and Paul, who lives in the Netherlands: Tati is a “Camposarian” since their third ever workshop, which was in Chioggia (the little known Venice, south of the main Venice), while Paul joined them in 2016, for a workshop in Rotterdam. How was this first contact with Camposaz?
Tatiana: I immediately fell in love.
Paul: I was a participant. That’s how I got to learn about them. They had […] an ad in a Dutch architecture web magazine […] about […] a workshop with wood, which is kind of my material – I’m comfortable building with wood. So I knew that I felt comfortable with building, I felt comfortable also with the design part. The reason I joined was to be with a group of strangers for ten days in a really close area and that would be the most challenging part, but in the end it was also the very best part of Camposaz. The building and the designing is a way of meeting people, of connecting, of making new friends. After that I kept in touch with Gio and Tatiana and a guy from America who was there. When we’re doing projects [on our own], we messenger each other and see what the other thinks, so that’s really nice.
Paul and Giovanni are also ski buddies and Paul was already looking forward to winter to go to Trentino and ski with Giovanni, who is actually an instructor. This is an important revenue stream for him, as when the winter season is finished the money earned from teaching allows him to cherry-pick architecture projects and volunteer in projects according to his personal values and interests. At the time of our chat he was trying to make some tourism-related projects for my place – a new type of tourism, of course, which has a deep or more sincere relationship with nature, but it’s hard. It’s difficult to change the mind of people and in my place at least there is a lot of massive tourism, especially in the winter. But Giovanni is driven and optimistic; he holds that you can change a lot of things by doing small things.
In Romania, all three of them have been on previous occasions – that is before Tara. Tati was a participant in a Camposaz workshop held in Brasov (Transylvania) in 2015, for the construction of two wooden viewing platforms overlooking the city, and Giovanni was a tutor there; Paul, on the other hand, visited our country for leisure, to see some friends in Bucharest. He admits to being mostly a city guy, even when it comes to holidays, but Tara succeeded in whetting his appetite for rural adventures. I do like sailing or hiking, but it’s less than cities. A weekend in the city is enough to get away, but a weekend out…I have to have more time and I’m also quite easily bored. In cities it’s more stuff to do, depends on how you get that of course. But I think this will help to make me go to rural areas a little bit more easy, ‘cause now I see I don’t really need a shower, a toilet, I can just go and…I really enjoyed being in this place. The only thing that was a bit strange – that we were in such a free area and we almost didn’t move for 13 days, even in my own city I move around more if I’m not travelling to other cities for work, meetings or to see friends. […] I would have loved to have a half-day hike to go explore, these rangers seemed to know what they were talking about, they could give you insights about dog poo and stuff, so that would have been interesting. Anyway, time is always your biggest enemy in Camposaz.
Indeed, time is a big, unavoidable pressure when you have to design and build something from scratch, totally dependent on and influenced by the environment where you’ve just “landed”, and do it together with a diverse group of people who have also just landed on location from all corners of the world, some of whom you haven’t even met before. But hey, they say time-induced stress gets your creative juices flowing to the extent that you’re susceptible of producing some of your best work yet. The tutors leading the workshop, namely Tatiana, Giovanni and Paul in our case, have the extra challenge of making people feel involved and heard and their perspective on the design project – valued and constructively criticised; they need to deploy techniques that also help participants immerse their whole beings, with all their senses into the new place, so they can generate authentic, human-based design ideas, inspired by the local context and smart enough to enhance it. While speaking of Tara, Paul points to the general outline of a typical Camposaz workshop: We’re trying to improve a little bit: the design process was a bit different [here], the exercises were a little bit different than normal. Just because we want to improve the structure, we want to be a little bit better every time. If you start with new people who never built things – that limits you in some ways. But maybe we can get more out of people, can learn more if we change the programme a little bit, the exercises. So this Camposaz was also a way for us to try some new stuff. Hopefully it will become better, but the general outline is pretty much the same: two days of designing only and then normally eight days of building. Now it was a little more, as we needed a bit more time to account for the special circumstances over here, like carrying up the wood and stuff.
As I mentioned in the beginning, Tara is propped up on a rather steep hill, high enough that you get a spectacular view way into the distance, with Bison Hillock in the foreground. The difficulty of carrying five cubic metres of wood up this hill by hand, along with the heavy saws and drills and other tools and machines, and the general complexity of preparing the campsite for the workshop and then maintaining a certain level of basic comfort for participants created fertile ground for a lot of self-irony which translated into a mantra for our workshop: “the panda made me do it in the wild” (alluding to a famous campaign run by WWF-UK some years ago). Our mantra found its place on a dedicated line of T-shirts, in true Camposaz tradition, which all of us proudly wore during the camp and afterwards, as reminder of our story.
Here’s Tatiana, and I sensed her smiling while revealing this (Tatiana had to rush out of the camp after completion of Tara, as she had enlisted on another Camposaz workshop in the Dolomites, and so unlike with Giovanni and Paul, I had to resort to email to interview her): I thought at the beginning that the main challenge would be just to make it possible in the wild! Showers, no electricity, really special conditions. But at the end I think that the hardest thing to do was to create something that deserves to stay in such an amazing beautiful and powerful place! […] not just a living space, but also a place to feel. Something that could collect emotions, sensations from one landscape to another and let them flow through visitors staying inside.
She adds: The organisation was perfect, so from a technical point of view we had only common structural issues. From a human perspective – it was amazing. The absence of cell phones and all technological devices let us have a lot of real free time that we spent talking, sharing, thinking and a little bit of sleeping! That improved a lot team feelings, helped us to know each other.
So who were these elves that created such a beautiful piece of work in no time, in the wild Southern Carpathians, on a voluntary basis? Scroll down to find a complete list of them. They came in for this mission from Italy, the Netherlands and Romania. Given that we called on Camposaz at the last minute (meaning about two months before the actual workshop), due to conflicting priorities at the time, the recruitment of participants had to be fast-forwarded and Tati and Gio decided to get in touch with architects and designers that were already familiarised with such an experience and knew how all the specific tools work.
Giovanni: For this occasion we invited participants from past years. We knew that we wanted to do something special, so we called people that had already worked with us. For all the other occasions, we make an internet call on websites like Archdaily, Blast, student competition websites. Then we make a rough selection of 12 participants, we ask for a motivation letter and a design project. And we all from Camposaz we give marks to it, and then we combine the marks and we have the final selection of participants.
Me: So the whole process takes a few months? Giovanni: Usually we decide one year before that we’ll go to a specific place to build something; we make the call like two months before the workshop and then we communicate to the participants one month before that they’ve been selected or not. This one was VERY fast. Amazing. No wonder then that they decided not to give Tara a number and inscribe it on the chronological list of Camposaz structures, but call it “Alpha”. Paul explains: “Alpha” was put in the schedule at the last moment, so they didn’t give it a number. So “Alpha” would be the 12th [Camposaz workshop/structure in the world], but they decided not to give it a number. […] because this was also connected to WWF, they wanted to have a little bit more experience in people around us. So except for some people from Romania, all the others had already been in another Camposaz.Me: And are you satisfied with the outcome?
Paul: Yeah, very much. It always seems that in the beginning or somewhere in the middle there’s some kind of a rough point to get the project through and then you start seeing it taking shape and people regain their energy and enthusiasm and then the work also goes faster and it’s easier to work along if you’re happy with what you’re building. When we all went to the other side of the hill for the sunset dinner, it was not even half finished yet but I really enjoyed looking at it – it’s like an explosion coming out of the forest. I think it’s really cool. […] Hopefully someone will make a picture from that side and it will show what I’m seeing.
Me: What will you remember most from this experience?
Paul: I guess you’ll have to ask me in one year. There’s so much stuff. Now it’s just hanging around in the structure for a while and there’s so much stuff from the last 30 days that’s running in my head that I need a little bit of distance to…But the place is incredible.
Tatiana: It was an experience so full of emotions that it’s still really hard to choose something that was more or better than the other. But, I was really surprised by the strange connection it created between the builders and their main client: the bison! Even if I did not really see them, somehow I can feel that I know them and that we are connected with a strange energy with these amazing creatures. That’s maybe the demonstration that some pieces of wood connected in a special shape can really make the difference and create an invisible bridge between the human soul and nature.
Giovanni puts the icing on the cake saying that Tara is the second [Camposaz structure] in Romania [the first one being the one in Brasov]. But this is really a landmark. I’m really impressed with what we did. Because also the organisation allowed us to focus. It was so well organised, there were so many facilities that the result was very good. […] you can like it or you can also don’t like it, but the process was successful.At this point I feel I need to make a note about their passion for wood, as all their structures are made of this material and it popped up often in our conversations. Giovanni sheds some light over this aspect: We work with wood, it’s carpentry basically, because we are trying this new way of doing architecture which comes from the North actually, from Norway, and before that – from America, that is mixing the figure of an architect, with the figure of a carpenter, and the figure of an artist. It combines the three of them. And we prefer wood because it’s a material that’s alive, it’s sustainable, you can treat it and it’s very “warm” also. We didn’t experiment so much with other materials, because we are working very well like this. Maybe in the future we can think of proposing glass, concrete, iron [in combination with wood]. But we still have to find a good workshop [i.e. craftsmen] and good knowledge to reinvent the Camposaz workshop based on that. The term “sustainable”/”sustainability” is used here in the sense of a material that is sourced locally; to us, WWF-ers, it was very important, essential even, to find a supplier who could provide us with FSC certified wood. Luckily, as our forestry colleagues have been long involved in promoting the benefits of FSC in Romania, the world’s most respected and strict certification system for wood products, and delivering trainings for public and private forest managers, our quest wasn’t long and painful and lead us to a small wood facility about an hour’s drive from Armenis.
To the Camposarians the term has yet another, finer nuance that bears the mark of their studies in environmental architecture and their obvious love of nature (many of them have graduated in this specific field of architecture at the same university in Milan). Giovanni mentioned that this term of sustainability can be misunderstood. I mean we try to develop this idea of sustainability – for us it’s very important. We make light constructions, almost transparent, so as not to make an impact on earth and they are also kind of temporary structures which will eventually blend completely into their environment in a few years time.
My mind cannot help wander back to the main principles and beliefs that underpinned Frank Lloyd Wright’s approach to architecture, which came to be known as “organic architecture”. To this great figure of the 20th century architecture, no house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and home should live together each the happier for the other. I think this can be extrapolated to any other kind of building, not only houses, and I am confident in saying that we applied this principle quite successfully with our Tara, though maybe unconsciously, unplanned and to the small scale that we got the chance to act. And I think this becomes clear as you take a look at Tara, especially from a slight distance that allows you to capture the natural features around it.
Now, for final thoughts. Will they be back sometime? Maybe for a bison tour?
Paul: Absolutely. That’s the only thing I was really praying for, for a bison or even a bear, I didn’t care, just give me a piece of wildlife. So I’ll try to come back for a bison hike, that would be really nice.
Giovanni: Yes, we didn’t have the chance [to see the bison]. Of course, I would like to see the structure in a few years, because it’s like leaving a baby here, a part of you and then you only see it in photos.
Alessandro Chojwa, Andrei Tache, Cecilia Rendina, Cezar Cernea, Davide Tagliabue, Enrico Tommasini, Ioana Covali, Ioan Moldovan, Krisztina Bokos, Magda Vieriu, Maria Luisa Miotto, Marianna Landi, Massimiliano Piffer, Oti Hrebenciuc, Paul Pestisan, Pintea Dan, Paul Rusu, Roxana Bara, Sebastian Apostol (as photographer also), Tommaso Benassi, Tommaso Lorenzetti, Veronica Sereda
Oana Mondoc (WWF), Mara Cazacu Minculescu (WWF)
Giovanni Wegher, Paul Schrijen, Tatiana Levitskaya, Gabriel Lenghel (carpentry)
Local team and collaborators
Bogdan Comanescu (photographer), Duncan Hiermeier, Eleonora Tomasini, Astarte, Georg Messerer, bison rangers Danu and Matei
3 lady-chefs and 10 local food producers
Companies who offered various products for the camp
Makita, Rothoblaas, Sabio, Susai forestry, Three Happy Brewers, Catleya Wines, Two Minutes Coffee Shop, Olivo Coffee Roasters
Financial support for this was provided by the EU, through its LIFE Programme, under the project “Urgent actions for the recovery of European bison populations in Romania”, implemented between 2016-2021 by Rewilding Europe and WWF-Romania
Read more about Tara in the post-camp press release
Tara’s GPS coordinates: 45°13’27.38″N 22°23’43.83″E
 Camposaz website, where pictures of these structures can also be browsed: http://www.camposaz.com/portfolio/11-urban-living-room/, http://www.camposaz.com/portfolio/11-landramp/.
 Frank Lloyd Wright Trust https://flwright.org/researchexplore/wrightbuildings/taliesin. Read more about Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture and design here: https://www.guggenheim.org/arts-curriculum/topic/organic-architecture.
 Get to know Danu and Matei: