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HPO: On Temporary and Incomplete

HPO is a collective of (formally educated) architects, however, your output is not architecture per se - you produce exhibitions, performances, sound- and spatial installation, incorporating machines and virtual experience. What is your work repertoire, the process, and how do you engage or choose the projects?

As far as spatial practice is concerned, we generally deal with ephemeral architecture, i.e. exhibition set-ups, installations and performances. At the same time, we organise cultural events (we are formally constituted as a cultural association) and take part in academic lectures and workshops. Each member of HPO is committed to a ‘primary’ parallel activity, whether in architecture or engineering practices, or academic settings. The group allows us to deal with things we are interested in, despite these parallel occupations. Without the urgency to subsist ourselves, we can freely choose the works that are proposed to us or propose projects to others. We seize the opportunities that come our way: invitations to international exhibitions, applications for symposiums or conferences, or public calls for the organisation of events and exhibitions. In a group of 10+ people, the flow of proposals manages to be fairly constant, and overall diverse in the type of knowledge and passions involved. Whenever a new project is brought to everyone’s attention in our weekly meetings, members can express interest and then smaller sub-teams are formed.

We are part of a cooperative more than an architectural studio, where members do not dedicate constant commitment but provide tools, skills, knowledge, and social networks.

The acronym HPO might stand for high-performance-organisation (or another hyper-something-trajectory) - what is the message and idea behind your work?

We are pleased that this acronym may stimulate curiosity and hypotheses about its meaning. It does not have a specific meaning, but it has a precise origin: HPO derives from a university design workshop we attended, whose theme was the demolition of the former Hospital in Prato (Hospital PratO). Most of us had worked together for the first time in a large group, and the name was initially retained out of inertia. Over the years, however, the theme of demolition or architecture made through ‘removal’ and ‘cleaning’ had the opportunity to reappear in other projects. We do not believe that there is a particular message behind our group, just as there is no long-term project for HPO, we have often acted before thinking, analysing the work retrospectively (perhaps this is a method itself). Like many collective experiences, it was born in the face of a moment of crisis, primarily from the instinct to come together in the face of various uncertainties that we still experience.

Your position is interesting - being placed “on the outskirts”, although the margin is relative it nevertheless gives a sort of an “edge” to your work and by that also creates an entry point to cultural capitals. Also, you initiate a lot of projects in local communities and you invent space for yourselves. Based in Ferrara, what is your relationship with the “centre” and the space “in-between”?

We recently organised a series of events named Provinciale. We wanted to gather a collection of ideas for ‘a-metropolitan living,’ inviting hosts from different disciplines. Francesco Sossai, an emerging Italian movie director, brought an extract from the movie Heimat by Edgar Reitz: in this scene, some peasants from a little village in Germany gather around two lines traced on the soil with a stick; a man exclaims that if you connect Paris with Berlin and the north with the south pole, the lines intersect exactly on their village. A simple argument that can be easily verified, given that infinite lines connect the two poles.
The scene underscores the notion that considering oneself as the ‘centre’ is arguably one of the most ‘provincial’ perspectives one can adopt. A mindset disjointed from a precise geography, that is not confined to a specific location, as it manifests in both small towns and big cities. We try to never position ourselves at the centre.

We are not anti-urban, but given the circumstances in which we operate, we think it is worth investigating the potential of the ‘provincial’ condition. Staying within the realm of cinema, also Federico Fellini delved into this theme, defining the artist’s role as a figure ‘suspended between the physical (marginal) and the metaphysical (central).’

Most of Italy’s energies reside in its province, a condition that still persists compared with other countries where most of its talents are absorbed by a centralised system.

We are currently based in Ferrara, where we can afford to rent our space, have direct access to the local institutions and have cultivated solid relationships with complementary and similar realities. Despite this, most of our current projects are based elsewhere, helping us to escape our boundaries and focus more on ‘what’ rather than ‘where’ we work.

HPO, Provinciale #3, Slam Jam HQ, Ferrara, 2023 © HPO

Your work is interactive, performative, ritualistic, deconstructive and above all, playful. Is it a way to take off the leverage and seriousness of the position of work in architecture? Yet, the concepts are serious and function as a witty critique of the resigned.

Many and deep are the bonds between play and beauty,’ as Johan Huizinga states in his ‘Homo Ludens,’ where he argues that play is a ‘serious matter.’ Even though the risk of ‘fun morality’ (a sort of obligation to have fun while working, especially in times of social media) is always behind the corner, play represents an approach to the discipline on various levels.

We have always believed that we should not take ourselves too seriously, trying to contaminate our work with contributions from other fields. Our discipline would benefit greatly from demystifying the figure of the architect as ‘guru’ or ‘elevated figure’– often used within the professional world to legitimise incorrect work dynamics – de-normalizing the almost initiatory nature of subordinate work in architecture.

Somehow our group has always been a means and not an end, we can affirm that even if we believe in the importance of our discipline as architects, it is also true that ‘architecture is not our demon’.

HPO, PLAM creative studio, Rain Circus, Biella, Premio Federico Maggia 2022 © HPO

Rain Circus is a project we worked on in 2022 with Plam Studio which lies between the themes of play and landscape. It is a contribution for the Prize ‘Federico Maggia’ in Biella, which involved ephemeral projects for local communities, in our case a primary school keen to develop an educational orchard project. We realised a reservoir for rainwater collection, composed of two parts: an inflatable bladder that appears as a bouncy yellow ball full of water for irrigation, and a small gravel mountain that covers the water collection system. The final image reminds us of a fried egg.

We wanted to design an object that could be both technical and iconic at the same time. An object across design and landscape, a resemblance to the Italian radical tradition, like ‘Pratone’ by Ceretti, Derossi and Rosso, but that also required a physical intervention on the land where it is set. ‘Rain Circus’ educates children about water management through the world of play. The gravel just beneath drains rainwater, gathering it underground, then, a couple of pipes are used to insert rainwater inside the yellow inflatable and draw it when needed, using a playful hand pump.

HPO, PLAM creative studio, Rain Circus, Biella, Premio Federico Maggia 2022 © HPO
HPO, PLAM creative studio, Rain Circus, Biella, Premio Federico Maggia 2022 © Luca Pradella

What DIY means to you and what do you think it carries for the future?

We like a lot to play with very simple rules: the most elementary set of rules can lead to new unpredictable results at every reiteration. DIY tools and materials represent a ‘default’ and neutral repertoire that can bring together 10+ designers, putting aside for a moment any individual velleity.
DIY stores have for us two pros: first, their ‘repertoire’ is almost identical worldwide (not only the fault of globalisation, just that a brick and a thread bar can be made just that way, some sort of Jungian archetypes); second, if materials are not damaged, it is possible to return them with a full refund. Hence, a deeper commitment to developing reversible joints can reduce material depletion for temporary installations and set-ups, since ‘ephemeral architecture’ often risks being less sustainable, since it is used for a short time and the resources employed are likely to be turned into waste, due to a quick design process that does not take them into account.

In general, the DIY attitude could be adopted as a strategy for our discipline: we aim for our design to benefit from available and affordable resources since the idea of a space should survive every budget change and not lose value from taking shape in poorer materials.

In your projects, you engage machines, tweaking them to create new uses, fun and performance which works empowering, yet visually gloomy, glitchy, often based underground too. How would you describe your vision of the relationship between humans, landscapes and machines?

We have a conscious ignorance towards machines, some of our projects begin by using the machine in a banal or dumb way. Rituals Around the Machines is a project that was born from being naively impressed by the functioning and sound of shredding machines. This sound was then sampled and edited by the musician and producer Bill Kouligas, creating a whole soundscape out of them. The materials were processed by these machines to be recycled (plastic flakes, sawdust, etc.), but the narrative did not pivot on ecology, but rather on a punk toy-like ensemble of machines used not exactly the way they were thought for.

HPO, Bill Kouligas, Rashid Uri, Rituals Around the Machines, Dropcity, Milan Design Week 2022 © DSL Studio



HPO, Bill Kouligas, Rashid Uri, Rituals Around the Machines, Dropcity, Milan Design Week 2022 © Francesco Mancin

The project Uccellaccio gave us the opportunity to tackle this issue at a bigger scale, the scale of the landscape where the relationship with machines is historically even stronger. The two are bound inextricably as the evolution of agriculture runs in parallel with its technological apparatus.

Even though the purpose of the project was rather simple, to draw a path around an existing unfinished building, the precision of the intervention implied the use of different technologies: laser scan, drone photogrammetry, and GPS topography. An initial survey gave us the opportunity to digitally reproduce an exact reconstruction of the site and to work on it from a distance with extreme precision. The absence of materiality of the digital interface accelerated the blending of the building as a part of its landscape.

HPO, Claudia Durastanti, Uccellaccio, Ripa Teatina, 18. Venice Biennale, 2023 © HPO



HPO, Claudia Durastanti, Uccellaccio, Ripa Teatina, 18. Venice Biennale, 2023 © Alterazioni Video

As in the case of Rituals around the machines we ‘amplified’ the role of machines within the project, this time using ‘bigger toys’; again, ecology was not an explicit end of the intervention. Excavators, trucks, cars, and motorcycles became an essential part of the video edited by the artist collective Alterazioni video on our project. No ‘choreography’ was needed as the circularity of the path already implied a common movement for all these elements.

Uccellaccio is a park project around Incompiuto hospital in Ripa Teatina. With a reference to Incompiuto Siciliano, how do you connect to their manifesto and how do you redefine or widen the original use of the term? CCLLCC is a park “embleming” this architectural ruin, exposing it more. However, parks/landscapes are always incomplete and need more maintenance than built structures, yet as you say, maintenance can also be a creative act.

Uccellaccio was a project developed together with the Italian writer Claudia Durastanti for the Italian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale curated by Fosbury Architecture. Drawing from Claudia’s insight on the project, the name stands for the ‘bird of ill omen’, the one that may point to crops having been spoilt – and interpret it instead as an unexpected visitor, forcing a community to rethink. It also refers to another point of view, ‘aerial’, as a bird orbiting on its prey. The project, therefore, makes it possible to walk around the incompiuta, measuring up our curiosity and distance, getting in touch with an unwelcome creature, and on particular occasions to enter, descend into another reality, and finally land. No construction was involved in the process, just mowing, land movement and the use of recycled rubbles to pave the circular path and an artificial crater where a stage for events can take place. The idea is to alienate the familiar through something that refers to another cosmological dimension and vice versa, to create relationships of familiarity with something that has always been there, yet in an obscure and inaccessible manner.

The manifesto on the incompiuto developed by Alterazioni Video in collaboration with Fosbury Architecture guided us in the first steps of the project. Directly working on the building and its surroundings we partially lost the sublime and speculative thoughts that permeate their manifesto, but we are still positive that a park, in its true temporality, was the best proposal we could give. Something that wouldn’t have put the word ‘end’ to the history of the building.

We haven’t come back since its ‘opening’ ceremony, without maintenance nature must have come back. As Claudia suggests: ‘Somehow there has never been a real ‘void’ there, just another kind of occupancy, less human-related.

The Uccelaccio was presented among other site-specific interventions at the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year. Claudia Durasanti, a prominent writer, was HPO’s adviser on this project. Tell us more about your cooperation. Do you think narration can trigger the activation?

Claudia Durasanti is a prominent writer with an anthropological background who already addressed in her books some of the main issues that could be found in Ripa Teatina: abandonment, migration, rurality, and mysticism. If the project had a literary genre it would stand between ‘science fiction and the fable’ she says, a genre that conditioned the design process through references from various fields, such as the geoglyphs, large drawings on the terrain made with stones or debris, which mysterious origins span between archaeology and the intervention of ‘cosmic visitors’. Collaborating with her allowed us to explore diverse narrative interpretations of our intervention, steering clear of conventional ‘marketing’ reconstructions commonly associated with architectural projects. An engagement that provided a fresh perspective, enriching our understanding beyond the familiar realms inherent to our role as architects.

HPO, Claudia Durastanti, Uccellaccio 3D laser scan, Ripa Teatina, 18. Venice Biennale, 2023 © HPO

People need stories to establish a new relationship with an object, in this case, a building. For now, we think that Uccellaccio has not yet entered the hearts of its compatriots. However, much like every story, every project is like a seed that is just patiently waiting for the right moment to sprout.

In a way, Uccelaccio is also a heritage only of a different kind. It’s perhaps entertaining to ponder how each era produces specific ruins. By distancing oneself from producing lasting and embedded projects one eliminates the possibility of ruins and voids left behind (which is also a positive side of event-architecture and DIY). How do you deal with heritage?

The unfinished structure, which we have renamed into Uccellaccio, stands as the result of politics of indiscriminate urbanisation that still persists today. We aim to avoid romanticising this issue, recognizing it as an indissoluble burden for both our current generation and those to come.

Heritage is a cultural and thus relative concept. Despite the initial Hamlet-like paradox (to build or not to build?), the architect should not shy away from embracing their responsibility. When the question of ‘where’ to build is aptly addressed, considering its contingencies and translated into ‘what’ to build, we firmly believe in the role of the architect as a builder.

We have never thought about event-architecture as ‘no-ruin-architecture’ before. It is an interesting way of dealing with the issue. At the same time it hides a crucial question: what is the advantage of having no-ruins when this approach leads to waste instead? This pivotal issue hides behind the joyful and mesmerising image that temporary architecture often communicates. The Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto De Moura mentions the need to produce ‘good ruins’ when designing a building, it is the responsibility of the architect to think about that, mediating with the external forces of the capital that mostly blow in the opposite direction. The same happens with temporary structures, which find within the fashion industry their utmost expression today. In the end, the project Uccellaccio could have easily been the design for a fashion show’s runway rather than a park. In this case, we had complete freedom, and ‘to build’ led to an ambiguous intervention that both interacted with two distinct temporary dimensions. It effectively achieves its reversibility goals—gradually fading away in the absence of maintenance and simultaneously it interacts with an archaeological dimension.

HPO, A Party in Versailles, ÉNSA Versailles, 2022 © HPO

While in contrasting scenarios, as seen in the case of A Party in Versailles, where dealing with acknowledged heritage was paramount, our approach attained its highest degree of immateriality. Here the ‘not to build’ approach simply entailed the utilisation of a projector, with its images seamlessly blending into the perspective of a pathway within the geometric intricacies of the garden. An alternative strategy that confronted the available budget and project contingencies, ensuring minimal waste and resource efficiency.

HPO © Andrea Bighi


Published on February 14, 2024

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