Rotor in Palermo: “From up here, it’s a whole other story”

An interview with the Belgian studio, which, on the occasion of Manifesta 12, is intervening on the complicated situation regarding the landscape of Pizzo Sella, a hill marred by unauthorised building.

Rotor, Da quassù è tutta un’altra cosa, Manifesta 12 Palermo, 2018. Foto Rossana Rizza

Despite its distance from the historic centre of the city, Pizzo Sella is one of the main focal points of Manifesto 12 Palermo. The curators of the nomadic biennial exhibition have invited the Belgian studio Rotor to intervene on one of the most complex and important landscapes, not only for the Sicilian capital, but also on a national level. We visited the “hill of dishonour” together with Tristan Boniver, a member of the collective which has recently launched the recovery project From up here, it’s a whole other story.

What does Rotor do? Tell us about your approach.
The studio carries out various activities. The recovery of materials, design and construction, as well as research, exhibitions and publications A common thread unites all of the activities, one which for us is very clear. We always work on projects which begin with a pre-existing situation. In the beginning this took the form of the re-use of industrial by-products or other architecture. Then we began to map organisations in Belgium which handled re-use, in order to understand the movement of materials. Generally, we observe the situation and try to develop projects which are complimentary. We have a bottom-up approach.
More than “bottom up”, I would define it as “contextual”.

Speaking of context evokes academic mapping and research. On the contrary, we are obsessed with details, and we begin from there. For the Pizzo Sella project, the preliminary visits to the site were fundamental. Once we climbed the hill, we realised that all of the ingredients for the projects were already there. Previous research on the history of the hill, unauthorised building and mafia involvement was almost a distraction. We concentrated on concrete aspects, such as the existing trails, the insects, plants and climate...

Rotor, From up here, it’s a whole other story, Manifesta 12 Palermo, 2018. Photo Giovanni Fontana
Rotor, From up here, it’s a whole other story, Manifesta 12 Palermo, 2018. Photo Giovanni Fontana

What does the project that you have developed for Manifesta 12 consist of?
Our aim is to transform Pizzo Sella into a gigantic machine to change the perspective of Palermo. We want to restore the people’s relationship with the landscape of the hill and offer a new point of view over the city. In order to make this work, we have developed various tools: relations with the local administration, with the condominium of inhabitants of Pizzo Sella, and with various local associations. A way of communication, a process which provides the opportunity to visit the site and connect people with the landscape, a place to take shelter and rest... We consider all of these things part of a single complex machine.

Rotor, Rotor, From up here, it’s a whole other story, Manifesta 12 Palermo, 2018. Pho Simona Cantaverato
Rotor, From up here, it’s a whole other story, Manifesta 12 Palermo, 2018. Photo Simona Cantavenera

Give us some details on the main physical works: the trail and the house.
The itinerary set out is a combination of various trails. That of the nature reserve, the internal road for the condominium, a number of old trails used by the military, others created by farmers or wild animals. Combined, they form a loop around the hill, which allows the landscape to be seen from various viewpoints. The trail orients one’s view towards various points and creates moments of great intensity or contemplation. It takes four or five hours to walk it completely.

Even the building on which we have worked is part of the system, and it is completely connected to the landscape, the topography, the climate and temporality. We analysed it carefully and we understood its weaknesses, regarding the parts most exposed to the elements. Up there, the air is very humid and salty. We worked on the framework with precise actions. We removed the existing scaffolding and the elements which were dangerous or damaged beyond repair; we used the scaffolding pipes to construct railing inside the house and to create a small bridge to render a floor accessible for wheelchairs. We also worked on the road, in order to render it accessible for cars, and we created a viewpoint: a long bench which offers a view of the landscape. We consider the viewpoint to be the true centre of gravity of our project. From here, you can see the sea, Palermo and the unfinished landscape of Pizzo Sella.

Tristan Boniver and Renaud Haerlingen – Rotor. Photo Rossana Rizza
Tristan Boniver and Renaud Haerlingen – Rotor. Photo Rossana Rizza

What will happen during Manifesta 12?
A series of collective walks have been planned. Near Quattro Canti, in the centre of Palermo, we have a showcase to present and promote the project. The relationship that has been created between Quattro Canti and the viewpoint is interesting. From the bench, it is possible to see the symbolic centre of the city, and vice versa from the centre, it is possible to see the small grey pixel that is the house on Pizzo Sella.

What results has your intervention had up to now?
Having created a new view of the city is a very important factor for us. To come up here with the people of Palermo and see their reactions encouraged us to bring as many people as possible to the hill. Of course, it is right that the themes of unauthorised building, mafia and urban development are examined and discussed, but doing so here completely changes the results and the way of seeing things. We therefore hope that we have given Palermo a new place for discussion, a place which encourages the emancipation and accountability of the people.

From up here, it’s a whole other story
Rotor – Tristan Boniver, Renaud Haerlingen
In collaboration with:
Sergio Sanna and Sandro Scalia
Commissioned by:
Manifesta 12 Palermo
via Grotte Partanna, Mondello, Palermo
Simona Cantavenera, Giovanni Fontana, Leandro Lembo, Rossana Rizza – Corso di Fotografia, Accademia delle Belle Arti di Palermo

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