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How Studio Polpo treats architecture as a community service

Words:
Eleanor Young

Studio Polpo isn’t your everyday practice. It’s there to spot ways it can improve its community, working with a network of architects, clients, and often opportunist ideas

Tree theatre set for Handlebards touring theatre company, using mycelium grown panels
Tree theatre set for Handlebards touring theatre company, using mycelium grown panels Credit: Studio Polpo

In the optimism of early autumn last year Mark Parsons spent half a day a week in a Wakefield nursery, playing. One week he took a projector; on another the ideas of the elements – earth, air, wind and fire. He wouldn’t describe himself as a play specialist, or community facilitator or artist, but he and practice Studio Polpo are all of these at times. It slips in the title artist sometimes, to test if it gives it licence to do more than an architect. It does. Studio Polpo is a light footed practice that thrives on the sort of projects most firms only allow themselves as occasional forays. There are campaigns, supporting artists, ply structures on wheels, a housing research newspaper, a hydroponic fish farm and mycelium grown theatre sets. Oh, and a bioreactor. 

Yes there are designs, reports and funding bids. But also fungal panels in the basement, some cured to act as building blocks, some allowed to sprout oyster mushrooms. ‘I don’t want just to be organising, leaving other people to have all the fun,’ says Parsons. ‘I like designing, building, spreadsheets and testing.’ When lockdown eases, the design from those trials with four year olds in Wakefield will be fabricated and built by Studio Polpo into a mini mobile landscape for the garden at the Hepworth, to encourage locals to the gallery through their children. 

Surviving on these sorts of projects sounds financially perilous. ‘We don’t do bread and butter projects,’ admits Parsons. It helps that it is supported by two days a week teaching for Parsons and a full time academic post for wife and business partner ­Cristina Cerulli. But it is not a charity project. ‘It is important that it pays its way,’ he says. That means rent of a shared workspace, professional indemnity insurance and, of course, time. But not regular staff. He describes Studio Polpo as part of a network of freelancers – some are long term collaborators, even directors of the business, like Julia Udall, Jon Orlek and Anna Holder. Others are recent graduates like James Harrington. 

This was always the plan; when Studio Polpo was set up in 2008 Parsons and Cerulli designed it to be a different model to standard practice. It was formed as a social enterprise when there were very few architects using this structure. Its stated objectives include supporting graduates to carry out their own projects and to offer them the scaffolding, mentoring and  PI to do this. Parsons and Cerulli see the importance of this in Sheffield where practices are polarised and the employment options are large scale corporate or one man band – leading many graduates to leave the city. 

Parsons describes Studio Polpo as part of a network of freelancers

  • Diagram of components for the hydroponic microfarm.
    Diagram of components for the hydroponic microfarm. Credit: Studio Polpo
  • Sketches for play structures in the grounds of the Hepworth in Wakefield.
    Sketches for play structures in the grounds of the Hepworth in Wakefield. Credit: Studio Polpo
  • Mycelium grown panels
    Mycelium grown panels Credit: Studio Polpo
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In practice previously, Parsons and Cerulli spotted a gap that many community organisations struggle with – accessing advice and expertise at those early stages before feasibility studies or any sign of funding. So another of their aims as a social enterprise is to support third sector organisations and help them develop strategically. Through a formal asset lock, they committed to spending profit or surplus in that sector – they use it for funding early stage feasibility work. ­Occasionally this work has generated payment, as organisations take on the ‘receipt’ for the work to the funding bid. But more excitingly it has meant Polpo establishing working relationships with interesting organisations that over time have enriched both. 

Take Portland Works, a 19th century cutlery works used by musicians, artists and modern day cutlery makers. One of the team, Udall, was looking at the site for her PhD, but feared it would be lost as the landlord had started the process of selling it for apartments. Polpo’s campaigning posters about those working there galvanised opposition, but how could they turn that into a proposition? Wearing her academic hat Cerulli won a £10,000 knowledge transfer pot from the university and brought tenants and experts in these processes to a meeting, which decided to buy the building. That happened, supported by an alternative business plan and Sheffield’s first community share launch. Studio Polpo took on and funded an open source strategy to retrofit the building. Later it ­undertook an access audit. 

The long term relationships also give Polpo to match up opportunities. For instance, it rescued a specially designed kitchen with years of life left in it from a car park skip and installed it in Sheffield’s Foodhall (highly commended in the MacEwen Awards for inclusive social delivery of food in the city, run by ex-students of Parsons). And when the practice needed to find a site for an algal bioreactor, it turned to occasional client the Picture House. 

Polpo rescued a kitchen with years of life left in it from a car park skip and installed it in Sheffield’s Foodhall

  • The Microfarm modelled.
    The Microfarm modelled. Credit: Studio Polpo
  • Disseminating lessons from research, the newspaper of Experimental Residential takes shape.
    Disseminating lessons from research, the newspaper of Experimental Residential takes shape. Credit: Studio Polpo
  • Portland Works, a long relationship giving the building and its makers a new life.
    Portland Works, a long relationship giving the building and its makers a new life. Credit: Studio Polpo
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The scale and characteristics of Sheffield make this modus operandi easier. It’s a small city; people know each other. And the legacy of not very good Victorian buildings means intervention is often needed. Add an industrial past and a legacy of socialism and there is a sense of working together for the city.

But Studio Polpo is aware of the disparities between central Sheffield and the lower density periphery where people rarely access the city’s culture, university or even its hospitals. A two year residency at Tinsley school on the other side of the M1 gave them an insight into these lives. The school buildings were empty – closed due to the high levels of air pollution, though, Cerulli adds, people still lived right there. Polpo seeded a community hub and accessed funds to make it more usable as well as bringing the community in with posters and flyers. Polpo conversations about research into cleaning up the air there brought in bio engineers from Sheffield University and a bid to develop an algal bioreactor in which the algae cleans the air and water as it grows. Polpo had designed it, bus stop size, with lively graphics – but Covid saw the funding pulled. 

Even apparently half finished projects should have a life though. Cerulli is clear about the morality of making publicly funded research freely available. ‘Something might not be ground breaking or the most authoritative but others might see it and be able to use it in their area,’ she says. So when Polpo won funds to research a large scale house share in an old building, then found the project stymied by an historic covenant, it turned the research into a newspaper. Of course it made it available on its website and presented it at research seminars but more significantly, it distributed the paper in pubs and health ­c­entres – natural community hubs. 

Polpo’s work demonstrates  a way of seeing the world with fewer social (and technological) boundaries. Later this year, ­Covid-depending, it will be part of the British Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale, investigating high streets as places of more than financial exchange – ‘a hairdressers is more like a confessional isn’t it?’ Many of these ideas feed back to the profession through teaching, such as Cerulli’s concentration on infrastructures of self organisation for Sheffield Hallam and her research such as Right to Build (RIBA President’s Award for Research winner 2012) – ex students have strongly influenced Wikihouse and the ­Community Land Trust movement. 

Very few similar practices have survived so long but Studio Polpo offers an example to the whole profession on bringing together unexpected disciplines, marginal communities, artists and funding to tackle important issues of our day, while having fun. You can’t ask for more from architecture than that.

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