Superstudio: The Architecture Collective That Influenced a Generation

The conceptual works by Italian avant-garde architecture collective Superstudio influenced a generation of architects, from Zaha Hadid to Rem Koolhaas.

A bearded hippy wearing only his underpants emerges from what appears to be a subterranean concrete bunker. He’s followed by a shaggy man in overalls, a topless woman with long hair, and another, and another, like clowns from a Volkswagen. A voiceover informs us that these people are leaving behind an “indescribably large house…with all the possible comforts, and with all the pieces of modern furniture on the market…built following all ancient and modern styles, forming a homogenous and pleasant whole.”

The movie, Ceremony, is one of five films (together called Fundamental Acts) that the Italian avant-garde architecture collective Superstudio planned in the early 1970s to communicate their radical vision of an ideal world: one devoid of architecture. This vision is chronicled in Superstudio: Life Without Objects, an ambitious retrospective of the firm’s conceptual work from 1966 to 1978 currently spread across several New York galleries.

“[Superstudio] saw that architects need to be involved in a different kind of thinking about what their profession is,” says William Menking, professor at Pratt Institute and co-curator of the exhibit with architect Peter Lang. “Rather than just creating luxurious objects, or introducing people into the world of consumer objects, they should be worried about such political issues as, ‘What is architecture?’”

Superstudio was founded in Florence, Italy, by Adolfo Natalini and Cristiano Toraldo di Francia—recent graduates of the Florence School of Architecture—in 1966, the year the Arno River flooded its banks to devastating effect. “The flood brought in a tremendous amount of foreign money and new people for the first time,” Menking says.

Also, Italy’s economy was still recovering in the 1960s from the Second World War. “The chances that any of these young guys would have to build, or teach in the university, was nonexistent,” Menking says. “I was there as a student in the early seventies and I don’t think there was any faculty below the age of seventy. They were shut out. So this was a kind of protest they created.”

A third influence was the handful of international avant-garde magazines that were publishing the work of such provocateurs as the sci-fi U.K. group Archigram, who were pointing the way towards an architecture of criticism rather than the design of buildings. “There was also a fantastic gallery in Florence at the time called Art Tapes, that brought people like Dan Graham, Sol Lewitt, and Vito Acconci to make videotapes,” Menking says. “So they became aware of this strategy of working not as architects but as artists.”

The basic element of most of the work in the show is a black grid on a white background. It shows up in early designs for villas, minimalist furniture (Superstudio’s iconic Quaderna table is still in production by Zanotta), and most memorably, the Continuous Monument, a series of photomontages that show Midtown Manhattan, say, or the Taj Mahal, wrapped in the grid.

Superstudio wrote that ultimately the grid would form a “single continuous environment, the world rendered uniform by technology, culture, and all the other inevitable forms of imperialism.” This would allow for a truly democratic human experience: because every point on the grid is identical, no place is better than any other. (Of course, like all of Superstudio’s work it is polemical, in this case being both unrealizable and nightmarish to contemplate.)

“A lot of the work, because they weren’t in a position to build, was created for magazines,” Menking says. “They were incredible image-makers.” This also is how the group of young architects were able to capture the international imagination, culminating in their inclusion in the 1972 Italy: The New Domestic Landscape show at MoMA when they were still in their twenties. “To be put on this international stage, paid all this money, feted and all that, this was a very heady period for them,” Menking says.

Among the work generated for magazines is the “Hidden Architecture” project, commissioned for an issue of the influential American journal Design Quarterly, edited by Peter Eisenman, that permanently encased the blueprints of an architectural project in a welded-shut zinc box (they burned the drawings).

“Twelve Ideal Cities,” by Superstudio member Piero Frassinelli, was originally published in AD magazine and then reconfigured as a multimedia slide show in 1972. (It is recreated, as closely as possible, at the Storefront site.) It’s mordantly funny, these 12 creepy dystopic fantasies of urban planning gone haywire.

Take “Spaceship City,” for instance, where couples are born, made to reproduce, and at the age of 80, jettisoned from the craft—asleep in suspended animation all the while. Or “New York of Brains,” a post-apocalyptic vision of the city as a giant cube on 81st Street comprising 10,000,456 human brains in liquid-filled containers. “Completely cut off from human perception,” wrote Frasinelli, “they can sublimate their thoughts for as long as the life of the sun, free to reach the supreme goals of wisdom and madness, perhaps to reach absolute knowledge.”

But more influential than any individual project, and perhaps even Superstudio’s core criticism of architecture and Modernism, was the idea that an architectural practice could be conceptual and theoretical, concerned with cultural criticism rather than the production of buildings. “There wasn’t anybody else really doing it from their generation,” Menking says. “Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi learned a lot of their early strategies from these guys. Rems’s very first project is a Continuous Monument spread over a city, you can see it on the first page of S,M,L,XL.

“And that influenced the way just about every young practice goes today,” Menking continues. “I mean some start by doing boutiques and these kind of things, but a lot of them enter competitions and do theoretical projects they know are never going to get built, that they want to get published somewhere. So that strategy of critique early in your career is what they learned from these guys.”

By the mid-1970s, Superstudio’s caustic critique had mellowed into projects like the anthropological Project Zeno, an investigation of “peasant culture” and traditional farm implements. In 1978, the studio was disbanded, as individual members joined the professional world closed to them early in their careers, and became noted academics and architects with buildings all over Europe.

“We asked them one time why did it happen in Florence?” Menking says. “And their very grandiose answer was, ‘Why did the Renaissance happen in Florence?’”

Superstudio: Life Without Objects runs through January 31at Pratt Manhattan Gallery and Storefront for Art and Architecture; a third segment, at Artists Space, closed December 19, 2003.

Categories: Arts + Culture, Ideas

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