Superstudio, The Continuous Monument: New New York, 1969, lithograph, 27 1/2 x 39 3/8".

Superstudio, The Continuous Monument: New New York, 1969, lithograph, 27 1/2 x 39 3/8".


Various Venues

“Superstudio: Life Without Objects” offered a timely lesson in architecture as a form of nonviolent yet nonetheless destructive guerrilla warfare. Initiated by the Design Museum, London, and distributed among three venues in New York, the exhibition brought together work from more than a decade of intense polemical experimentation by the Florence-based Superstudio group, founded in 1966 by Adolfo Natalini and Cristiano Toraldo di Francia and later joined by Roberto Magris, Gian Piero Frassinelli, Alessandro Poli, and Alessandro Magris. The show included drawings, sketches, sculpturelike Histograms, posters, photomontages, lithographs, storyboards, films, and audio-slide presentations, frequently accompanied by dense narrative and critical text boxes or voice-overs. This remarkable—and remarkably political—body of work demonstrates the importance of radical thinking to architectural practices of the late 1960s and early ’70s, as well as the hope embedded in aesthetic production, no matter how ironically cast.

At Pratt Manhattan Gallery, the group’s earlier and relatively more conventional work revealed its origins in a peculiar encounter between Pop and Minimalism. These aesthetic practices, to which Conceptualism was soon added, were not simply borrowed from the domain of art but were part of a self-conscious, cross-disciplinary exchange that enabled the architects to work, according to Natalini, within a doubly critical “mediatory” space “between architecture and the visual arts.” The exhibition’s opening sequence included posters from the “Superarchitettura” shows of 1966 and ’67, which launched the group into the experimental scene, along with Journey into the Realm of Reason, 1968–69, their first storyboard narrative. Rendered as an animated cartoon replete with clouds, rainbows, and pyramids, as well as extruded and metal structures, the twenty-six-frame sequence takes us on a journey through the brief history of the group’s investigations into Pop images as well as the formal and typological transformation of monumental and technomorphic architecture. Also included in this section of the exhibition were lamp and furniture designs, rock star–like group portraits announcing the group’s youthful rebellion from the architectural academy, and the photocollage Competition for a Resistance, Memorial Park, Modena, 1970. The Crystal Palace–like structure depicted behind protesters in the park soon returns in a miniature version, its metal trusses replaced by neon tubes to serve as a lamp.

The Pop sensibility and graphics of some of this early work, informed by Natalini’s background as a Pop painter turned architect, is estranged by idealistic (if quickly abandoned) radical ambitions. In a contemporaneous manifesto we learn that Superstudio’s industrial designs were to participate in a Happenings-like form of protest, a countercultural “contestation of the system” of consumer objects. Collapsing a hippie arcadia and its rituals with the normative codes of “hyperconsumer society,” their objects were supposed to exorcize indifference and become weapons to fight dreariness by creating conditions for what was termed a “space of involvement.” Refusing nostalgia and craftsmanship, these symbolically charged props were to operate like foreign bodies in an intolerable system and hence “serve as signposts for life that is going ahead.” Yet Superstudio soon came to recognize capital’s ability to immediately and cynically recuperate oppositional practice, claiming that “the social ‘system’ in which we live is strong enough to incorporate and use every gesture and product of ours.”

In contrast to this early design work, a serial arrangement of sculptural Histograms, begun in 1968, occupied the gallery’s central floor space. These geometric forms—covered in white plastic laminate, over-laid with a black orthogonal grid—were described by Superstudio as a “catalogue” of three-dimensional diagrams capable of generating objects ranging in scale from furniture to environments. The systematic organization of the grouping (recently likened to Sol LeWitt installations) was staged as a refusal of design that operated as a “form of design therapy.” However, if the continuous grid of plastic laminate is homogeneous and isotropic, the matrix of three-dimensional objects is far from neutral. Some of the individual Histograms sprout forms reminiscent of vaults and industrial roofscapes from their otherwise rigidly orthogonal surfaces, subtly signaling the return of a repressed architectural logic. Also known as The Architects’ Tombs, the installation’s “incessant tricoter l’espace” produced an image of “serene madness”—a kind of spatial dementia that the architects deemed the “logical continuation” of their earlier Journey into the Realm of Reason. As demonstrated in the same gallery, this didactic journey was pushed to reductio ad absurdum in The Continuous Monument: An Architectural Model for Total Urbanization, 1969–71. Taking the form of a storyboard and developed through photocollages and lithographs, it portrayed the relentless extension of a sublimely overscaled rectangular megalith, superimposed on natural and urban environments to produce an image of “the world rendered uniform by technology, culture and all the other inevitable forms of imperialism.” A kind of Space Odyssey wryly elaborating the “logical extrapolation of ‘oriented history,’” the Cartesian form of The Continuous Monument spreads from the desert, Holy Kaaba, and Taj Mahal to Coketown, Florence, and New York, each frame or photomontage like a haunting postcard of capitalist development.

The work presented at Artists Space continued this encounter of image and monumental object, opening with an inventory of villas dating from 1968–69 and characterized as not-quite-utopian “transit stations on the way to hope.” Here the serial logic of the Histograms makes its last stand as a tool for designing architecture. The signature grid—still an embodiment of the tension between a Miesian universal space and the realm of pure surface—soon gives way in their work to an interest in dematerialized energy and information networks. Opposite the villas was an example of Superstudio’s Reflected Architecture, a photomontage of the Golden Gate Bridge onto which the surrounding landscape was congealed as a gigantic mirrored cube. Explicitly referencing Guy Debord’s thesis on the society of the spectacle, in which a world that has ceased to be perceptible is comprehended through spectacular mediation, Superstudio proposed replacing the contemplation of merchandise with an all too literal image of critical reflection.

Reflected Architecture announces an endgame: “Instruments of design have become as sharp as lancets and as sensitive as sounding lines, we can use them for a delicate lobotomy.” Lobotomizing the architect—who has finally come to recognize his role as “accomplice to the machinations of the system”—Superstudio turn to what they identify as another form of therapy, the “removal of all archimanias.” In the remaining projects on display, including Italia Vostra: Restoration of Historical Centres, 1972, and Conceptual Architecture, Hidden Architecture, 1970, form-making increasingly cedes to ironic propositions and commentaries. For example, in Italia Vostra, alongside projects for Rome, Venice, Florence, and Milan is a proposal to make all of the historic buildings in Pisa lean, while straightening the famous tower. If, as Superstudio suggested, the historical center was currently of interest only to art-history professors, then the opportunity to feel as though one were living in a leaning world might create a boom in the tourist industry.

More dramatically, at this point Superstudio shift their focus toward cybernetic and electronic technology, a turn accompanied by anthropological investigations into myth and ritual. As the work pushes to the limits of architecture as a material practice it stages a dialectical reconciliation of advanced technologies and forms of “primitive” life supposedly existing beyond their reach. However, fantasies of “the good savage walking around with his portable TV” eventually give way in works such as Project Zeno, 1978, to studies of material culture in rural Italy at the moment of its impending loss. Artists Space screened the two realized films from the series titled “Five Fundamental Acts,” produced for Emilio Ambasz’s 1972 MoMA show, “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape.” One of the films, Life, Supersurface, has delightfully ironic moments—at once critical and all too playful—like the use of an Anders Holmquist photo from The Free People in a photomontage. Onto a picture of hippies on the beach Superstudio inscribe their ubiquitous grid, which spreads out across the landscape like a radical attenuation of The Continuous Monument. Now, the “free people” of the 1960s wander an “earth, rendered homogeneous through an energy and information grid.” This narrative of physical structures yielding to an extended horizontal network produces a potent image of the passage from a disciplinary to a control society, a transition Foucault and, in turn, Deleuze describe as a transformation whereby dominant forms of power shift from specific institutions to networks of data collection and surveillance.

Storefront for Art and Architecture restaged The Twelve Ideal Cities, a 1972 dual-screen slide projection based on a series of illustrated parables that appeared a year before in Architectural Design. At Storefront, as in the original presentation, a voice-over narrative was transmitted through portable transistor radios. The series shows twelve dystopic accounts of the extreme rationalization of industrial city-machines and their coupling with postindustrial cybernetic servomechanisms. These macabre “ideal cities” point to architecture’s willing participation in consumerism, planned obsolescence, social and spatial hierarchies, ideological conditioning, environmental exploitation, late-capitalist expansion, and so on. The citizens are wired into “electronic analysers,” “tele-pantograph” suits, and other cybernetic systems that program their thoughts while serving their every need. Depleted of all agency, they remain resolutely trapped in endless cycles of meaningless existence, unable to question or rebel. When they initially appeared in Architectural Design (a copy of which was on display), Frassinelli’s “premonitions for the mystical rebirth of urbanism” were legible as sinister allegories of actual cities, an ambition confirmed by the delightfully dark accompanying readers’ questionnaire. Although the slides that appeared on the left side of the dual-screen projection at Storefront were familiar from their original publication and related lithographs, the images that appeared on the right-hand screen—only a few of which have been reproduced elsewhere—reveal the work’s subtext. Images of military control rooms, television, businessmen, the White House, and the Vatican point to relations between the “ideal” cities’ power and control networks and contemporary technological, political, and ideological structures.

Beyond the current widespread interest in this period of experimental practice among architects and artists, Superstudio’s work is ripe for revisiting to other ends. It offers a compelling demonstration of collaborative relations between conceptual architectural work and alternative art spaces in which architecture does not retreat to other sites and media, or even to contiguous disciplines such as art or film, but rather forges modes of engagement with the political. A sort of double passage occurs whereby the domain of art is adopted, in the first move, as a space of critical reflection, a space in which the architects acted with “serene indifference” to develop “unbalancing” strategies with which to battle the system of superproduction and superconsumption. Returning to the domain of architecture, “criticism becomes action,” while socioeconomic forces deform strategies derived from art. Although premised on an untenable idealization of both art’s autonomy and architecture’s proximity to life, a critical notion of utopia nevertheless emerges from this difficult encounter.

Superstudio’s polemics resonate powerfully in a contemporary era characterized, on the one hand, by ever-expanding networks of cybernetic and information technologies and their increasing penetration of the bodily and architectural realms, and, on the other hand, by a perpetual state of warfare that remains seemingly inextricable from the economic and territorial logic of the United States military-industrial complex. Although the curators play down the work’s political aspects, preferring its playful lyrical quality, its political side still speaks loudly. For instance, a 1968 poster presented at Artists Space serves less as a lingering premonition than as a call to historical memory. As the war in Vietnam was escalating, Superstudio depicted itself in characteristic rock-group lineup in front of a pyramid, above which was an apparently innocuous holiday greeting. The dark background suggests dusk, and over their heads flies an owl. For Hegel, famously, the owl of Minerva (goddess of wisdom who demonstrated skill in the arts of life) spread its wings at dusk. Able to understand reality only after the event, philosophy, according to Hegel, was not meant to prescribe how the world ought to be. Similarly, the poster reminds us that architecture has a slightly different, if equally troubled, relation to the present: It continues to be haunted by utopian convictions. Once again, “Superstudio Wishes you a Year of Wisdom and Peace.”

Felicity Scott is assistant professor of art history at the University of California, Irvine.