The following text is an updated excerpt from the 2003 essay “Suicidal Desires,” originally published in Peter Lang, William Menking, Superstudio: Life without Objects (Milan, Skira, 2003).

The Superarchitecture exhibition in Pistoia was the event that sparked the creative emergencies of Archizoom and SUPERSTUDIO, but this historic episode did not by consequence imply two already evolved and distinct sets of architectural strategies and projects. The Pistoia show was planned to showcase new lamps, objects, furniture and installation designs, but was to take place only after the larger and more elaborately assembled exhibition of student thesis projects concluded in Modena. The reversed order of exhibitions threw the two events out of sequence. There would be little time for Archizoom and SUPERSTUDIO to evolve between the two shows. Also pertinent to the formation of the two groups in this earlier period were the kinds of initial prejudices they brought with them, such as earlier friendships, political ideologies and common architectural experiences. This in large part explains why Archizoom appears to have had a head start over SUPERSTUDIO in the first two years from their common launch on the scene, this despite Adolfo Natalini’s singular role behind the Superarchitecture manifesto. In fact, Archizoom’s head start seems to have provoked Natalini and Toraldo di Francia to redouble their efforts and sharpen their critical design and architectural position, through a yearlong process of self-examination that paralleled their production of marketable designs and architecture. This first important self-analysis producing the Journey into the Realm of Reason proved quite successful in re-calibrating the group’s theoretical production, so much so that SUPERSTUDIO would make periodic use of such self-reevaluations to correct their course or re-formulate their design strategies. [i]

But another aspect concerning the early divergence between SUPERSTUDIO and Archizoom was how each of these two groups continued to grow progressively apart. Archizoom in fact remained far more dedicated to its research on popular culture and language, working on and in the medium itself to find the most symbolic forms for representing a pop-inspired landscape. Archizoom engaged in what now is the highly recognizable strategy of building on subjective accumulations, evident in the later projects like No-Stop City. Their way of undermining the Modernist status quo was through the construction of a self-referential language that did not so much suggest alternative realities as it suggested simultaneous multiplicities, layered textural references, or architecture evacuated of meaning. Architecture, incapable of completing a social revolution without breaking free from its capitalist moorings, would instead be steered towards a consumerist tower of Babel.

Conversely, SUPERSTUDIO embarked on a much more “classical” architectural trajectory. In essence, Archizoom and SUPERSTUDIO veer apart not only philosophically, but also through the applicative use of media conventions. SUPERSTUDIO effectively campaigned to destabilize modern architecture while remaining within the enlightenment language of perspectival space or, through their filmmaking, operating within the Cartesian construct of the camera obscura. SUPERSTUDIO therefore did not so much seek to challenge the conventions of representation, or what Martin Jay classifies as “Cartesian perspectivalism”, the projection of the two-dimensional single ocular perspective, as they sought to operate to subvert the principles of architecture within this convention.”[ii] Their intensive collage renderings of The Continuous Monument begin with a carefully reasoned historical thesis on the nature of cultural monuments and evolve into a perversely hegemonic system of architectural domination. The creeping expansion of the monument across the global landscape is subtly revealed as its own neutralizer, thereby putting an end to its sublime terror. In effect, SUPERSTUDIO subverts a quotidian architectural experience not through a warping of the planimetric state but through satirical irony.

The same can be argued in regard to their films that retain basic narrative structures and follow largely rational progressions through space and time, but use the medium instead to call into question the meaning of architecture itself. From the beginning, SUPERSTUDIO built its projects using the narrative vehicle of the storyboard. Of the three extant films, the second, created for the MoMA exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape presents Life, Supersurface (1972), a combination of montage animation and actors in an outdoor environment to stage an inhabitable but architectureless landscape. This film consists of the first in the series titled Five Fundamental Acts, a far-reaching and engrossing contemplation on the architecture of unconfinement. If The Continuous Monument stipulates no interiors, Supersurface suggests no exteriors. Ceremony (1973), shot one year later starring the members of SUPERSTUDIO and their first film without animations, further derides the significance of tradition and domestic ritual, illustrating how life spontaneously erupts around new-found ceremonies.[iii] One’s own body becomes the mobile object of architecture: the self-contained envelope that is both inhabited and inhabits the living world. SUPERSTUDIO’s uniqueness rises not from their experimental destruction of the representative medium itself, as it does from their subversive message. SUPERSTUDIO from beginning to end stripped architecture down to its most essential meaning.

SUPERSTUDIO requires additional levels of reading, precisely because there are degrees of deception constantly present in their elaborately assembled images and projects. Their highly seductive and visually pleasing visions tend to veil a biting critique collaged just below the surface. Each stage of their work is meant to peel back another layer of social paralysis, of futile dreams and debilitating social infrastructures. SUPERSTUDIO worked from positions of deep familiarity, destabilizing from within each and every aspect of the architectural discourse. Florence, as one of the most significant artistic destinations on the 19th-century Grand Tour, finds itself transported in the work of SUPERSTUDIO into a dimension of science fiction, history’s other.[iv] Twelve Cautionary Tales for Christmas: Premonitions of the Mystical Rebirth of Urbanism, apart from its anti-utopian visions and very personal form of inquisitiveness, refuses to celebrate the role of architecture and urban design in the construction of city life.[v] The exquisitely drafted sections, axonometrics and illustrations depicting the twelve cities reassure the viewer of a perfectly engineered set of structures that only happen to work like the out of control technology in Kafka’s inscriptive Penal Colony.

The Twelve Cautionary Tales, conceived and developed by Piero Frassinelii, seem in the end to be much closer to a critique on the present than evocations for the future: the twelve scenes unfold like exaggerated projections on some of our most common obsessions, where consumer culture goes blind, bureaucracies go mindless, high-technology pacifies. This may also be interpreted as a critique of Americanization, a rising phenomenon in the contemporary Italian scene. The suggestive subtitle, “SUPERSTUDIO evokes twelve visions of ideal cities, the supreme achievement of twenty thousand years of civilization, blood sweat and tears. The Final Heaven of Man in possession of Truth, free from contradiction, equivocation and indecision; totally and forever replete with his own PERFECTION… “, implies just such a world specially made for you, with no need to do anything except to find the button. The project was not really about anti-utopias, but was SUPERSTUDIO’s stark premonition on where contemporary trends were leading.

From 1966 to 1973 the SUPERSTUDIO office had schizophrenically advanced by pursuing on one hand pragmatic and successful furniture designs, tram cars, residential and commercial buildings (the group could count on the industrial design experience of Roberto Magris), and on the other by progressively dissecting those very same projects to reduce the variations, to streamline the waste, to eliminate all clutter. The process developed into a series of checks and balances, whereby the theory engendered the production, to be subsequently re-theorized, controlled and modified. This is what Adolfo NataIini referred to as “theory -> practice -> theory check”, that ran into all sorts of interesting problems, until they devised design skeletons on which to hang a series of design modifications.[vi] SUPERSTUDIO managed at each turn to twist the paradigm and to imagine another critically altering move, until one by one SUPERSTUDIO dismantled everything that once stood solidly for the enterprise of architecture, until they reached a pure state of near nothingness.

But from here on, the work by SUPERSTUDIO reaches a significant turning point, or perhaps a point of no return. Where, in fact, does architecture go once it has been entirely erased from the architects’ sketchpads and drawing boards? What kind of reductive design might result in a world where there is no need for designs? What type of room does one dream of when there are no more rooms to occupy?

This may well have been an inevitable outcome for a research project that began with the typological ordering of architectural monuments, images and ambient technology; and gradually spread far enough out to bring into its orbit a world of objects and buildings, of monuments and landscapes, until nothing remained untouched by its reductive powers. SUPERSTUDIO dutifully maintained their faith in the original premise set out in 1967 when they assembled the Journey into the Realm of Reason. SUPERSTUDIO continued unrelentingly to reduce, to strip, to expose the core properties of an architecture that eliminated the fastidious and distracting environment of unnecessary things and actions. What they achieved was tremendous, a spark of animation in an open field, a world populated by freethinkers wandering without material needs. But there would always remain a level of irony, a subtle gesture that somehow this was all a ploy to make us think, to make us want to change… but also allow us to retreat back to the comfort of our real homes, our heavy objects, our annoying lives.

But from 1973 on, coinciding with Adolfo NataIini’s teaching appointment at the School of Architecture in Florence, the group moved in two different directions. It was a moment of deep reassessment. The individual members began working more independently on different types of projects, but also moved into the academic research and teaching. Natalini’s class, taught with the assistance of Alessandro PoIi, Cristiano Toraldo di Francia and Piero FrassineIIi, investigated the everyday use of objects in contemporary culture. Under the title of Extra-Urban Material Culture, students were asked to return to their local family origins, and help anthropologically document the material culture slowly disappearing in the countryside. Natalini’s famed lectures on the walking stick – he boasts a large collection of handmade and manufactured canes – served as an introduction to this reductive world. The course in effect initiated a second phase in the SUPERSTUDIO oeuvre; whereby there is a concerted attempt to find a way to reconstruct the bare elements of a new architecture.

The anthropological research on primitive Italian peasant culture, its tools and shelters, was one of the few projects of its kind going on during these years. Considering the massive scale of the farm exodus into the 1960s, the real risk, that has since proved founded, was the permanent loss of a highly sustainable low-grade human ecology. Extra-Urban Material Culture bears little resemblance to the fanfare and hoopla created around the 1973 Global Tools symposium, which remained transfixed by consumer culture. SUPERSTUDIO initiated Histograms, back in 1969, with the intention of reducing design and architecture to a single three-dimensional manipulation of surfaces. When SUPERSTUDIO began its study on the design of simple multi-functional utensils in 1973, it was not to design a better and more marketable product but to find proven low-grade technologies that were uniquely versatile.

The peasant farmer Zeno, in his native home in Tuscany, rebuilt a bentwood chair from the turn of the century, piece by piece, over the course of about fifty years. Every reiteration preserved the chair’s proportions and function, though each time the artifact was slightly modified. The goal of the research was to document and learn from these extraordinary human experiences; but this phase of SUPERSTUDIO’s research lacked the checks, balances and earlier ironies that might have successfully lifted this project back on to a more international platform. A broad overview of the project including many examples drawn from the student research was later mounted at the 1978 Venice Biennale to exhibit the category of Architecture, under the tide of Project Zeno. This strangely Heideggerian vision of the new world, a familiar revisiting of van Gogh’s contemplation on a pair of peasant shoes, suggests a project that nonetheless reconnects with the techne of architecture.

SUPERSTUDIO also presented The Wife of Lot, consisting of a welded iron table and moving tower designed to hold a fluid pouch filled with water. A tube dripped water over five salt moulds representing the historical stages of architecture: the pyramid, the coliseum, the basilica, Versailles and the Villa Savoye. With time, as in fact was the case, each of the salt moulds disappeared, a demonstration on architecture’s inevitable dissolution. This project more than anything else physically embodied the dilemma of architecture’s ephemeral existence, with the additional tension that such a delicately framed iron and salt structure produces by sitting at the edge of Venice’s Grand Canal. The artifact has since been lost, but its idea lives on as the anti-monument dedicated to the mother of all monuments.

The strange combination of professional practice and theoretical insurrectionism; of profitable industry contracts and sarcastic assaults on consumerism; of global fame and peasant culture, are the conflictual relationships in a body of research committed to engaging mainstream society. The members of SUPERSTUDIO have sought to discover the way towards making a better society, made up of individuals responsible to their communities, critically cognizant of their natural resources and shared cultures.

The fundamental issues from the group’s early beginnings were all directed towards a critique of a hegemonic modernization: Natalini was concerned with the struggle to democratize the university and undercut the dominating hierarchies of the administration;[vii] ToraIdo di Francia criticized· his home city for ignoring the advice of experts and auto-constructing itself as a self-propagating urban machine; Frassinelli’s Twelve Cities was itself a sarcastic critique of a mechanized society where individuals were completely deprived of any control over their own future. To finally reach the ideal goal of a non-designed community, SUPERSTUDIO progressively whittled away at the architectural relationship between the individual and the social contract, concluding the journey not with a new form of people’s architecture, but an architectural people ready to give their world a form. This may be what Adolfo Natalini had in mind in the first place, when he called for the architect’s public suicide. If the architect cannot become architecture, is there anything left but to take one’s leave of the stage?

[i] “Journey into the Realm of Reason”, published in Domus (no. 479 , October 1969), features 26 images describing various states of architecture.

[ii] Martin Jay, “Scopic regimes of Modernity”, in H. Foster, ed., Vision and Visuality (Seattle, Bay Press, 1988, 4)

[iii] Of the “Five Fundamental Acts,” only two were realized as films: all five were published in Casabella as storyboards and illustrated texts.

[iv] Urania, a yellow bound weekly newsstand publication from Mondadori, was quite popular around the Florentine Radical crowd. Science Fiction works as a sort of alternative or escapist literature that repositions familiar environments in order to test substitute orders, possibilities, futures. Over the course of the research the author has had several conversations with the members of SUPERSTUDIO on their predilection for Science Fiction.

[v] Piero Fassinelli, SUPERSTUDIO, “Twelve Cautionary Tales for Christmas: Premonitions of the Mystical Rebirth of Urbanism,” AD, (no. 12, 1971).

[vi] A. Natalini, Inventory, catalogues, systems of flux (London, International Institute of Design Summer Session, August 1971).

[vii] More could be said about these early connections, and more could be developed on each of the individual members of the group. Many of these goals were shared, and it would be important to go deeper into SUPERSTUDIO’S  group dynamic.