Superstudio: The Middelburg Lectures, Middelburg, Netherlands, De Vleeshal and Zeeuws Museum, 2005

Peter Lang, “Superstudio’s Last Stand,” in Superstudio: the Middelburg Lectures, Valentijn Byvanck, ed., (Middelburg, Netherlands, De Vleeshal and Zeeuws Museum, 2005) pages 43-52.


SUPERSTUDIO’s Last Stand. 1972-1978


Peter Lang, Middleburg, September 18, 2004

It appears that today’s design culture is becoming increasingly “radical,” considering that by now the traditionally stylized design practices, that we have come to commonly refer to as post-modern, are losing ground to new more experimental challenges. A glimpse of this year’s 9th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale curated by Kurt Foster, as well as the different projects promoted by many of the national pavilions only confirms this trend: there is hardly a traditional design scheme to be seen anywhere at all.

If anything, the current “radical” trend gaining momentum after almost a thirty year gap in time begs a larger question, just what did become of the original sixties radical movement and its many protagonists?

To begin with, “Radical Design” is itself a difficult umbrella concept given the many different currents usually associated with the term. More specifically, in the case of SUPERSTUDIO, theirs was a Florentine based “superarchitecture” movement whose basic premise stood for “anti-design.” Would SUPERSTUDIO’s philosophy of ironic nihilism, however, help explain why the controversial stance put their future at serious risk? Might it be that most of the so called radicals by the early seventies were caught off-guard when the cultural currents changed, or could it simply be they were ill-equipped to pursue long term strategies vital to their survival?

I would like to suggest that the answer lies somewhere between: on one hand the Florentine radical’s graphic shock tactics were highly effective and flexible strategies that by definition resisted any form of pre-determination. But the flip side of this strategy was the intentional slickness that was hard to pin down, the seemingly arbitrary spontaneity that ultimately ceded critical terrain to more insidious, and I would emphasize, traditionally academic opponents.

The Florentine Superarchitecture movement grew in tenacity from 1965 to 1972, when at the peak of their prowess they found themselves feted, but also made into “history” by Emilio Ambasz for the exhibition “Italy: the New Italian Landscapes.” One year later SUPERSTUDIO met head to head with the increasingly fortified “tendenza” think tank led by Aldo Rossi, who astutely appropriated and consequently disarmed them of their remaining mystique in his show at the Milan Triennale.

By 1978 Radicals and conceptual artists alike found themselves participating in a revival circuit organized specifically at the bequest of the Venice Biennale. But by then the “retrospective” on Radicalism could barely muster much attention.

With very little written on the decline of this movement and not much else to go on, I have decided to draft a critical reconstruction based on a curious sequence of events with the hope of opening this subject to further discussion.


1965: The Florence Biennale.

One year before the first exhibition on Superarchitecture, in 1965, the Italian design community presented a polemical attack on the design industry’s role in servicing the public good. The Florence Biennale at the Palazzo Strozzi, titled “La Casa Abitata” featured plenty of non-conformist proposals [ft #1 Giovanni Michelucci, Domenico Benini, Tommaso Ferraris, Pier Luigi Spadolini, curators, la Casa abitata, biennale degli interni di oggi, Firenze, Palazzo Strozzi 6 marzo-25 Aprile 1965. (Florence, Arti Grafiche Meroni 1965)]. Of these, more than several rose above simple product design and decoration in an attempt to define and resist the perceived limitations of Italy’s rapidly expanding mass consumer society.

Among the mixed group of designers, urbanists and architects included in the exhibition were Luigi Moretti, Achille and Piergiacomo Castiglioni, Vittorio Gregotti, Vico Magistretti, Marco Zanuso, Emilio Isotta, Ettore Sottsass jr., Leonardo Savioli, and Leonardo Ricci.

Of these, Sottsass chose more or less successfully to play against the hyper rationality of industrial society, by designing a suite of home-based activities according to the Karma Sutra. [see figures…]Ricci produced a thesis on nomad space-structures inhabitable for two persons. [see figures …] Savioli created an entire residential structure modularized and transformable according to an individual’s flexible tastes.[see figures …] It would come as no small coincidence that all three of these personalities would play fundamental roles in shaping the new critical design ideology.

The catalogue’s editor, Laura Vinca Masini, underscored the exhibition’s discordant tone in her introduction. Masini, acknowledged the serious approach taken by the participants in attempting to tackle issues of design that probed deep into the urbanistic and architectural condition of contemporary modernity.  But Masini also alluded to a second and what she qualified as more critical aspect of this same process:

“In the sense that the diverse, stimulating, vivacious examples directed often in opposite and contradictory directions, are the most direct testimonies of the impossibility for a real encounter on common grounds, that is about the necessity to recover, for the average man, the right to liberty, beyond the conditioning created by “civilized” well being.” [ft#2  Laura Vinca Masini, “Introduction”  La Casa Abitata, Biennale degli Interni di oggi. ( Florence, Arti Grafiche Meroni, 1965, pp 7)]

Clearly the art historian Masini recognized that no one single visual expression or ideological school was emerging from this disparate group. The show’s main curator, Giovanni Michelucci, also stressed this point upfront, warning that, “…the new demands of life in these times of mass culture and industrial and technological civilization, from the dilation of spatial dimensions that denaturalize daily life, threaten an even more terrifying transformation in the future …”[ ft #3 IBID]

By the mid sixties Florence was awash of intergenerational experiments featuring numerous counter-cultural investigations in the field of conceptual arts, music, design and architecture. Students exposed to the teachings of Michelucci, Sottsass, Ricci, and Savioli were especially drawn to the cause. This younger, emerging Florentine generation of highly politicized youth were already in deep battle against the dominant beaux arts system. This would be the generation that would carry on the struggle to develop uncontaminated practical solutions for non-urban, non-traditional communal ways of life.

1972: MOMA, New York

In the preamble of the 1972 exhibition catalogue Italy: New Domestic Landscapes: Achievements and Problems in Italian Design” Emilio Ambasz, the curator, offered two opposing themes for consideration in his New York MOMA exhibition:

“The first attitude involves a commitment to design as a problem-solving activity, capable of formulating, in physical terms, solutions to problems encountered in the natural and sociocultural milieu. The opposite attitude, which we may call one of counterdesign, chooses instead to emphasize the need for a renewal of philosophical discourse and for social and political involvement as a way of bringing about structural changes in our society.” [ft #4, Emilio Ambasz, Italy: the New Domestic Landscape, (New York, MOMA, 1972, page 1370].

Emilio Ambasz succeeded in building up a blockbuster exhibition by exploiting this paradox, staging an Italian theme park for a curious American public. Besides the large number of designer set pieces, the MOMA collection included hybrid plastic lamps, poetic modular environments and hallucinatory film shorts. Yet it can be argued that there was hardly anything “new” to the “Italian domestic landscape” even the controversial contradictions introduced by Ambasz were by then quite dated.

In reality the exhibit did more to seal the radical movement’s fate then present anything at the time that could still be considered cutting edge or seriously experimental.

In other words, Ambasz didn’t discover Radical design, he basically wrote its requiem. Though the “New Domestic Landscape” was not meant to be a coup de grace to the movement, it effectively laid bare the confectionary nature of the all-extensive counter-design project. One could finally see the brilliance and the tinsel behind the radical genius.

1972: the Milan Triennial

Coming out of the Milanese world of publications, deeply ensconced in the Venetian academia, emerging from the same period in the sixties, another “tendency,” led by Aldo Rossi, sought to revive the traditions of a historicist Rationalism, hence Rossi’s “neo-rationalist” platform. By qualification more Marxist intellectual than Radical Jacobin, this rear guard movement subverted the Radical experimental agenda by reintroducing architecture’s missing history.

If the Radicals overstepped their bounds, in their haste to abolish tradition, their decline was in fact facilitated by their disinterest in academia. The conflict played itself out most spectacularly in the halls of the 1973 Triennale in Milan, where two completely opposing curatorial methods confronted each other directly, determining in the process a fundamental shift in the debate.

Rossi, curating the architecture section, assembled a carefully crafted thesis on the history of the modern movement: dedicated to three recently deceased architects, Piero Bottoni, Ernesto N. Rogers, and Hans Schmidt and brought together a highly didactic presentation that subverted experimental research in favor of a most rigorous selection of historical architects’ works (Loos, Oud, Le Corbusier, Terragni to name a few).

This section also featured Rossi’s commissioned large central canvas by Arduino Cantaforo, titled the Analogous City. Accompanied by the book Rationalist Architecture, and featuring films by Hans Richter and an in-house composite film titled Crime and Ornament, Rossi made a deliberate attempt to subvert the Triennale’s longstanding program dedicated to industrial innovation, breaking with the themed categories of the past, that had long served as a launching pad for the Italian design industry.

Rossi wrote in the Triennale catalogue: The attention to rationalism, the surrealist currents, the rigorous attention to technique one can find from a stylistic point of view in many of the projects; but that which unifies them is the desire to see in architectural terms that which is possible to do today.[ftnt # 5 Aldo Rossi XV Triennale di Milano: Esposizione internazionale delle arti decorative e industriali moderne e dell’architettura moderna Palazzo dell’arte al Parco Milano, 20 settembre-20 novembre 1973 Milan, A. Nava, 1973. pp 37-38].


Preoccupied with the real difficulty that the society in which we live in presents to architecture, as is with every craft or art, we have brought together these examples as proposals that exist intrinsically within rationalist architecture, conscious of the difficulty that derives from the confrontation and from the same contradictions that they provoke.  [FT # 6 IBID Aldo Rossi, in the XV Triennale di Milano: Esposizione internazionale delle arti decorative e industriali moderne e dell’architettura moderna .Palazzo dell’arte al Parco Milano, 20 settembre-20 novembre 1973. Catalogue: Milan, A. Nava, 1973. pp 37-38]

The world Rossi envisioned would not be a naked natural landscape populated by technologically innovative prototypes, but instead would be this composite city, the Analogous City, a historically arcane collage of architectural archetypes serenely placed within the settings of the Western city. [Ftnt #8 In contrast, SUPERSTUDIO’s critical method, which the group referred to as either “anti-design” or “counter-design,” appeared too contradictory in its approach to win broader appeal among design professionals. Once the revolutionary shock had worn off the Radical visions or “prototypes” found their way not into improving life on the collective commune but absorbed into the mainstream circus of consumer fashion.]

Meanwhile, curating the section on Industrial Design, Ettore Sottsass jr.’s presentation of videotapes in an immense blackened viewing room came in stark contrast to Rossi’s. Sottsass, probably conscious of the transformation taking place next door, wrote in the catalogue:

“During these last years, it has been much clearer that design, which is actually limited in a circle of production and consumption, must be socially engaged and tend towards a definition of its aims as a more or less conscious political act, thus creating a civilization of pictures in constant free growth. We therefore have now a permanent crisis in the relationship between designer and industry, and this crisis is present also in the traditional designing methods and in the intimate image the designer gives of himself when he tries to make contacts with the complex, ambiguous discontinuous, contradictory reality.”[FT #7 IBID Ettore Sottsass jr, pages: 45-46]

Thus Sottsass chose to go with batteries of animated video projections establishing a bold alternative to the encyclopedic collection of works hanging like wall paintings in a standard gallery next door.

SUPERSTUDIO, meanwhile, was captured, “historically” in the middle, with the “Park dedicated to the Resistance” in Modena (a work developed by Alessandro Poli) hanging in Rossi’s section, while the film “Ceremony,” the second chapter in the SUPERSTUDIO’s visionary opus “Five Fundamental Acts,” was playing in Sottsass’s black exhibition space

SUPERSTUDIO’s inclusion in the 1973 Milan Triennial exhibition marked a significant change in the course of Radical history. The whole metaphysical undercurrent spreading throughout Rossi’s architecture section seemed to leave SUPERSTUDIO’s politically subversive project in a lurch: “the Monument to the Resistance” was displayed inside a cabinet of curiosities with the ghostlike photos of buildings by Loos and Terragni. There was something slightly uncomfortable to this exhibition, where two visibly contrasting visions of the world appeared strangely mismatched in the same exposition.


While the Radicals once seemed to monopolize the publications limelight, the leaders of the tendenza had surreptitiously insinuated themselves deep into the Italian university system. Venice, under the aegis of Samonà, and bolstered by the work of Aldo Rossi, Manfredo Tafuri, Dal Co and others, established a sort of safe-house for a new generation of critical theorists that were far better equipped in the long term to carry their battles into the mainstream world of design and architecture  [ftnt #9 Tafuri has condemned more than once the works of the Radical movement.  See Felicity Scott’s essay: “Architecture and Techno-Utopia” in Grey Room 03 for a helpful overview on the shifting debate, that clarifies the “semantic restructuring,”—Tafuri’s term—that succeeded in pulling the carpet out from under the Radical movement. Felicity Scott, “Architecture and Techno-Utopia,” Grey Room (Boston, MIT press, 2000? Pp ?)]


Post 1973, SUPERSTUDIO’s second career phase, shifted to a much more sober and oddly conciliatory engagement with the reification or more inevitably the commodification of architectural history, coming to be known as the post-modern movement.






1978: The Venice Biennial


For 1978 the Venice Biennale planned the first major retrospective on the Radicals. The Venice directorate by advocating a return to the spirit of the sixties, sought to limit the exhibition by shutting out anything done past 1970. [ftnt #10, In an interview conducted by Lisa Licitra Ponti for Domus published in July of 1978, Filiberto Menna defended the unusual prerequisite that the show feature only work from before 1970: “The theme that we had to prepare is of historic character… Beginning from the historical avant-garde we pulled, in a sense several problematic lines that lead, directly or indirectly, across more torturous or rectilinear roads to a recent situation, an actual situation. Why did we stop at 1970?  Precisely because ours is a historical exhibition and we were all in agreement to voluntarily preclude that which for a militant critic is the most fascinating theme: documenting research in the process of creation.” Domus July 1978 LLP Page 52]. SUPERSTUDIO, opposed to the idea of submitting archival work, devised instead two new projects that sought to confront the faltering impact of their generation’s Radical legacy.  And evidently, SUPERSTUDIO’s exhibition at the Venice Biennale came at a time when the Biennale’s concern with Art and Nature, introduced a strong ecological undercurrent in what otherwise would be known as an era of crisis and detachment. [ft #11 The Biennale’s original Italian title was “Dalla Natura all’arte e dall’arte alla natura” On just how deeply acknowledged was the issue of art and nature among his generation, Dan Graham commented that he and Gordon Matta Clark, were applying the less is more avowal not to elite ends but to economize, coming off the oil crisis with a new sensibility to the ecology. Peter Lang, William Menking, interview with Dan Graham, New York, August 26, 2003.]


It is within this conflicted late seventies critical design milieu that SUPERSTUDIO’s little known but highly intriguing participation in the 1978 Venice Biennale took place, a dramatic unraveling within which to observe just how the protagonists of the Radical movement saw themselves at the end of the decade.


Their two projects produced for the Venice Biennale, the Conscious of Zeno and the Wife of Lot were tentative responses to the ensuing quandary, exculpatory projects that placed in evidence the futility of architecture while keeping the way open for alternative working strategies. The anthropological documentation in the Conscious of Zeno continued the deeply hermetic investigation into the aural world of the peasant creator. This project, representing student research conducted for Adolfo Natalini’s “Plastica Ornamentale” class with Cristiano Toraldo di Francia and Alessandro Poli, provided a wealth of information on this one peasant’s daily life, recording the self built structures, individually cultivated landscapes and homemade objects that constituted the world of Zeno.


The Wife of Lot, conceived and executed by Gian Piero Frassinelli and Adolfo Natalini, can be seen as conceptually linked to SUPERSTUDIO’s deeply subversive and ironically undermining critique on the production of architecture that in Venice became the final enactment of the corrosion of the architect’s instruments (The piece’s five salt molds placed on an iron stand, represented the Pyramid, the Coliseum, the Basilica, the Versailles Palace and the Esprit Nouveau Pavilion. Each was to dissolve under the steady drip of water, revealing in the process a counter-symbol buried within. The accompanying manifesto declared “Water is to Salt like Time is to Architecture,” emphasizing the longstanding SUPERSTUDIO credo that “the only architecture is our lives.”).

Yet one of the most talked about events at the 1978 Venice Biennale was also one of the more provocative responses to the exhibition’s announced theme on art and nature. The Israeli artist Menashe Kadishman’s mixed media installation consisted of herding a flock of sheep across Venice to his country’s pavilion, introducing nature into the Byzantine city of canals.  But it seems that there were relatively few among the national artists who could or would confront the nature anti-nature polemic established for that year.


In Jan van der Marck’s review “the Venice Biennale. Can it Rise Again?:” Art Forum’s critic sought to understand precisely why the left leaning directorate of the Venice Biennale, led by the “communist aristocrat Carlo Ripa di Meanna, Filiberto Menna and the young professional Achille Bonito Oliva…” “…had failed to successfully showcase the politically provocative sixties radical avant-garde art movement despite a discriminating program designed to weed out works irrelevant to directorate’s principle intentions. [ftnt #12 Jan van der Marck, “the Venice Biennale. Can it Rise Again?” Artforum September 1978 pp 74.]


In effect, the exhibition received scant attention in the international art press. “Nobody claims…” according to van der Marck, “…that the avant-garde can be killed through neglect, on the contrary, it positively thrives on it. By drawing the avant-garde to our bosoms like a kitten in need of warmth, we have effectively smothered it, drawn its breath away and caused it almost to disappear.” [ftnt # 13 IBID Artforum September 1978 pp 74.]


These were indeed prophetic words. Clearly when the Radicals were put on proper displayed their movement lost its critical punch. But the movements’ withering away does not account for the continuing influence of its many protagonists.


It does appear that by the mid seventies, many of the main characters chose separate paths, moving to Milan to be closer to design industry, taking teaching positions in the Italian Universities, founding academies, or simply morphing into prominent first generation post-modernists. [ftnt #14 The group, Adolfo Natalini, Cristiano Toraldo di Francia, Roberto Magris, Piero Frassinelli, Alessandro Magris and Alessandro Poli continued to work together until the early eighties inside or outside “SUPERSTUDIO” but they increasingly focused their energies on more professional challenges. SUPERSTUDIO’s theoretical work, meanwhile, shifted to teaching. SUPERSTUDIO together with Archizoom had founded in 1973 an experimental school known as “Global Tools,” with the open participation of numerous fellow Radicals.]


One more question.  If today’s energetic generation of neo-radicals proceed unaware of their progenitors’ fate, will they still be condemned to repeat it?