Architect’s Newspaper: Adolfo Natalini’s Final Vanishing Act

Monday January 27th 2020 by Peter Thomas Lang

Superstudio in 1970, with Adolfo Natalini on the far right. (Courtesy of the Toraldo di Francia Archive)

Adolfo Natalini’s final vanishing act

The passing of Adolfo Natalini on January 23, 2020, brings to a close an incredibly productive career as an artist, an architect, and an educator. Together with Cristiano Toraldo di Francia, the two co-founded Superstudio, a “radical” design collective that attracted a major international following by defying the fundamental principles of post-war modern architecture. Arriving on the scene in December of 1966, Superstudio, together with Archizoom, invented inside the Jolly 2 gallery in Pistoia, Tuscany, a bright, colorful collection of full-scale domestic architecture, designs, furniture, lamps, and radio sets.

Over time, Natalini’s career veered towards a full-fledged professional practice, undertaking large scale building projects, including libraries, university campuses, museums, urban housing complexes, and a monumental cemetery. From the start, and well into the late stages of his practice, Adolfo Natalini continued to challenge the modern architecture canon—though his turn towards a vernacular regional style by the late ’80s baffled many fans of the early Superstudio. Given the major impact Natalini Architects had in countries like Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands, something also should be said about Natalini’s larger opus, but it helps to revisit Superstudio’s early groundbreaking projects first to see how things unfolded.

Superstudio was built on its diverse interests. The members brought along with them many layers of expertise. Cristiano Toraldo di Francia was a professional photographer and keenly wired into cybernetic theory and passionate about nature; Gian Piero Frassinelli was a writer, studied anthropology, and was an expert in airbrush; Alessandro Poli (member from 1970 to 1972) shared his longstanding concern for social work and everyday society, and Roberto Magris was a gifted industrial designer.

For his part, Natalini spent much of his time thinking about life, repeatedly interrogating the greater transcendent questions on the meaning of art, architecture, design, and their big and small roles in the shaping of society. Natalini wrote, “I became interested more in humanities (literature, philosophy, politics) than in science and technology; I owe more to painters and to poets than to architects.” Significantly, Natalini always had his black sketchbook in hand and was the one who drew out the ideas and composed the group’s many incredibly detailed storyboards. Storyboards for lamp fixtures, houses, for industrial objects, urban spaces, monuments, and city infrastructures. His drawings would also have lots of people, alone and in crowds, historic figures and street characters. It’s been suggested Natalini thought through his sketches—and wrote like he was making geometrical patterns with his words. As Natalini noted in his autobiographical publication Four Sketchbooks (2015): “At times, I aligned words at night, on the typewriter, being more attentive to the kabbalistic geometry of the lines on the sheet of paper than to their meaning…

Natalini’s way of sketching-thinking-writing is evident in the first manifestation of Superarchitecture, the movement that launched Superstudio. The poster at the Jolly 2 gallery read: “the architecture of superproduction; superconsumption; superinduction to superconsumption; the supermarket, superman and super gas.” Supermarkets and super-grade gasoline became the iconographic lanterns of Natalini’s pop language. Natalini’s earlier career as a pop painter segued almost seamlessly into pop architect with this one exhibition. It was subsequently picked up by Ettore Sottsass Jr. and he delivered it, lock, stock and barrel to Sergio Cammilli, owner and driving force behind Poltronova, the fabled furniture and design manufacturer. Most of these early bold designs remain in production or have recently been revived.

Superstudio continued to profane modernist architecture by putting out ever more stunning critiques, striking against the profession’s socially maladroit, poorly mass-produced, and increasingly environmentally destructive practices. The Continuous Monument (1969-1972), a sort of gigantic re-dimensioning of Superstudio’s earlier investigations into reductive furniture, like the Histograms (1969-70) began the barrage and continued into Twelve Ideal Cities (1971) that prognosed 12 different bleak futures for humankind. Their architecture culminated in Supersurface, presented in New York in 1972 for the MoMA exhibition Italy: the New Domestic Landscape, whose singular premise was to sweep aside architecture altogether replacing it with a universal communications network carpeted across the planet. Supersurface, in turn, provoked among the collective a rethinking of basically everything. Superstudio came to announce Five Fundamental Acts (1972-1973) introducing a “multiple” universe divided into primary categories: Life, Ceremony, Education, Love, and Death. With this last effort, Superstudio hit its tabula rasa, basically rendering themselves obsolete in the process.

Superstudio would carry on through 1978, providing a deeply metaphysical reflection on the state of architecture through two projects: The Conscious of Zeno, and The Wife of Lot, commissioned by the curator Lara Vinca Masini for the Venice Bienniale held that same year. The Conscious of Zeno is tied to the painstaking anthropological studies conducted around the Tuscan countryside by students enrolled in Natalini’s university course Plastica Ornamentale, on the subject of ex-urban material culture. This work can be seen as both the progenitor and consequence of the Global Tools Radical school that tied together Radicals from Milan, Turin, Naples, and Florence. Conversely, TheWife of Lot dissolved a canonic architectural lineup of salt molds under a constant dribble of water. Arguably a second final ending.

By this time, Natalini had begun working towards his independent architectural practice and his office grew over the next decade with a number of successful projects that made it to completion. In 1994 he began his collaboration with Corinne Schrauwen, a Dutch architect and office. If, in the ’80s projects like Bank of Alzata Brianza in Como, Italy, (with Gian Piero Frassinelli, 1983) suggested a banded modernist interpretation of an articulated but rational building block, a decade later in Holland his housing residences and village agglomerations would discard entirely rational forms, referencing instead much earlier stylistic sources and local city landmarks.

In an interview I held with Natalini back in 2002, we discussed his early experiences in London, at Alvin Boyarsky’s International Institute of Design, and later at the AA. Natalini, commenting on Alvin Boyarsky, pointed out that he“[…]was a very open person, whose ideology was to have a great circus in which many different things could happen. He was a prophet of pluralism.” Natalini went on to add:

“In one of these summer sessions (1972) I organized a kind of Italian Festival, bringing in Paolo Deganello from Archizoom and Paolo de Rossi, part of the Strum group from Turin. Paolo Deganello and Paolo de Rossi were heavily involved in politics and they were explaining to the English students things that the students absolutely would not have understood, like the logic behind the extra-parliamentary movements Lotta Continua and Potere Operaio. One of the students who was very interested in this was Bernard Tschumi, and someone said, yes, he is the only Swiss communist around. The AA was a school I liked a lot and I made lots of friends there. I was friends with Rem Koolhaas, with Elia Zenghellis, and Leon Krier. And I also was a friend of Peter Cook.”

Natalini’s growing eclecticism belongs to this kind of pluralist worldview. Hans Ibelings, the Dutch architecture critic, considered Natalini’s architecture in the Netherlands back in 2004 for the Middelburg lecture, stating:

“Natalini does not seem to be searching for an archetypal simplicity but for simplicity as such. In this context the anthropological study Superstudio carried out in the 1970s at the University of Florence into simple implements, self-driven processes of change and extra-urban material cultures are relevant. These studies are an important link with the current architecture of Natalini. After he, along with the other members of Superstudio, had analyzed products and processes that lack a conscious act of designing, Natalini began to apply a comparable logic to his own work.”

History will be the judge, but Adolfo Natalini, with his work on the Uffizi Galleries and on the Museum of the Duomo has already secured his position among the canon of great Florentine architects. But that is not to say that Natalini hasn’t left us a couple of things still to ponder: Natalini, back in 2005, wrote: “My work aspires to a timeless normality. I would like to vanish into my buildings. I would wish that these buildings disappear into their city contexts and become a landscape where it’s possible to live peaceably.” I think Natalini has found his peace at last.