Design in Italy in the mid 1960s was in an exciting state of flux. Radical Design, a movement of architects dissatisfied with the status quo, eschewed the idea of purely functional buildings, instead deciding to focus a little more on the feelings they evoked.
By the latter half of the decade, groups such as Gruppo, 9999, Superstudio, and UFO were all exploring new spaces that they hoped would act as a catalyst for artistic and social change, and clubs were to be at the forefront of their increasingly sideways visions.
Against a backdrop of political and social unrest in the country—Vietnam War protests, wild economic inequality between north and south, increasingly extreme left-wing agitation—the Radical Design movement forged a new system of looking at physical spaces, and the buildings that came to be known as "Pipers" were essentially discos that catered to the burgeoning counterculture.
Utopian by nature, these were places—the architects hoped—where a meeting of like-minded souls could take place. The first one, The Piper Club, opened in Rome in 1965. The brainchild of Manlio Cavalli and Francesco Giancarlo Capolei, the space was a venue for experimental multimedia expression, a sprawling club that encompassed disorientating audiovisual technology, pop art, and music.
It wasn't long before other clubs in Italy followed suit. By the late-60s, spaces such as L'Altro Mondo, the Piper in Turin, Mach 2 in Florence, and Gruppo 9999's Space Electronic were hosting events including radical theater, underground music performances, and countless other artistic endeavors. One club, Space Electronic, had a fully functioning vegetable garden.
The movement, however, was short-lived. By the mid-70s only a handful remained open, and—until now—Radical Disco remained a near-forgotten period of underground social history: after all, these spaces missed the disco boom of the late 70s, not to mention the explosion of DIY electronic music in the 80s and 90s
The "Radical Disco: Architecture and Nightlife in Italy" exhibition at the ICA in London seeks to shine a light on these strange buildings, offering a chance to view original photography, the blueprints, and assorted items from the period.
I caught up with curator Catharine Rossi for a chat about the show.
VICE: Can you tell me a little bit about the social and political background to these buildings? What was going on in Italy at the time?
Catharine Rossi: Most of the architects that we feature in the exhibition were associated with Radical Design. It was a specific response to the broader climate of confrontation in late 1960s Italy. Like elsewhere, Italy experienced a lot of unrest in 1968, both internally facing, with calls for changes and societal reform that had been promised following WWII, but also in broader reaches.
The culture of mass consumerism and the period of the Vietnam War saw a lot of domestic action, a wave of protest that turned into a near decade of unrest. There was domestic terrorism in the 1970s with the Red Brigade, but from the mid 1960s onwards there had been increasing concern with the development of Italian society—the post-war boom. Not everybody had experienced an economic high. It's a little bit like now, boom and bust.
Conspicuous consumption was full on; there was this reality of a huge development, but it was an urban and predominantly northern thing. Something that the show features is the start of the questioning of the values that a lot of people had been brought up with, and also the questioning of some of the architectural values that had sprung up around the same time as well.
These clubs were hugely ahead of their time. Do you think the architects were intentionally trying to create a near-narcotic kind of experience?
The Piper in Rome was really important. It was the first architect-led manifestation of these new kind of leisure spaces which were starting to pop up in London and New York and elsewhere—much freer and much more informal. Then you get places like the Turin Piper, which was designed by Riccardo Rosso, who saw spaces for leisure as an inherently political or revolutionary gesture, partly because of the kind of reading [these architects] were doing; they were reading people like Marshall McLuhan, who was a media theorist who really advocated the libationary potential of new technologies, particularly if you had this multimedia approach.
Creating a kind of sensory overload.
That is exactly what they meant; you were immersed in the light show and the music and all of these people. The thinking was that you were all in one space at the same time and then you would go on and unleash this freedom of creativity. The clubs had overhead projectors and flashing images and discontinuous imagery; they didn't think of that as a negative experience, they thought that was liberation technology.
How much had Italy adopted the counterculture emerging elsewhere in the 60s? Who went to these clubs?
Some of the Radical Design architects went to the States and met Warhol, saw the Electric Circus. They also went to The Fillmore in San Francisco, but that was before they opened the club. They were very much tuned in to the countercultural vibe and all that went with it. It was definitely part of a subversive, politicized, countercultural move.
But to get back to your question of who went—local artists, architects, musicians, and also international actors and people who played at the club; international theater groups, including Living Theatre, which was an American group that had been banned from many spaces.
Looking at the spaces, it's almost sad they missed disco and the later underground electronic movements.
Yeah, I definitely think that the radical discos we feature were ahead of their time in the sense of how they embraced new technologies; how they engaged with other art; theater and fine art, for example. They were really ahead of their time in that sense of freedom. But although they were called discos, it was an earlier idea of what discos are, and it does seem to have been this explosion of creativity that—for whatever reason—did not build anything, partly because the architects of Radical Design rejected industry and everything else; a lot of them were purely conceptual.
But while these spaces closed, they gave way to clubs and spaces that were opening by the early 1980s, and Italy has played a big role in electronic music over the years since.
The Radical Disco: Architecture and Nightlife in Italy exhibition is showing at the ICA in London.
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