Each week we pay homage to a select "Original Creator"—an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today's creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields. Bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Superstudio.
The postmodern zeitgeist in contemporary art and media, combined with the large democratization and commercial dimension of today's design and architecture makes it hard to imagine that a 20th century architecture firm could have been considered "radical," "political" and "controversial." When looking at the utopian landscapes and collages mapped out by the avant-garde creative minds of Italian collective Superstudio, we see the work of idealist futurists and boy, does it look odd.
Stripped of contextual elements, and all relevant historical and cultural background, their images remain untouched, though informed, by the realities of the time. We take them in like we would a New Wave film, with a peaceful regard, only feeling a pinch of nostalgia for the olden days, when things were simpler, energy cheaper and the future brighter.
Yet the intellectual and artistic premises behind the eloquent and sometimes grandiose architectural worlds and design objects created by Superstudio were not exactly idealistic. Formed in 1966 following the Superarchitettura exhibition in Pistoia (Italy), Superstudio was at first a forward-thinking radical duo that teamed up to challenge the modernist credo that was triumphant in design, architecture and applied arts at the time. Adolfo Natalini and Cristiano Toraldo di Francia met at the University of Florence in the early/mid-1960s when faith in technology and the technical progress had reached a peak among the political and cultural elites. The two men, later joined by three other young architects from Florence, wanted to challenge this shared ideology and undermine the very basis of the modernist optimism.
On a large scale, the Cold War, the Vietnam disaster, and the realities of the arms race triggered a moral crisis in the Western world. Within the fields of design and architecture, the projected utopias of the late 19th and early 20th century had not exactly been met in regards to emancipating the working class and tightening the sense of community in large-scale collective housing projects.
In the late 1960s, Superstudio abandoned all ties with the modernist movements and embraced a radical take on their practice, coining concepts such as "anti-design" and "negative utopia" that tried to refute and overcome the dominant architectural postulates of their time. Their ideology did not embrace a purely negative stance but rather an oppositional—literally, as in "going back to the roots"—reflection on the function of their practice and of space itself, which they addressed with the ongoing question: “What is architecture?” This kind of reflective thinking formed the core of their short-lived career, which spanned from 1966 to 1978, when the group dismantled.
Superstudio and Zanotta: The Quaderna series
In the early 1970s, the collective started to use the grid in a collection of furniture manufactured by the Italian company Zanotta. This basic geometric pattern, used for highly functional purposes, served as a statement on the lifestyle and cultural background of the time. The Quaderna table is still in production today.
Continuous Monument series
The practice of collage allowed Superstudio to address the issue of modernism and the illusion of the grandiose that was still dominant in the mid-1960s. The juxtaposition of gigantic structures wrapped in their signature monochrome black-and-white grid pattern in the foreground of pastoral scenes or natural landmarks such as Niagara Falls or the San Francisco bay, serve as criticism of the modernist credo.
Excerpt from Ceremony
Ceremony is part of a five-part film series entitled Fundamental Acts shot by Superstudio. In this unfinished project, the members of the radical group filmed themselves in their idealized world, which was coincidentally devoid of architecture.
Superstudio’s work has had a crucial influence on today's architects, which can seem paradoxical given the outcast status they tried to achieve (or could have achieved) in their lifetime. Architects like Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas owe much to the five Italian radicals, and their influence was consecrated in 2004 in a large retrospective exhibition “Superstudio: Life Without Objects” held across several NYC art galleries.