FLORENCE, Italy – One afternoon, architect Gian Piero Frassinelli, 81, while walking through a piazza near his home, stopped and pointed to a fresco high up on the facade of a building.
The illustration shows an entourage of local luminaries, including Dante the poet, and the painters Leonardo da Vinci and Giotto. Many would consider the scene as a tribute to Florence’s historic golden age. For Frassinelli, however, this means the city’s disregard for its creative sons.
“Until after they die, the artists in this city are destined to be rejected,” he said.
As the last surviving core member of Superstudio, Frassinelli should know. This radical architecture collective got the design world going during a MoMA exhibition in 1972, and its futuristic vision zigzagged the globe. Although Superstudio built very few actual buildings, its fun photo collages and designs, featured in exhibitions and glossy magazines, opened up new possibilities for architecture and urban planning.
Some of the industry’s biggest names in the 21st century – including Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, and Bernard Tschumi – have spoken about the group’s influence on their work, and in the 1960s Superstudio helped establish Florence as a hotbed of avant-garde design. Even today, the city’s museums hardly contain any references to the pioneering group.
Six hundred miles away, in Brussels, the CIVA Museum is currently showing a comprehensive overview of the work of “Superstudio” until May 16. Titled “Superstudio Migrazioni,” it includes over 500 objects, including some of the group’s most famous photomontages, furniture and interior design, and previously unpublished letters. Ninety of the works are on loan from the Center Pompidou in Paris.
The starting point for everything Superstudio did was dissatisfaction with the uniformity of modern architecture, which left members viewed as an instrument of capitalism that disempowered the masses and robbed them of their individuality and freedom. Sometimes they made fun of the status quo or came to absurd conclusions; other times they envisioned utopian futures.
A photo collage series titled “Continuous Monument” shows a monolithic shape that cuts through deserts, spans the Grand Canyon, and glides over the Hudson River to overlay the lattice of Lower Manhattan with its own lattice design. The unstoppable progress of this form through natural and urban landscapes seems to warn of the dull effect of clean modern lines and the dangers of uncontrolled urban expansion.
“In the West, man is a prisoner of architecture,” said Frassinelli in an interview in his home. “That’s why we attacked the architecture.”
Also on display in Brussels are the group’s brightly colored sofas, which mock the fetish of the 1960s for functional design, and “Supersurface”, a series of drawings and collages showing nomads roaming through a fantasy landscape freed from consumerist desires.
Planning began three years ago when the show’s curator was initially led by Superstudio’s two founding members, Cristiano Toraldo Di Francia and Adolfo Natalini. However, Di Francia and Natalini died in July 2019 and January last year, turning the exhibition into a posthumous homage to their work.
After meeting at the University of Florence, Di Francia and Natalini founded the Superstudio in 1966. At the time, architecture was moving in a more conceptual direction, away from the simple design of buildings: some of its most exciting practitioners created plans for structures that never – could never be built.
Archigram, an avant-garde British group founded in 1961, took inspiration from science fiction literature in their designs for impossible buildings and moving cities on legs. These hypothetical designs inspired Superstudio and other Italian collectives – with futuristic names like Archizoom, 9999 and UFO – in a movement known as “radical architecture”.
Shortly after it was founded, Superstudio and Archizoom organized a groundbreaking exhibition entitled “Superarchitecture”, in which the ideas of the movement were presented. The show’s poster stated, “Superarchitecture is the architecture of superproduction, superconsumption, the supermarket and the superman.” But instead of celebrating capitalist abundance, Natalini and Di Francia’s designs made fun of them. They presented brightly striped sofas, children’s playground slides and lamps in the shape of flowers and rainbows.
The duo gradually welcomed new members until there were six. Frassinelli joined in 1968 after impressing his colleagues with a series of short dystopian texts that were later published with accompanying drafts under the ironic title “Twelve Ideal Cities”.
“We were all very interested in science fiction, which we thought was an exceptional tool for analyzing contemporary urban culture,” said Frassinelli. Some of the designs may seem fanciful – like a city with a 2,000-tonne ceiling falling to crush rebel residents – but they were created to explore the realities of urban life, Frassinelli said. “We wanted to show 12 elements of real cities that are reaching their logical limits,” he added.
Over time, Superstudio shifted its focus from buildings to people. In “Supersurface”, roaming communities fit into an energy matrix that lines the surface of the earth and satisfies their original needs in a world without architecture.
Bernard Tschumi, the New York-based creator of buildings such as Parc de Villette in Paris and the Acropolis Museum in Athens, recalled in a Zoom interview that he met the members of Superstudio in 1972, the year in which they produced “Supersurface”. ”
In the past ten years, architecture has gotten into a stalemate, but Superstudio’s willingness to look beyond the field has opened up new avenues. “They could wipe the slate clean and look at other disciplines like art or literature to build something new,” said Tschumi.
Superstudio used the media of architecture such as models and city maps to reform old ways of thinking within the profession, added Tschumi. “You would use the tools of design, but against the design itself. And that was pretty fascinating because it suggested that you could invent a new world with the old tools, which were the only tools we had,” said Tschumi.
The group’s critical stance was cemented in the lecture halls of Florence when a whirlwind of activism howled through the city’s university in the early 1960s.
The students at the time wanted a break with the past. At the architecture faculty, they were incredulous that the curriculum still contained architecture from Italy’s fascist times and demanded the dismissal of the professor who taught the course. Across the university, students occupied their departments, canceled lectures, and instead met in their own meetings.
Frassinelli, an active participant in the movement, said this anti-establishment climate gave Superstudio members a sense of political intent and anchored them in counterculture lifestyles that continued after they graduated and the group was formed. “We, our wives or friends and children, were almost a church. We spent practically all the time together, seven days a week, ”he said.
But as the members matured, their interests diverged. Superstudio drifted apart and disbanded in the late 1970s.
In the interview, Frassinelli said he was just as contemptuous of contemporary architecture as he was of the modern buildings of the 1960s when he was first attracted to Superstudio. “Today’s star architects don’t create architecture for people,” he said. “They do it for the fame and the money,” he said.
He added that one recent project particularly annoyed him because it looked like Superstudio had designed something.
Last month, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince revealed plans for a 100-mile linear city known as “The Line.” The $ 500 billion urban belt would be car-free, run on renewable energies and regulated with the help of artificial intelligence. The designs show the future city, which extends in an uninterrupted line across the Arabian desert, and promise a “revolution in urban life”.
Frassinelli said the project has echoes of “Continuous Monument” both for its immense linear shape and for its mission to establish a single urban design over an extensive territorial span. But it didn’t understand the ironic intent of the series, he said.
“Seeing the dystopias of your own imagination arise is not the best thing you could want,” he added.
Chiappone-Piriou, the show’s curator at CIVA in Brussels, said the ambiguity of Superstudio’s work has meant that it has often been misinterpreted. While the group hoped their nightmarish worlds would never exist, too often their satirical precautions have been taken at face value.
A better understanding of Superstudio’s work could help today’s architects adapt to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, mass migration and the climate crisis, Chiappone-Piriou said.
“Every discipline, in moments of doubt, looks back at moments in history when it could reinvent itself,” she said.
Superstudio did that by thinking beyond the boundaries of architecture, said Chiappone-Piriou. “They weren’t problem solvers. You wouldn’t save the world, ”she said. “They regenerated the architecture by asking the right questions.”
Until May 16 at CIVA in Brussels; civa.brussels.