Founded in Florence by a group of radical young architects in 1966, SUPERSTUDIO was at the heart of the architectural and design avant garde until its dissolution in the late 1970s. Through photo-collages, films and exhibitions, it critiqued the modernist doctrines that had dominated 20th century design thinking.
"In the beginning we designed objects for production, designs to be turned into wood and steel, glass and brick or plastic - then we produced neutral and usable designs, then finally negative utopias, forewarning images of the horrors which architecture was laying in store for us with its scientific methods for the perpetuation of existing models." This was how Superstudio described its work in a catalogue the group produced to accompany the 1973 exhibition Fragments From A Personal Museum at the Neue Galerie in Graz, Austria.
Superstudio was then at the fulcrum of avant garde thinking in architecture and design. Ever since it first surfaced in 1966 at the Superarchitecture exhibition in the Italian town of Pistoia, Superstudio had been among the most vociferous of the radical design groups which were challenging the modernist orthodoxies that had dominated architectural thinking for decades.
By questioning architecture's ability to change the world for the better and the boundless faith in technology expressed by earlier, more optimistic groups such as Archigram in the UK, Superstudio raised issues which have preoccupied successive generations of architects and designers from Studio Alchymia in late 1970s Italy and to the Memphis collective in the mid-1980s, to contemporary figures like Rem Koolhaas and Foreign Office Architects.
Superstudio was founded in 1966 by two radicals – Adolfo Natalini and Cristiano Toraldo di Francia - who had met while studying architecture at the University of Florence. Later they were joined by Alessandro and Roberto Magris and Piero Frassinelli. The group's relationship with Florence, where the five founders continued to live after graduation, was critical to its work. "It is the designer who must attempt to re-evaluate his role in the nightmare he helped to conceive, to retread the historical process which inverted the hopes of the modern movement," pronounced Toraldo di Francia. "And in Italy, Florence, a town where all such contradictions become most evident (the moment one draws the curtains of mythically misrepresented past) stands historically symbolic."
Yet the central theme of Superstudio's agenda over the next 12 years would be its disillusionment with the modernist ideals that had dominated architectural and design thinking since the early 1900s. Once fresh and dynamic, by the late 1960s, modernism had hit intellectual stasis. Rather than blithely regarding architecture as a benevolent force, the members of Superstudio blamed it for having aggravated the world's social and environmental problems. Equally pessimistic about politics, the group developed visionary scenarios in the form of photo-montages, sketches, collages and storyboards of a new 'Anti-Design' culture in which everyone is given a sparse, but functional space to live in free from superfluous objects.
Superstudio was not alone in its concerns. The collective emerged in 1966 at the moment when the technocratic optimism of the first half of the 1960s was souring. The watershed was the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in China in 1966 when Mao Tse-tung gave Western intellectuals a new cause to believe in after a decade of disillusion since their faith in communism was shattered by Khrushchev’s exposure of Stalin's brutalities. Events in China made Western society seem spiritually barren at a time of growing concern about the Vietnam War. In the visual arts, radicals rebelled against the extrovert imagery of Pop Art in favour of the politically engaged work of Fluxus artists like Joseph Beuys and Nam June Paik. The rising tide of political frustration culminated in the 1968 student riots in Paris and copycat protests in London, Tokyo and Prague. Women formed fledgeling feminist movements such as the Women's Liberation Front in the US and Mouvement de Libération des Femmes in France. Decades of oppression against gay men and women erupted in a pitched battle in New York, when the police tried to close the Stonewall, a gay bar in the West Village and a politicised gay rights movement exploded.
Superstudio's response was to develop its 'Anti-Design' projects: themes from which were echoed in the work of other radical architects and designers, notably the members of Archizoom, a fellow Florentine group consisting of Andrea Branzi, Gilberto Corretti, Paolo Deganello, Dario and Lucia Bartolini and Massimo Morozzi. Both groups were founded in 1966 and their first important project was to express their theories about the crisis of modernism in the Superarchitecture exhibition in Pistoia, Italy. A year later, they refined the ideas aired in Superarchitecture in a joint follow-up show in Modena.
During this period, Superstudio still clung to the conventional wisdom that architecture could be a powerful – and positive – force for progress. By 1968, the group had dismissed this notion as improbably optimistic. The following year Superstudio unveiled The Continuous Monument project in which the apparently endless framework of a black-on-white grid - which was to become the group's best known motif - extends across the earth’s surface in a critique of what Superstudio saw as the absurdities of contemporary urban planning. The group created photo-collages to show the grid cloaking the Rocky Coast, Coketown and Manhattan.
In 1970, Superstudio then revived the grid – its "neutral surface" – in a collection of furniture manufactured by the Italian company Zanotta. Designed in stark, geometric forms and covered in the ABET plastic laminate traditionally associated with cheap cafés and 1950s coffee bars, its Quaderna tables, benches and seats were a wry, but functional commentary on political disillusionment.
During the early 1970s, Superstudio made a series of films intending to raise awareness of the potentially negative environmental impact of architecture at a time when such issues were seldom explored. In 1972 the group was offered an opportunity to articulate its theories to a broader public by participating in Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, an exhibition of contemporary Italian design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The radical work of Superstudio and Archizoom was shown alongside that of their more conventional compatriots such as Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper.
During the same year, Superstudio set its sights on the heritage movement by developing a surreal proposal to flood Florence by blocking the Arno thereby submerging the city centre under water except for the dome of the cathedral in a parody of the conservative Save the Historic Centres campaign.
The group was given another prestigious international forum in 1973 when its work was surveyed in a retrospective exhibition – Fragments From A Personal Museum – at the Neue Galerie in Graz. By then, most of the members of Superstudio were teaching at the University of Florence, where they had met as students. The group remained active – albeit less energetically so – throughout the mid-1970s, only to fold in 1978 when the five founders concurred that they had lost momentum as a collaborative force and that they might be more effective by working independently.
Superstudio's thinking has proved more enduring than the group itself. Quaderna tables are still in production at Zanotta and Superstudio's collages and drawings have been acquired for the permanent collections of Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Moreover the group's once radical theories about architecture's environmental impact, the potentially negative consequences of technology and the inability of politics to untangle complex social problems are now considered to be core concerns by self-aware contemporary architects and designers.
1966 Superstudio is founded in Florence by Adolfo Natalini and Cristiano Toraldo di Francia, who are later joined by Alessandro and Roberto Magris and Alessandro Poli. The group participates in the Superarchitecture exhibition in Pistoia with Archizoom.
1967 Themes from Superarchitecture are explored again in an exhibition in Modena.
1969 The Continuous Monument project is unveiled. This marks the debut of the monochrome grid which will become the most potent visual symbol of Superstudio.
1970 The monochrome grid is reconfigured as various opaque forms in the Reflected Architecture series of photo-collages. One form frames the Niagara Falls. Another is a forested cube in San Francisco Bay. Zanotta, the Italian furniture manufacturer, starts production of the Quaderna tables covered in grid-patterened ABET plastic laminate.
1972 Superstudio participates in Italy: The New Domestic Landscape at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The group critiques the heritage movement by unveiling a fantastical plan to submerge the historic centre of Florence under water by flooding the River Arno.
1973 A retrospective of Superstudio’s work – Fragments From A Personal Museum – opens as a touring exhibition at the Neue Galerie in Graz, Austria. Members of Superstudio start teaching jobs at the University of Florence.
1978 Superstudio abandons working as a collective, but its members continue to develop their ideas independently through their writing teaching, architecture and design projects.