Superstudio: Pratt Manhattan Gallery/Artists Space/Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York

Article excerpt

"Superstudio: Life Without Objects" offered a timely lesson in architecture as a form of nonviolent yet nonetheless destructive guerrilla warfare. Initiated by the Design Museum, London, and distributed among three venues in New York, the exhibition brought together work from more than a decade of intense polemical experimentation by the Florence-based Superstudio group, founded in 1966 by Adolfo Natalini and Cristiano Toraldo di Francia and later joined by Roberto Magris, Gian Piero Frassinelli, Alessandro Poli, and Alessandro Magris. The show included drawings, sketches, sculpturelike Histograms, posters, photomontages, lithographs, storyboards, films, and audio-slide presentations, frequently accompanied by dense narrative and critical text boxes or voice-overs. This remarkable--and remarkably political--body of work demonstrates the importance of radical thinking to architectural practices of the late 1960s and early '70s, as well as the hope embedded in aesthetic production, no matter how ironically cast.

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At Pratt Manhattan Gallery, the group's earlier and relatively more conventional work revealed its origins in a peculiar encounter between Pop and Minimalism. These aesthetic practices, to which Conceptualism was soon added, were not simply borrowed from the domain of art but were part of a self-conscious, crossdisciplinary exchange that enabled the architects to work, according to Natalini, within a doubly critical "mediatory" space "between architecture and the visual arts." The exhibition's opening sequence included posters from the "Superarchitettura" shows of 1966 and '67, which launched the group into the experimental scene, along with Journey into the Realm of Reason, 1968-69, their first storyboard narrative. Rendered as an animated cartoon replete with clouds, rainbows, and pyramids, as well as extruded and metal structures, the twenty-six-frame sequence takes us on a journey through the brief history of the group's investigations into Pop images as well as the formal and typological transformation of monumental and technomorphic architecture. Also included in this section of the exhibition were lamp and furniture designs, rock star--like group portraits announcing the group's youthful rebellion from the architectural academy, and the photocollage Competition for a Resistance, Memorial Park, Modena, 1970. The Crystal Palace-like structure depicted behind protesters in the park soon returns in a miniature version, its metal trusses replaced by neon tubes to serve as a lamp.

The Pop sensibility and graphics of some of this early work, informed by Natalini's background as a Pop painter turned architect, is estranged by idealistic (if quickly abandoned) radical ambitions. In a contemporaneous manifesto we learn that Superstudio's industrial designs were to participate in a Happenings-like form of protest, a countercultural "contestation of the system" of consumer objects. Collapsing a hippie arcadia and its rituals with the normative codes of "hyperconsumer society," their objects were supposed to exorcize indifference and become weapons to fight dreariness by creating conditions for what was termed a "space of involvement." Refusing nostalgia and craftsmanship, these symbolically charged props were to operate like foreign bodies in an intolerable system and hence "serve as signposts for life that is going ahead." Yet Superstudio soon came to recognize capital's ability to immediately and cynically recuperate oppositional practice, claiming that "the social 'system' in which we live is strong enough to incorporate and use every gesture and product of ours."

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In contrast to this early design work, a serial arrangement of sculptural Histograms, begun in 1968, occupied the gallery's central floor space. These geometric forms--covered in white plastic laminate, overlaid with a black orthogonal grid--were described by Superstudio as a "catalogue" of three-dimensional diagrams capable of generating objects ranging in scale from furniture to environments. …