The Radical Design Movement
More essential history for Speculative Design by Michael Smyth.
In an interview reported in 1982, Peter Cook, one of the founders of the influential 1960s architectural practice and eponymous magazine Archigram, commented that on “one day we realised that 50 copies of our funny little magazine had been sold in the Centro D shop in Florence. The peripheral nature of these groups might have been a factor: for at that time (1965) there were none reported from Berlin, Milan or New York” (Cook, 1982). What he didn’t realise was the chance purchase of the Archigram magazine in London by the girlfriend of Adolfo Natalini, an architecture student from the University of Florence and later to become one of the founding members of Superstudio, was probably the reason for the magazine’s popularity in the Italian city. This is one story that gives a clue about how the city of Florence became the centre of the Italian Radical Design Movement in the 1960s.
Radical Design developed from an architectural tradition in Italy and centred on the city of Florence. Its roots began with students who were working with Leonardo Savioli, a professor at the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Florence. Under his guidance students had the freedom to advocate a departure from the past and their work focussed on proposing radical new ways of living. Their visions represented an overt break from the austerity that characterised the immediate post war years in Italy. As a result of this work, the Radical Design movement grew to give voice to a new generation of architects who wanted to critique the traditional methods of planning and question the very nature of what cities might become in the future. These architects adopted an explicitly speculative approach to both the critique of architecture and the envisionment of future cities.
The 1960s was also a time of great optimism and faith in science that was seen as a powerhouse to deliver a vision of social and economic freedom for a new generation. This optimism of the time was widespread and was best characterised by the British Prime Minister of the day, Harold Wilson, in his speech at the annual Labour Party Conference of 1963, when he warned his audience that if the country was to prosper, a “new Britain” would need to be forged in the “white heat” of this “scientific revolution” (Francis, 2013). Such confidence in science, as a driver of progress, was also reflected in popular culture, for example the Mike Nichols (dir) film entitled The Graduate (1967). In a famous scene the eponymous character, played by Dustin Hoffman, is brought to one side by a family friend for the purpose of career advice. The friend utters one word – “plastics” – and when asked by Hoffmann what he means, he elaborates by saying: “there’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?”
Radical Design wanted to break from the past, whereas Speculative Design exhibits a greater degree of criticality of our journeys to, and visions of, such futures.
The Radical Design movement exhibited a similar desire to that of Speculative Design as they presented visions of possible futures as a means of critique and provocation. Where perhaps they differed was in terms of their motivation. Radical Design wanted to break from the past, whereas Speculative Design exhibits a greater degree of criticality of our journeys to, and visions of, such futures. In Florence, two practices became synonymous with the Radical Design movement. One was Superstudio and the other was Archizoom, while in London Archigram contributed to the debate about the role of architecture and the form that cities might take in the future.
In 1966, a young group of architects who had trained at the University of Florence first exhibited their work in the Superarchitectettura show. The group was known as Superstudio and was founded by Adolfo Natalini and Christiano Toraldo di Francia, who were later joined by G. Piero Frassinelli, Alessandro and Roberto Magris, and Alessandro Poli.
Superstudio were to become one of the most influential groups from Florence and they became synonymous with the Radical Design Movement. Indeed, their work presented at Superarchitectettura became the basis for a manifesto of the movement. An enduring theme of Superstudio’s work was the natural environment, and much of their thinking was focussed on the use of space and how architecture could be a catalyst for social change. In their manifesto they stated: “envisaging the progressive impoverishment of the earth and how the now nearby prospect of ‘standing room only’ we can imagine a single architectural construction with which to occupy the optimal living zones, leaving the others free.” This vision manifest in the application of a grid system to the urban context in which every point on the grid was the same as any other point and all people existed equally. Their aim was to create a democratic experience and is perhaps best represented in their work entitled The Continuous Monument.
The Continuous Monument – Superstudio
This was an architectural structure that covered and shaped the entire world. The structure was intended to serve as a refuge for humanity, its volume acting as the optimal living space that would offer a place for every human being, leaving the rest of the earth uninhabited allowing for natural development, free from human intervention. Superstudio saw this work as a continued critique of the structure of society. Their vision was of an architecture that could self-organise and operate at any scale. The sheer scale of the vision represented by The Continuous Monument was a commentary on the rise of globalization, a world rendered uniform by technology with local cultures being stripped away.
Although presented by Superstudio as a tangible object, The Continuous Monument never aspired to be a realizable building. It was a piece of speculative architecture or, as Frampton (1980) comments: “it is a metaphysical image, as fleeting and as cryptic as the supremacist monuments of Malevich or the wrapped buildings of Christo”. In the illustrations of The Continuous Monument, the focus was primarily on the effect the structure produced on the viewer. Its goal was to be a catalyst for thought; from the perspective of Superstudio, it was the viewer that had to change. The vast “mega-structures” were deliberately ambiguous, left to the imagination of the viewer to make their own assumptions about the interior.
Superstudio operated in the space between social criticism and irony. Irrespective of the scale and importance of the topic, their designs contained an element of irony. The aim of the work was to explore ideas and was not dependent on a final realization. Superstudio called this “demonstration per absurdum”. Indeed, it is the duality of Superstudio – on the one hand melancholy and serious, while on the other, playful and witty – which gave much of the power to their visions.
Perhaps the main driving force behind the Superarchitettura exhibition in 1966 was a design studio called Archizoom. Like Superstudio, Archizoom had its roots in the School of Architecture at the University of Florence. The group was founded by Andrea Branzi, Gilberto Corretti, Paolo Deganello and Massimo Morozzi, who were later joined in 1968 by Dario and Lucia Bartolini.
In a similar manner to Superstudio, but with less irony, Archizoom questioned the role of architecture through an overtly anti-design position. An early manifestation of this approach was the sofa entitled Superonda (Andrea Branzi) that was exhibited at Superarchitettura. The sofa was designed without a conventional frame and its undulating surfaces were intended to challenge convention and encourage a more flexible approach to living; it could be a bed, a sofa or a chaise longue. Like much of Archizoom’s work that was to follow, Superonda aimed to inspire creativity and imagination.
Superonda (Andrea Branzi), Archizoom Associates
The most developed articulation of Archizoom’s anti-design philosophy was in the project entitled No-stop City. Contemporaneous with the Continuous Monument of Superstudio, the group developed its vision of a diffuse metropolis that featured flexible products and spaces. Central to the concept was the idea of a city that constantly constructs and re-constructs itself – a city that breaks the prevailing view of architecture where urban planners and architects plan and build cities based on a “bird’s eye view” from above. The No-stop City was essentially conceived of as being organic and driven by the needs of its inhabitants. In a similar manner to Speculative Design, Archizoom asked the question, “what if … the modern city is nothing more than a problem which has not been solved?” (Archizoom Associates, 1971).
No-stop City – Archizoom Associates
The No-stop city wanted to offer an alternative to the existing realisations of the urban environment. The project questioned the very essence of the city: is it a bath every 100 metres or a computer every 40 metres? These are quantifiable data that make up the city, but that don’t convey form or direction. Archizoom’s vision was created around flat sheets of paper on which a grid plan of dots and crosses had been laid out by means of a typewriter. As the name suggests, No-stop City had the potential for unlimited expansion. While the project lacked the irony of Superstudio, the work did ask the public why No-stop City’s vision of the future would be any less desirable than the state of society at that time. Rather than being a blueprint for an actual city, the project was a critical utopia, more of a model for understanding the phenomena structuring the city and society. Ultimately, it was an early vision of what a “user negotiated” city might look like, in the language of today a “co-created” city of the future.
No-stop City – Archizoom Associates
Meanwhile back in London, the authors of that influential magazine Archigram were also creating their own visions of the city of the future. One such vision was the Plug-in City that proposed a linear city housed in a raised grid system that would start near London, grow in one direction towards Liverpool and in the other across the channel, past Paris and on into Europe. The scale of this vision echoed that of The Continuous Monument, while the grid system was similar to the No-stop City. Archigram’s concept included a monorail, itself synonymous with an aspirational future, that would run along the top of the grid. This would carry passengers but also cranes which, in turn, carry sections of the grid so that the city could, in a similar manner to the No-stop City, continuously build and re-build itself. Inhabitants “plug-in” to the spaces created by the grid that also incorporated the infrastructure required by the city. This high level of flexibility allowed the Plug-in City to adapt to the ever-changing needs of citizens over several generations.
The Plug-in City, Archigram
Of all the visions of architectural futures presented by these practices, it is perhaps the Plug-in City that has come most close to realisation. While not at the scale of a city, Kisho Kurokawa of the Metabolist Group in Japan created the Nakagin Capsule Tower (1972) in Tokyo. This structure consisted of pod like living capsules that were attached to a central services core. The long-term vision was that the pods could be replaced and updated as technology and needs changed. A similar approach to modular construction and evolution was explored in Habitat 67 in Montreal (1967). This was a project that explored the experience of apartment living. It was the vision of the architect Moshe Safdie and it is one of the two pavilions that remain that were originally built for Expo 67. In his own words, Safdie’s aim was to create “a building which gives the qualities of a house to each unit – Habitat would be all about gardens, contact with nature, streets instead of corridors” (2004). Each cube has access to a roof garden that is built on top of the adjacent cube.
Nakagin Capsule Tower, Tokyo (1972) and Habitat 67, Montreal (1967)
By the mid 1970s the utopian vision of cities that democratised and evolved to the needs of citizens had begun to fade along with the optimism for technology. The mood was represented by Archizoom’s declaration that “architecture was dead” and the result was echoed in the presentation of speculations that were a deliberate break from the past – or in some extreme cases, an attempt to obliterate the past and all that Modernism stood for. This feeling was epitomised by the final scene in Michelangelo Antonioni’s (dir) Zabriskie Point (1970) when an architypical modernist home explodes and we witness the artefacts of consumer capitalism being transformed into particles. The final scene depicts one of the main characters driving into the sunset, perhaps representing the dawning of a new age.
The influence of the Radical Design Movement undoubtedly outweighed its relatively short life. By 1978 Superstudio had disbanded, while Archizoom had closed in 1974. But the architectural speculations that had emerged from Florence in this period continue to provoke as they speak to new generations of architects. Issues of globalisation and environmental sustainability have become ever more important, and as we move towards the era of the “mega-city” the radical design speculations of Superstudio, Archizoom and Archigram are becoming more prescient.
- Archizoom Associates (1971) No-Stop City, Residential Parkings Climactic Universal System, Domus 496 March 1971, p. 157.
- Cook, P. (1982) Natalini Superstudio, Architectural Review March 1982 https://www.architectural-review.com/essays/archive/archigrams-cook-on-superstudios-natalini/10043893.article
- Frampton, K. (1980) Modern Architecture: A Critical History, London, Thames & Hudson.
- Francis, M. (2013) Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” speech 50 years on, The Guardian 19 September 2013 http://www.theguardian.com/science/political-science/2013/sep/19/harold-wilson-white-heat-technology-speech
- Glancey, J. (2003) Anti-Matter, The Guardian 31 March 2003 http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2003/mar/31/architecture.artsfeatures
- Safdie, M. (2014) How to reinvent the apartment building, TED Talk (March 2014), Vancouver, Canada. https://youtu.be/5xS4Ykm32VU
- van Schaik, M., and O. Macel (eds) Exit Utopia – Architectural Provocations 1956-76, Munich, Prestel.