But Reality Went in Another Direction…

Interview with Adolfo Natalini by Michelangelo Corsaro

Superstudio’s anti-utopian adventure into radical architecture

Archizoom – Superstudio, Superarchitettura, poster of the exhibition, recto, March 19 – April 12, 1967 Galleria del Comune di Modena, Photo by Giovanni Savi

Michelangelo Corsaro: Superstudio’s projects interact with the context of nature along with very complex relationships between individual biography, technology and the production of commodity goods, to the extent to which architecture is conceived as responsible for the creation of an alternative model of life on Earth. Can you explain the difference between natura naturans and natura naturata?

Adolfo Natalini: Using hyperbolic language characteristic of avant-garde manifestos (Vittorio Gregotti spoke of religious terrorism in Superstudio’s writings), we opposed the world of nature to the one of culture; the image of uncontaminated nature to a nature altered by man by means of culture (technology).

Using figures of speech such as hyperbole, irony, logical extraction and proof by contradiction, Superstudio exposed the absurdity of faith in the power of technology (able to build highways) and of symbolic representation (able to build monuments) through their union in The Continuous Monument. A monument of colossal dimension that could concentrate all constructions in one, it was made possible by the conquerors of technology and was able to give an order to the world. In the visuals we created, The Continuous Monument engaged with natural and artificial landscapes, mountains, plains and cities.

The absurd and terrific beauty of these images was supposed to trigger a reflection on the absurdity of current ideas about the redeeming power of technique and monumentalism.

The text that accompanied the publication of The Continuous Monument in 1969 said: “We believe in a future of ‘rediscovered architecture’, in a future where architecture will regain its full powers abandoning any ambiguous designation and posing itself as the only alternative to nature. In the dichotomy between natura naturans and natura naturata we choose the latter term.”

MC: I want to ask you about technomorphic architecture, namely about the use of technology for the realisation of communities in perfect balance between collective and private memory. Can you tell me of the project for the Cemetery of Urbino?

AN: In 1969, together with Cristiano Toraldo di Francia, we published an essay named “From Industry to Technomorphism” in the magazine Necropoli. It was about the evolution of the relationship between architecture and an image-producing technology, tackling the critique that architecture can exercise on science and on technique. We coined a neologism (technomorphism) at a time when the term ‘hi-tech’ wasn’t yet popular. The interest in science and technique came from Cristiano’s family: his father, Giuliano Toraldo di Francia, was a famous scientist, and after that a philosopher of science. My interest in science drifted towards science fiction: at the end of high school I won a contest by supporting the thesis of a machine that would have been able to think better than a man. The Twelve Ideal Cities, inspired by the passion of Piero Frassinelli for anthropology and science fiction, were written a little later, inspiring Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, as reported in a review in Il Mondo.

The project for the Cemetery of Urbino hypothesised a machine handling the burials. Soon after, the project for the Cemetery of Urbino utilised satellites, computers and network- connected memory capsules.

MC: When Rem Koolhaas got to know your work in 1970 he defined it as “optimistic about ‘easy’ architecture”. What struck him most about your projects? What was “easy” architecture?

AN: Rem Koolhaas, who studied at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, invited us to his school as an antidote to the freaks of technology: the Archigram. I believe Koolhaas was fascinated by the surrealist feeling in our projects: by the exalted rationalism. He had a genuine passion for the critical, paranoid method of Dalì and for Russian avant-garde. In his first projects we find quotes from The Continuous Monument and the Histograms.

MC: The Histograms are an essential work, often considered as the beginning of a certain minimalism, although not deemed as a manifesto of Superstudio.

AN: In 1969 we started working on the theory of unique design. Architectural design seemed to us a secondary activity, compared to a social action, so it wasn’t worth much effort and time. We thought that planning could be achieved with a unique design, a sort of universal grid, which, on different scales, could devise objects, architectures and urban structures. So the catalogue of histograms, the catalogue of the villas and The Continuous Monument were born.

MC: How does irony function in your work? I’m particularly interested in the vision of the idea of collectivity and the dualism, often unresolved, in the relationship between the individual and society.

AN: Superstudio used different rhetorical artifices, researching ways of effectively communicating: metaphor, allegory, paradox, irony, logical extraction and proof by contradiction. Our images weren’t utopic – they were anti-utopian, but often, critics didn’t notice So in the final of the Twelve Ideal Cities, we added an ‘epilogue’ then a ‘post scriptum’ and a ‘thirteenth city’. However, it seems that after more than forty years the misunderstanding continues.

MC: About the Twelve Ideal Cities: There’s a peculiar use of languages and references to contemporary pop-culture. I’m thinking about the Urania series [note: Urania is an Italian sci-fi book series started in 1952 and still going, by the publishing house Mondadori. The most well-known and long-lasting of its genre, it runs to more than 1,600 issues, each easy to recognise by the characteristic red circle on the covers of the books. Many science fiction writers like Asimov, Ballard, Dick and Le Guin published their first Italian editions with this series.], Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Chaplin’s Modern Times, The Planet of the Apes. It would be too easy today to interpret these references as just a combination of prophetic visions. How was the Twelve Ideal Cities received at the time in terms of the use of pop references as a way to investigate contemporary culture?

AN: The scientific background in Toraldo di Francia’s family and the passion for science fiction, mine and Frassinelli’s, as well as the ‘interplanetary’ curiosity of Alessandro Polis, between 1970 and 1972, together with the enthusiasm of the others (Roberto and Alessandro Magris), resulted in an exorbitant use of popular-science language.

The Twelve Ideal Cities had worldwide diffusion and great success. It was published in Architectural Design in December 1971, which dedicated the cover to Superstudio with a prophetic group portrait by Adrian George; in Casabella in January 1972, in Architecture in Greece, and in countless other magazines, being translated in a dozen languages.

Proposte di analisi su fenomeni delle culture marginali                                                                          Bibbiena sala Comunale, 1979 Photo by Giovanni savi

MC: What about the concept of the network? It seems dominant today as an ideological trend towards the idea that we are all ‘connected’. How have things changed since the time you became passionate about connection elements: pipes, communication systems, transport?

AN: From 1971 to 1973 we worked on a series of research projects on Fundamental Acts, focusing on the relationship between human life and architecture as a conscious formalization of the planet. We planned five films: Life, Education, Ceremony, Love, and Death. The films attempted an anthropologic re-foundation of architecture. In the first, Life-Supersurface, the Earth, made homogeneous by an information network, became available to a life without objects. The network could control the environment and provide full support for a life free from work and from any conditioning. Art and life could be the same thing. What we knew about the first networks led us to expand our vision of future developments. But reality went in another direction, and today it is difficult to consider the net – any network – as a liberating function.

MC: I would like to talk about Global Tools’ activity. How did the laboratory system begin? What references to contemporary culture influenced this aesthetic turn in Superstudio’s research?

AN: After the Fundamental Acts, between 1973 and 1978, Superstudio undertook a series of research projects about extra-urban material culture, working with a huge number of students in the university. We looked for the roots of creativity in local cultures, in cultivation and production techniques, and in architectures without architects. Dismissing any myth of globalisation, we tried to understand and speak the languages of the places. There are catalogues of tools, descriptions of artisanal techniques, inspections and passionate surveys. As a final research act, in the 1978 Venice Biennale we presented a two-stage work: Lot’s Wife and Zeno’s Conscience. In the first one, a bachelor machine proved that “Architecture is to time what salt is to water”. The second showcased the objects and the life of Zeno Fiaschi, a Tuscan peasant.

Archizoom – Superstudio, Superarchitettura, poster of the exhibition, recto, March 19 – April 12, 1967 Galleria del Comune di Modena, Photo by Giovanni Savi

Parallel to the work on material culture, together with other fellow travellers of Radical Architecture, we attempted the creation of an alternative school for planning: Global Tools, a group of didactic laboratories. It has been an absorbing and difficult experience, with encounters and clashes. Everyone brought their world with them.

Among the many references, among the experiences that crossed and collided, there were probably references to Arte Povera and of course to contemporary culture. However, everything was reworked on the basis of personal experiences. The encounters, the seminars and the produced documentation didn’t lead to the creation of a school, nor had that ever been thinkable in such an atmosphere of anarchic creativity.

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