In their earliest incarnations, discos and clubs such as The Loft and Paradise Garage in New York and elsewhere were about musical and societal liberation. A new exhibit at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts, Radical Disco: Architecture and Nightlife in Italy, 1965-1975, looks at how an earlier generation of nightlife venues in Italy fused progressive music with the experimental architecture of groups such as Gruppo 9999, Superstudio and UFO. With designs that challenged prevailing ideas of modernism, these dance clubs were created with the liberating potential of music and technology in mind, becoming "hotbeds of experimentation in music and theater," according to co-curator Sumitra Upham.
"They were designed for the then and now," says Upham. "The fact that they didn't sustain themselves economically wasn't the main concern."
Radical Disco grew out of an exhibition design writer and historian Catharine Rossi curated for last year's Venice Biennial called Space Electronic: Then and Now, which examined the history of the Florence club (she co-curated the ICA exhibit). The development of these spaces can be traced back to Piper, a club that opened in Rome in 1965. Designed by Manilo Cavalli, and Francesco and Giancarlo Capolei, it captured some of the optimistic and experimental spirit of the times, informed by a period of social change and a booming economy. Filled with reconfigurable furniture and cutting-edge audio-visual technology, it was a space where many Radical Architects visited and socialized, according to Upham, which made it an inspiration for many.
In the next decade, similar clubs with a utopian spirit would sprout up across the country, inspired by principles of Radical Design, art spaces such as Warhol's Factory and his Electric Circus club, and the media theories of scholars such as Marshall McLuhan. Space Electronic in Florence, a club inside of an old engine repair shop, was decorated with washing machine drums, old refrigerators and a garden. A club called S-Space actually pulled double duty, functioning as an architecture school during the day and a dance club at night.
"The pictures I've seen feature architects in costumes working inside the space," says Upham. "It's hard to figure out what was going on there."
While disco in Italy may bring to mind producers such as Giorgio Moroder, these experimental clubs were a bit before his time. The normal set list or lineup was geared more towards edgy '60s and early '70s rock, including bands such as Pink Floyd, Brian Jones and Brian Eno. While these venues currently exist only in archival photos, they stand as rare examples of realized concepts of Radical Design, and intriguing footnotes in nightlife history.
"It was really a moment in time reflecting the social world as it was." says Upham. "The fact that many closed down a few years after opening was a key part of their existence. They set out to respond to the contemporary moment, part of our ever-evolving nightlife."
Radical Disco: Architecture and Nightlife in Italy, 1965-1975 runs at the ICA London from December 8 to January 10