clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The radical renaissance

Learning from the Italian radical design movement of the 1960s

Group of works by Lapo Binazzi.
| Courtesy by Joe Kramm / R & Company

In a pleasantly crowded studio in Florence near the baroque church of Santa Croce, retired architect Lapo Binazzi pores over a book of his work. His eyes light up as he describes each project—not the structures one would expect, but rather processions of giant inflatables around the streets of Florence, fairytale-themed restaurant interiors, and kitschy lamps criticizing what he considers the unachievable “American Dream” promoted by Hollywood. Such is the body of work his architecture collective, UFO, created during the brief but explosive radical architecture period in the mid 1960s and early 1970s—a period of creativity that remains surprisingly relevant today.

“I think that the radical movement must be discovered and rediscovered again and again,” says Binazzi. “It was and is a big tank of energy that was not explored enough.”

Just as Florence gave birth to the Renaissance in the 15th century, so did it provide fertile ground in the 20th century for the radical movement, a ferociously anti-design, anti-dolce vita force that came into being in the halls of the architecture department of the University of Florence. Hungry to critique modernism, radicals provided a stark counterpoint to the “Made in Italy” brand of consumerism of the postwar economic boom of the 1960s.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year—it began the year a massive flood overtook Florence and architects found opportunities for creativity amid disaster—the radical movement has been featured in exhibitions at the Vitra museum in Germany and the MAXXI contemporary art museum in Rome in recent months. In Manhattan, during an exhibition at R & Company gallery, wealthy art collectors snatched up Binazzi’s ironic pop art product designs. As the free market fuels consumer demand, technology advances at a breakneck pace, and the world’s resources are controlled by fewer and fewer people, the responses of architects and designers to another period of global unrest seem particularly significant.

The 1960s were a turbulent decade in Italy, with social conflict and terrorist activity by both neofascist and militant left-wing groups reaching such extremes that the period is now referred to as Anni di piombo, or “Years of Lead.” By the end of the decade, labor unrest was widespread and student activism was at an all-time high—a phenomenon that did not leave architecture faculties untouched.

In the architecture department of the University of Florence, in particular, many questioned the ethics of rapid postwar modernization as regulations favoring private capital wreaked havoc on the landscape surrounding the city and the rift between Italy’s youth and new upwardly mobile population grew. The student population of the university doubled, setting the stage for active student movements. They pushed for educational reforms and greater democratization, holding occupations and strikes on campus.

Installation images of lamp with a neon lightning bolt, coat racks that resemble bold colorful cacti, and another lamp in the shape of a moon.
From left to right: Installation view of "Pinocchio" floor lamp in black metal with red neon; Group of coat stands in enamel-painted plywood; "Mezzaluna with Fiat 500 and Palm Tree" table lamp in gold-colored metal and plexiglas. All designed and produced by Lapo Binazzi.
Courtesy Joe Kramm / R & Company.

“We were growing up in a condition similar to the one in Berkeley in the ’60s,” says Gianni Pettena, a radical-turned-academic who still lectures on the radical period in Florence. “We were looking for social justice as in America.”

Two architecture professors at the university, Leonardo Savioli and Leonardo Ricci, responded creatively to student demands, encouraging young architects to incorporate cultural phenomena in their work and seek new ways forward in the field. “The idea was a sort of transgression against the academic role of architecture and the affirmation of the power of imagination of the students like us,” says Binazzi.

Pettena credits Austrian-Italian designer Ettore Sottsass as an inspiration for young radicals. Although he would not create the colorful, larger-than-life designs for Milan-based Memphis Group until the 1980s, his activity in the radical movement foreshadowed this work. As design consultant for typewriter and calculator manufacturer Olivetti, Sottsass helped grow Italy’s reputation for high-quality industrially designed products during the postwar boom of the 1960s—the very mass consumer culture the radicals combatted. Yet he remained a philosopher among designers, continually questioning the role of objects in relation to man and his environment and emphasizing the importance of the user in his products.

“He was telling us students that through architecture you could enjoy life, you could breathe, you could make love, while negotiating sometime with utilitarian necessities,” says Pettena.

Architecture students, through manifestos, performance art “happenings,” and other means, attempted to subvert the rationalist modernist ideologies of architects like Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus. “We started discussing relationships between architecture and society and introduced politics in discussing the validity of rationalism and modernism,” says Cristiano Toraldo di Francia, one of the founding members of seminal radical group Superstudio.

For Toraldo di Francia and his peers, an unquestioning belief in modernism masked “the perverse activity of the system in continuously reproducing poverty, new desires, and waste.” The group believed architecture “served to indoctrinate society into an irrelevant culture of consumption” and aimed to extract all that hindered one from living a free life, design critic Peter Lang writes in his book Superstudio: Life Without Objects. Architecture need not yield physical buildings, they felt, but could instead be used to critique the state of the world.

“We started to understand that architecture couldn’t be a discipline all by itself, but had to look at all other disciplines which were commenting on the world, from graphics to painting to sculpture, to cinema and science,” explains Toraldo di Francia.

As a result, much of the radical architecture oeuvre could be categorized as conceptual art, like Superstudio’s arresting collage images, or Gruppo 9999’s light projections on the Ponte Vecchio, which made use of cutting-edge technology of the time.

Although they may have been loosely held together by a common interest in subverting the role of architecture as a modernist pursuit, the radicals were by no means a homogeneous group. While students at the University of Florence were at the center of radical activity, other practitioners were emerging from industrial centers in the North, such as Gruppo Strum of Turin or Ugo La Pietra in Milan. Their methods and influences were myriad—UFO was driven by the semiotic teachings of Umberto Eco, while others, like Archizoom Associati, drew heavily from the pop art lexicon of England.

The “radical” tag can be traced back to art critic Germano Celant, who wrote for Florence-based magazine Casabella, a prominent promoter of the radical design movement. Editorials written by Andrea Branzi of Archizoom helped conceptualize radical design as a movement.

The culminating show of the radical movement was the 1972 MoMA exhibition “Italy: The New Domestic Landscape,” the largest and most expensive exhibition in the museum’s history. Going beyond the “Made in Italy” modernist design concept peddled to the global audience, the show highlighted the diversity of the country’s design landscape, showcasing works by some of the most active radical groups. Ironically, the U.S. debut also marked the beginning of the end of the radical period, as most groups disbanded by the mid 1970s.

The 1966 Flood of Florence, commemorated in the Tuscan capital just last month, marked another key point in the history of the radical movement. Although the muddy, sewage-filled waters rose up to three meters in part of the historic city center, marring countless artworks and valuable manuscripts, the destruction was seen by some as an opportunity for collaboration and creativity.

Architect/painter Adolfo Natalini joined his friend, architect/photographer Cristiano Toraldo di Francia, in a studio outside of the city center after his own was flooded, a move which led to the creation of Superstudio. A month later, the new collective joined forces with Archizoom to present the show “Superarchitettura,” or “Super Architecture,” in a small gallery outside Florence, marking the formal start of their architectural rebellion.

“We showed objects that were the images of objects; they had no function,” Toraldo di Francia recalls of the show. “They were made of cardboard and plywood, painted, and they vaguely had the shape of something that could become a chair or lamp.” The works aimed to encourage user participation. “Instead of showing objects that had clear functions like those produced by Braun or Olivetti, we left in the show elements that provoked a kind of doubt and new participation which is typical of the art piece.”

Binazzi’s UFO, considered one of the most disruptive collectives of the time, transformed the interiors of shops and restaurants destroyed by the flood into whimsical wonderlands. The Sherwood restaurant installation in 1969 showed the group at its most expressive. Employing what he described as conscious kitsch, one room was transformed into the belly of a whale, another a Scottish castle. Yet another featured a cavelike desert tent from which a chef served food “as if serving beasts,” recalls Binazzi fondly. The architect himself dressed as Tarzan to show guests how to interact with the setting they had created. “We engaged in sort of fights and battles, throwing slices of beef and other things.”

The group’s earlier works, verging on performance art, made use of the city’s piazzas—what Binazzi jokingly calls “their first free exhibition spaces.” Using inexpensive materials, most notably long tubes of inflatable polyurethane, the group made “Urboeffimeri,” or “urban ephemera,” which they paraded around the city, creating an ironic contrast between the poor-quality materials of the new generation and the traditional opulence of the baroque and medieval buildings in the background. “It was important for us to confront our inflated big objects with the existing monuments like the cathedral and the bell tower of Giotto,” he says.

Architectural drawings of massive white graphic structures surrounding New York City, and in the mountains.
Images from The Continuous Monument, Superstudio 1969.
Courtesy Cristiano Toraldo di Francia.

Inspired by the “happenings” of the 1950s and pop artist Robert Rauschenberg’s Creative Interventions, UFO created an inflatable Colgate toothpaste tube on which was written “Colgate with Viet Cong”—a reference to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. “For us, it was the possibility to make temporary architecture, not with functional or industrial meanings, but with political ones,” says the artist.

Although the activity of this somewhat obscure and disparate grouping of architects was brief, their legacy still resonates today.

For many, it feels as if it’s coming around for the first time, according to Catharine Rossi, a design historian at London’s Kingston University. “It’s coming out that big architects were reading about this movement when they were students or young practitioners.” Some, like Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas, attended the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, better known as the AA, where some radicals taught after the movement had come to a close.

The movement, says Rossi, offers a model of practice for today’s architects who are trying to understand architecture’s humanitarian responsibility. “The radicals provide interesting ways of thinking about how you can resist the conventions of art and design.”

“The radicals led into a lot of the postmodernist architecture and freedoms of forms and ideas that became more mainstream,” says Marc DiDomenico, director of Florence Institute of Design International, where many of the radicals, including Binazzi, teach regularly and give lectures. DiDomenico has amassed a small collection of radical paraphernalia, including original copies of Casabella magazines. DiDomenico feels the radicals are becoming “extremely influential design-wise.” He cites haute couture fashion houses like Louis Vuitton that overtly harken back to radical aesthetics of the 1960s. “You’ll notice they’ve really latched back onto these same kinds of forms and materials in their window displays recently.”

Some radical groups embraced sustainable design before it was a recognized practice. Carlo Caldini, one of the founders of Gruppo 9999, saw the balance between nature and technology as fundamental to architecture and design. “Technology was at the time a new divinity, everyone was following it, everyone trusted it, so at that time we changed our way of thinking and said we have to work in nature,” Caldini says during a recent interview in his home, a palazzo in Florence’s city center. “Technology had been taking man to the moon but we wanted to know what was the cost for the earth in terms of pollution?”

“Caldini was really into sustainable design before anyone else,” says DiDomenico. “He was pushing these ideas 50 years ago.” The group’s Vegetable Garden House, part of which was shown during the 1972 MoMA exhibition, was meant to be industrially produced, allowing families of all means to grow their own produce and thus become closer to nature, although the project never went into production.

Superstudio’s arresting images resonate with today’s image-saturated culture as well, suggests Rossi. “The fact that they were so skilled in image-making and produced these incredibly structured images means people maybe come across them for the first time in entirely decontextualized ways online,” she adds. One such example is the drawing series “Continuous Monument: An Architectural Model for Total Urbanization,” which took the tenets of modernism to the extreme by depicting massive, façade-less megastructures overtaking the world in architectural domination.

Like pop and postmodernism, the radicals’ work also taps into visual cultural references, adds Rossi. In their experimental film Supersurface the group even seemed to predict the omnipotence of the internet. In a world without objects, there would be no need for traditional architects, says Toraldo di Francia. Instead, the earth would be “completely globalized and rationalized by a net system that didn’t exist yet at the time.” He describes it as a preview of a digital nomadic society—a more extreme version of today’s world.

Much of the radical furniture design drew on pop references to critique consumer-driven culture. The Joe Sofa, an oversized baseball glove chair designed by Paolo Lomazzi, Jonathan De Pas, and Donato D’Urbino, was an overt critique of the influence of American capitalism. Pratone, a five-foot-square foam seating area of oversized “grass” designed by Gruppo Strum in 1966, was a satirical commentary on the 1960s counterculture’s interest in nature contrasted with the plasticity of industrial production.

Binazzi cites an interest in pop art that influenced his product designs. Lamps like MGM and Paramount distort familiar Hollywood logos to critique the industry.

Ironically for a movement bent on eschewing consumerist ideals, today many of the products designed by the radicals are being snatched up by eager art collectors faster than one can say “Dollaro.” Binazzi’s work was recently the subject of an exhibition put on by Manhattan-based R & Company gallery, which specializes in promoting those who blur boundaries between art and design, like the Haas Brothers and Jeff Zimmerman. The radicals’ work, says the gallery’s cofounder Evan Snyderman, fits into a trend toward conceptual design. “For the last 20 years, design has been more pragmatic and material-based, but this is pure concept,” he says. Given that many art collectors in the U.S. were previously unfamiliar with the radicals, Snyderman was shocked by the exhibition’s success—the gallery nearly sold out.

Binazzi’s works lend themselves especially well to the art world. “Part of what interests me personally is that I look at these pieces much more as sculpture than functional objects,” says Snyderman. Next year, the gallery will put on a major exhibition of radical works, with prominent pieces by Superstudio, Archizoom, Gianni Pettena, and others.

The dissolving boundaries between art and design have led to the renewed success of Gufram, an Italian furniture production company with a 50-year history tied to the radical movement. “In the ’60s, the market wasn’t really ready for the revolutionary products,” says Head of Product Axel Iberti. Now, he says, the tides have turned—having unconventional designs in the home is more commonplace. “You can now accept that a piece of decorative art can have a function, like a coat hanger, but still remain decorative art,” says Iberti, citing the example of the Cactus coat hanger designed in 1972 by Turin-based architects Franco Mello and Guido Drocco. The Cactus received a makeover earlier this year in a collaboration with fashion designer Paul Smith and re-debuted at Milan Design Week to great acclaim. Iberti says nearly all of the 200 reproductions made for the occasion have been sold.

A red cactus large coat hanger, inside of a modern home.
The cactus coat hanger, designed by Franco Mello and Guido Drocco.
Courtesy of Gufram.

Despite their newfound commercial success, Catharine Rossi points out that the original critical function of the radicals’ designs should not be overlooked.

“The designs by Archizoom or Superstudio were not intended to be desirable commodities,” she says. Many were made of materials that weren’t meant to survive. Already in the 1970s, Rossi says, some architects questioned how viable their projects would be as social critiques if they entered the marketplace.

“It’s interesting that … the art world has become a place where these things have been reevaluated,” she says. The more than $1.7 million fetched by David Bowie’s personal collection of Ettore Sottsass works at a recent Sotheby’s auction suggests pieces by figures of this period are experiencing an unprecedented level of interest. A red Valentine typewriter designed by Sottsass for Olivetti in the 1960s sold for nearly $60,000, instead of the estimated $350 to $500. “It will be interesting to see what that does to the cultural worth of this movement,” she adds.

Yet, while the radicals’ work may be all the rage, architecture today has little to do with their vision, says Toraldo di Francia. Like fashion (see H&M or Prada), the architecture field is largely caught in the mechanism of consumerism. “Architecture today is part of an incredible system that has turned everything into merchandise, like the objects that we buy in the supermarket or in any shopping mall.”

Perhaps, he says, there is a renewed interest in looking at a moment in which architecture and design could primarily be critical activities meant to modify society and shed light on societal ills, not purely turn a profit. Indeed, as seen in the humanitarian themes of this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale (“Reporting From the Front”) and the World Architecture Festival (“Housing for Everyone”), there appears to be a renewed interest in how architecture can shape society for the better. Today, although architects like Shigeru Ban and Alejandro Aravena take on humanitarian projects aimed at mitigating ills, they also balance such projects with commercial work. Many of the radicals, too, eventually went on to work in traditional architecture practices.

“When we did those things there was still the Berlin Wall and still the idea that there could be a socialist utopia,” says Toraldo di Francia. Since 1989, the world has transformed rapidly and that dream has largely died. “Today there is only one system.”

Editor: Sara Polsky


How to Avert the Next Housing Crisis


The Neighbors Issue


Can a Neighborhood Become a Network?

View all stories in Longform