Half a century ago, a group of 20-something architecture students from Florence decided to assume the small task of conceiving an alternative model for life on earth. Contemptuous of the long reign of Modernism, which they felt had sold itself as a cure to society’s ills and never delivered, they were jazzed by American science-fiction novels and the political foment of the 1960s. They gave themselves the colorfully assured name Superstudio, and soon after helped kickstart the radical architecture movement in Italy.
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The fact that they never actually finished a building is, arguably, the point. Rather, they created “anti-architecture”: psychedelic renderings, collages and films depicting their dreams — and nightmares. At gallery shows and museum exhibitions, the collective shared its mind-bending dystopic visions: hulking buildings overtaking cities, giant golden pyramids and flying silver pods invading the bucolic countryside. They even imagined the planet with no architecture at all, just “Supersurface,” a network of energy that would replace objects and buildings with a grid — an essential theme in their projects — which people could access by simply plugging in. Then, such an idea was radical; now, of course, it feels eerily prophetic.
The group lasted only 12 years, until 1978, before scattering, mostly into academia, but Superstudio’s place in postwar design history borders on the mythic. At their height, they exhibited everywhere from the Museum of Modern Art to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, and had conceptual projects published in Domus, the influential design magazine edited by Gio Ponti, the progressive Italian monthly Casabella and even Casa Vogue.
Today, echoes of their imagery can be seen in the work of such contemporary architects as Rem Koolhaas, Steven Holl and Bjarke Ingels. Of the few furnishings they executed, a number of pieces still live on: Since 1970, Zanotta has produced their Quaderna series of rectilinear tables overlaid with a black-and-white grid pattern (based on the group’s theories for the ultimate rationalist solution, reducing architecture to a single template that could be endlessly scaled), which has lately been referenced by such of-the-moment designers as RO/LU and Scholten & Baijings.