Adolfo Natalini was a founder member of Superstudio, one of the dynamic coteries of architects formed to shake professional complacency in the heady late ’60s. Peter Cook, leading member of another such group, the London-based Archigram, described the excitement of the period and discusses Natalini’s work, past and present.
Originally published in the AR in March 1982, this piece was first published online in July 2019 to mark the death of Superstudio cofounder Cristiano Toraldo di Francia (18.09.41 – 30.07.19)
There is now a certain piquancy in recalling the atmosphere of the various architectural groups that formed themselves in the 1960s. There was the elation that comes from the world’s recognition of private audacities. There was the sense of shared conspiracy between all the members of all the groups that were setting up in Europe and Japan, the United States and even (the NER Group) in Russia, pitched against the common foe: our contemporaries who were content to be safe, aggregate-bound mainstream architects. Was such selfconscious avant-garde activity moulded upon the tradition of prewar art movements, of happenings in Paris, the heady days of Bruno Taut’s magazine Frulicht, the ‘Glass Chain Letters’, the Futurist Manifesto? Is it this memory that enables me to admire the more recent posturings of the Post-Modern Circus (even without being turned-on by its aesthetic) because it has the energy, the hype, the audacity of momentousness, without which the state of our art returns to a series of separate parochial acts of craftsmanship.
‘Fiero Frassienelli and Cristiano Toraldo di Francia became the principal makers of collages and dreamy imagery during the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s’
In all other creative fields, there was a tactile energy: the Tachistes spluttering out against the well-meaningness of Late Impressionism; John Cage writing-in vast silences that questioned the arcane world of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg; the spirit of ‘look-no hands’ that lay behind the poetry of Konrad Wachsmann’s structures; the zany graphics that were published in the Royal College of Art’s magazine ARK: and most forcibly: the reality of the SPACE RACE. If these things could be happening simultaneously in painting, music, engineering and the rest, if Buckminster Fuller lived, then what were we doing with neatly-dimensioned metal windows? Such a reaction, and the energy of a corporate audacity ennabled even the shyest (Greene of Archigram, Toraldo di Francia of Superstudio, Pinter of Haus-Rucker) to come out of the Expressionistic closet.
Orange drawing 2
Perhaps it was impossible for us in Archigram to appreciate the full meaning of the Metabolists’ use of their title-with all its references to the pervasive culture of Japan. Similarly we had no way of knowing how the three Florentine groups might relate, but one day we realised that 50 copies of our funny little magazine (Archigram) had been sold in the ‘Centro D’ shop in Florence. The peripheral nature of the groups might have been a factor: for at that time (1965) there were none reported from Berlin, Milan or New York. Those in Paris were associated with the student magazine Melporme which was at the spearhead of the later events of 1968.
If Florence is beautiful then it is also sleepy. If it has a special place for the English temperament, then it is that which is associated with the indulgencies of aristocratic poets and painters of the nineteenth century. If it is able to look out upon a world of changing values and icons then it is from a safe distance from Cape Canaveral, the galleries of New York and Dusseldorf, and even the smelly factories of the Po valley. Moreover, there is a special kind of animal that inhabits the Italian architecture school: almost certainly of the bourgeois origin that makes up the supporting cast of any early Antonioni film; necessarily of the left and obliged to couch even the most simple piece of architectural description in terms of history, cultural cross-reference and philosophical jargon. How difficult was it for young Adolfo Natalini (a very bright local lad, who had set out as a Pop-art painter) to energise some of his more aristocratic friends into reacting to the stimulus of the outside world? Moreover, there was hardly an insistent or threatening local milieu of mainstream architects worth bothering about. But the Florentine students had great elegance. The collages that have been made by ‘Superstudio’, the line drawings of ‘Archizoom’ (where a Pichleresque proposition such as their ‘Cappella Chiusa’ of 1969 is presented as virtually a working drawing) and the amazing workbook of the third Florentine group, ‘9999’, is presented as a series of pink pages in a solid copper cover.
Black and white image 2
The parallel existence in a small city of three groups enabled them to survive out of this elegance. It enabled the strengths of the individual members to be harnessed. ‘Archizoom’ became more rhetorically political and more energetically involved in propositions for abstracted cities on the one hand and expressionistic furniture on the other. ‘Superstudio’ made an early decision to be a working office, as well as a studio of ideas: and remarkably, they still are.
Strangely for a Tuscan, Adolfo himself has an almost North European calmness. He see life, buildings, people in a characteristically ironic way, but reacts to this irony by carefully erected arguments and an almost pedantic attitude to the correctness of the choice of method.
At times he almost abandoned his role as artist within the group: becoming its international apologist and (I suspect) its strategist. Fiero Frassienelli and Cristiano Toraldo di Francia became the principal makers of collages and dreamy imagery during the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Magris brothers became the sheet-anchor men for a gradually expanding practice that has built bank interiors, houses, factories and now appears to be making airports and schools.
Black and white image 3
In 1970, it was Adolfo who was chosen to represent the Florentines in a remarkable teaching semester at the Rhode Island School of Design during 1970. For there, already on the faculty were Friedrich St Florian and Raimund Abraham from Graz and Mike Webb from London. The four together must have been a curiously uncomfortable experience for an architecture school that (despite its existence within a famous art academy), was all too conscious of its neighbourhood to Yale, MIT and Harvard.
For the others it confirmed their attachment to the United States: the means to continue drawing at the expense of the comfortable salary of an American faculty. But Adolfo came back. He designed chairs, he made competitions. He re-invested his cynicism back into a series of designs for houses and furniture that have remained hidden behind the reputation of some very similar work that came out of the Hollein office at about the same time. This work is characterised by a preoccupation with grids, and is exemplary in its thoroughness: the grids are to be found at very tiny scale in the 1mm black line that crosses the stark white planes of his tables and chairs. They are developed (no doubt with the experience of the prefabricated units of several bank interiors behind them) into a suitable basis for the construction of skins for houses. They recur as a tabula rasa device from which the series of purist megastructures called Achitettura Riflessa and the sociological images such as Fragments from a Personal Museum can take off. Colin Rowe describes this work as a ‘final emancipation from the tyranny of objects’. If Superstudio are saying in 1970 that ’There’s no need for shelters, since the climatic conditions and the body mechanisms of thermo-regulation have been modified to guarantee total comfort. At the most we can play at making shelter, or rather at the home, at architecture,’ Rowe responds ’Superstudio, in the interests of a non-repressive egalitarianism, would systematically eradicate all existing variety in favour of a uniform stage (it is probably called a plateau) for spontaneous happening … the problem may ultimately reduce itself to one of style … .’ Yet at another level, there is the feeling of the need to control, even to categorise, so that the diagram istogrammi d’architettura of 1969 is clearly offered as a series of typologies.
Black and white image
The simultaneous pull of the ideal state on the one side and the perfected object on the other is one which affects anyone who sticks his head out above the mere circumstantiality of designing. There are surely memories of conversations with the Mike Webb of Brunhilde’s Magic Ring of Fire (AR July 1981 p46) and its proposition that environment need be no more than a jet of air, and the Friedrich St Florian who made ‘imaginary space’ come true using laser beams in Stockholm in 1969.
That the Superstudio collages have another aesthetic quality is almost irrelevant. Yet they were indeed the most perfect, most juicy, most professional graphics to emerge from any of the ‘groups’ up to the period of 1973.
Adolfo and his friends were too serious as artists to be satisfied with this, however, and about this time it was Adolfo, who was chosen to be a professor at the University of Florence – an appointment that brings in very little money, and a responsibility (such is the pattern of Italian schools of architecture) for several hundred students for whom the faculty of architecture is a suitable cover for theoretical politics, liberal studies of an unspecified type or, more simply, having a pleasant time in a beautiful city. Adolfo reckons that at any time he may have a dozen or so serious architectural students out of this vast class. Yet he has increasingly regarded his teaching as the core of his struggle with architecture. And not surprisingly, his next major shift can be related to his new role.
The ‘Global Tools’ movement can be loosely described as a search for the Garden of Eden, a re-evocation of an Arcadian dream, a kind of Italian ruralism, or one of the more positive of the 1970s post-consumerist reactions. The strategy was that of searching for, categorising and reinvesting the basic devices of survival. Baskets, sticks, pieces of iron, bundles of hay, perhaps the odd primitive wheel. Making the comprehension and re-evaluation of these things something more than a pious Papanek-like game, and something richer (and inevitably more stylish) than the full-frontal presentation of the Whole Earth Catalog. A whole series of art people as well as architects seemed to get caught up in the idea. Various town councils and left-wing groups were attracted to its aims. For Adolfo, it has provided the basis of a serious re-evaluation of why and how we make architecture. It has also formed a curiously quasi-quotational, quasi-literal stylistic device. How else are we to describe the obvious connotation between his column made of a perspex cylinder filled with layers of natural materials: sand, stones, grass, and twigs with his simultaneous designs for the Römerberg Platz in Frankfurt?
Three years ago, in the ‘Arte-Tecta’ conference in Frankfurt, Natalini came through the battling Kriers and Koolhasses as a voice of questioning reason. Why do we concentrate upon the stylistic aspects of urbanism? he seemed to be asking. Yet his remmder of the business of basic resources, the vaguaries of inventions and the byways of twentieth-century architecture never had the defeatist, whinnie-ing tone of some of his contemporaries who have found themselves washed-up by the 1970s. In this sense, he is incredibly similar to Cedric Price. Both are serious in their ability to see the ebb-and-flow of policies of governments and indulgencies of their friends as respective parts of architectural culture that in the end cannot stand on the sidelines. Similarly, they both continue as natural pedagogues and as designers.
‘It is quiet in Florence, a good place from which to filter-out the absurdities of the noisier world – and to continue and continue to design’
Quietly, Natalini continues his role as the conscience of his working partners, and as specific designer of such projects as the Jugendstijl-like competition project for the Karmeliter Museum in Frankfurt, and for the ‘Bahnhof Apotheke Kraus’ in Lubeck, Westphalia – now completed.
In this last, there are conspicuous similarities with the Hans Hollein Haus Molag project, Vienna, as well as references to the earlier heroic pieces designed by Superstudio in the early 1970s. The underlying quality of Natalini’s work is herefore that of rugged continuity and calm intelligence. Superstudio have survived the onslaught of the Venice-New York axis. They have been studiously avoided by Tafuri, placed in the ‘Late Modern’ category by Jencks, ignored by the Americans and the international glossies. Yet their dreams are articulate, and ready and waiting for the new generation of students who already are bored by the chapels of Luxembourg.
In their Tenth City (one of a series of cautionary tales) Superstudio tell us about the ‘City of Order’:
This city has, apparently, nothing strange about it; it has streets, squares, gardens, new houses and old; it is, in fact, a city like any other. The only thing is that it has been governed by the same mayor for 45 years. The reason for his long stay in office is simple: he had an exceptionally good idea. Instead of trying to suit the city to its inhabitants, like everyone else, he thought of suiting the inhabitants to their city … As soon as a citizen commits some infraction, or complains about something to the authorities, he is not punished or assured that his complaints will be taken into account – instead, he is sent to the town hall where he will be a guest for a week, and convinced.
When this citizen returns home he is much changed, precise, loyal to the regulations, calm, always smiling, he does his duty conscientiously. In 45 years nearly all the citizens have visited the town hall and so now they are nearly all model citizens.
Every so often, there is a serious accident: one may see then that the model citizens have a complex miniaturised mechanism in their heads and lots of little expanded polystyrene balls instead of their insides, under the banks of muscles in their chest and abdomen.
No-one knows much about this because everyone who has seen such an accident is kindly accompanied to the town hall to recover from the shock. The town councillors, who were old, have all died during these 45 years; the mayor has immortalised them in splendid plastic statues, life-sized and in natural colours, which show them sitting round the council table in characteristic poses.
The mayor is very pleased with the way things are going: he is now beginning to have great ambitions for his city; he is sure everyone will agree.
Unfortunately, yesterday he had a fall, burst open and lost all his little balls. They’re putting them back.
Such a cautionary tale comes in sequence with the Spaceship City, the New York of Brains, the 2000 ton City and other pieces of creative cynicism.
It is quiet in Florence, a good place from which to filter-out the absurdities of the noisier world – and to continue and continue to design.
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