During the 1960s, many radical architect groups and avant-gardes emerged from Europe’s consumerist society, each with their own ideologies and interpretations of modern culture. These groups ranged from Archizoom to Archigram in Rome and London respectively, to the Situationist International to Superstudio based in Paris and Florence; at a time when the consumerist society was increasingly empowered by architecture.
In this essay I will provide a critical comparison of two texts that describe the works of the Situationist International and Superstudio. The texts chosen are Simon Sadler’s “The Situationist City” (MIT Press, 1999) and Peter Lang and William Menking’s “Superstudio: Life Without Objects” (Skira Editore, 2003). I have chosen to examine these two groups due to their similar imaginative concepts relating to architecture, design and urban planning and because chronologically they were founded only a few years apart. To fully comprehend the achievements of each group I will briefly look into their historic work, their notable accomplishments and their thoughtful principles throughout their active careers.
The Situationist International was formed in 1957 from parent groups the Lettrist International, headed by Guy Debord and the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus headed by Asger Jorn. The Situationists were highly politicised at a time when it was fashionable for avant-gardes to separate from the social revolt, and the group believed that the “…strict professionalism of architects and design led to a sterilisation of spontaneity and playfulness” (Sadler, 1999). The group was extremely anti-capitalist and believed that a city should be driven by its interactions rather than the industrialist requirement to work, as work was seen to obstruct creativity. For this reason they hated the rational city, disproved of Le Corbusier and saw that the city didn’t need space to be opened up by high rise developments but needed to have its spaces filled in. If an intimate relation between environment and behaviour was to be produced, the built up area was indispensable.
Simon Sadler’s book, The Situationist City takes a critical look at the Situational International and concentrates on the group’s artistic, architectural and cultural theories that created the group at a time when modernism was popular and counterculture was emerging from around the world.
Founded in Florence in 1966 by a group of young radical architects, Superstudio recognised that architecture served to indoctrinate society into an irrelevant culture of consumption. The founding members Adolfo Natalini and Cristiano Toraldo di Francia graduated from architecture at the University of Florence and sought to extract out of architecture all that encumbered a man’s ability to live a free life.
“Superstudio: Life Without Objects” aims to serve as a portable reference focusing on Superstudio’s critical writings in relation to their better known body of design and architecture. The book summarises the group’s formation and efforts to promote their work at various exhibitions, the individual writings of Peter Lang and William Menking and articles written by the groups founding members. It offers historic examples of work and original concepts conceived by the group until its disbanding in 1978.
ONLY ARCHITECTURE/SITUATIONS WILL BE OUR LIVES
The two groups formed more than 700 miles apart with a 9 year gap in between, yet still shared some of the same principles and similar ideologies. Starting with the Situationists, they thought that modernism’s design, mass production and capitalist bureaucracy overpowered modern society and wanted to overcome this consumerism and penetrate the outward, spectacular, commercialised signs of mass culture and explore its interior; whilst Superstudio believed that the convergence of technology and consumerism were spiralling out of control, creating a society dependant on mass production and materialistic goods.
Both groups were anti-consumerist, although Superstudio as an architectural practice began commercial activity during the first year of their establishment, designing houses, banks and interior furniture. Despite the professional appearance of an architect’s office the group did not assume the role of typical architects. They would only dress professional as a means to infiltrate prospective clientele to whom they could design objects overloaded with symbolism and poetic content. The Situationist on the other hand had chosen to graffiti poetic content on walls around Paris.
Superstudio had adopted a process of self-critical evaluation. Theory led to practice which progressed to a theory check and from the beginning Superstudio were always trying to strip architecture down to its most essential meaning. This self-evaluating approach was implemented to narrow down what was essential within a society of such consumerism as “…objects are status symbols, the expression of models proposed by the ruling class.” The Situationist did not share such a critical, self-evaluating approach but had to meet the understandings of Guy Debord or else risk being expelled from the revolutionary group.
The biggest differences between the two groups were their abilities to express their theories. Superstudio’s members were all architects and all lived in Florence, having graduated from the university. The university, in its political turmoil against other Italian schools formed the students in such a manor to questions everything; this might explain other Italian architect groups such as Archizoom emerging at the same time. Having just graduated, the group would have been eager for practical work and so proceeded to set up a working practise. The Situationists on the other hand were represented as a gathering of friends who shared similar bohemian ideals. What little is told of the background of its members and their professions are mostly undisclosed in “The Situationist City”. This immediately separates the groups as one was actively seeking work whilst working on research projects, whilst the other were meeting in pubs to converse their views on the city.
PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY AND HISTOGRAMS
Natalini remarked in 1971 “…if design is merely an inducement to consume, then we must reject design; if architecture is merely the codifying of the bourgeois models of ownership and society, then we must reject architecture; if architecture and town planning is merely the formalisation of present unjust social divisions, then we must reject town planning and its cities…until all design activities are aimed towards meeting primary needs. Until then, design must disappear. We can live without architecture…” The Superstudio group were anti-design designers, an odd concept but they believed in the purity of objects used and designed only for their purpose. On a larger scale the Situationists wanted the city to be used as a playful space full of happenings and events. Both groups wanted an unpolluted object, be it a chair and table or road and market place, free from political instrumentality. The methods of representing these desires formed into the ‘Histogram’ for Superstudio and the ‘Naked City’ for the Situationists.
The Naked City was Guy Debord and Asger Jorn’s spliced guide to Paris, with directional flows to areas threatened by redevelopment. These areas were associated with students, artisans and bohemians where situations were romanticised. None of these spaces had been designed for their situational composition but had formed over the years of the sporadic growth of the city, whilst planned urbanism represented a drive to rationalise, homogenise and commercialise the socioeconomic diversity of Paris.
Superstudio’s Histogram delivered design in its purest form. Its conception started with the destruction of objects of their attributes as status symbols, ridding them of their consumerist connotations imposed by capitalist powers, making it possible to live with objects rather than for objects (you can quite easily replace ‘objects’ with ‘the city’ to apply the same theory for the Situationist’s city). Eventually Superstudio produced a gridded system that could be developed for furniture, architecture and environments alike, based on a homogenous and isotropic surface. The furniture series ‘Misura’ is still being replicated today.
The two groups had different theories concerning design but both agreed that the current city, society and culture behind it were driven by inappropriate images, objects and architecture. It was the Situationist’s ultimate goal to reconstruct the entire city, though their immediate goals were to fabricate situations. Superstudio had no intention to reconstruct the city, although they did construct (only to hyper-critique) buildings and furniture, and theorised about none-utopias and ‘ideal cities’. In this respect the two groups were very contrasting with one group speculating and the other actually building.
IDEAL CYBERNETIC CITY
The technological advances of the 1960’s saw many new materials emerge from material sciences allowing for new and exciting platforms to be worked upon. A cybernetic culture was emerging which the Situationist believed could be used “…as a high-tech, quasi-science-fictional stick with which to beat the sensibilities of mainstream modernism.” Much of the Situationist’s city would be designed to encapsulate technology, using robots to carry out laborious tasks to free up human time, which could be spent being playfully creative.
Superstudio produced “Twelve Cautionary Tales For Christmas” which evoked “…twelve visions of ideal cities, the supreme achievement of the twenty thousand years of civilization, blood, sweat and tears; the final haven of Man in possession of Truth, free from contradiction, equivocation and indecision; totally and for ever replete with his own PERFECTION” (Architectural Design, 1971). These dystopian cities are descried to be fully automated and even to replicate life. No human activity would be required and little human interaction is suggested. In “Spaceship City,” for example, everyone is plugged into a computer simulating life, couples are made to reproduce, and at the age of 80 they are ejected from the craft and left to float in space. In “New York of Brains,” a post-apocalyptic world is described with a giant cube filled with 10,000,456 human brains in liquid-filled containers. “Completely cut off from human perception,” wrote Frasinelli, “they can sublimate their thoughts for as long as the life of the sun, free to reach the supreme goals of wisdom and madness, perhaps to reach absolute knowledge.” All the other ‘ideal’ cities describe similar visions relying heavily on technology, although the descriptions are mocking to cities that existed at the time of publication.
The two groups had some linked ideas using robotic machinery to free up human time. This allowed Situationists to believe that people were free to do what that want within the city; whilst Superstudio had projected an anti-futurist and technologically optimist future.
FUNDIMENTAL ACTS AND THE SPECTACLE
The two groups were constantly finding new ways to propagandise their works and weren’t restricted to still images. Debord made several films with the Situationists including “Critique of Separation” (1961), “Society of the Spectacle” (1973) to name a few. These films often consisted of images with a narrative voice over documenting the concerns of the current culture and society.
Superstudio chose to move away from architecture as a prop for human existence and engage with themes of human life. This was broken down into five short films based around “Fundamental Acts”; “Life”, “Education”, “Ceremony”, “Love” and “Death.” These five acts represented the metamorphosis of architecture and suggested that people should live architecture. They were somewhat more adventurous than Debord’s films and included moving images with collaged scenarios, however, not all films where realised, and two were developed in alternative media.
THE CONTINUOUS BABYLON
Throughout their spans, the two groups had created some intriguingly political and ideological pieces of work, from detourned art work to methodical furniture; but the two most iconic works of groups included structures that would traverse the globe. These were the Situationist’s “New Babylon” and Superstudio’s “The Continuous Monument.”
The groups shared common ground in the ways they rejected the Cartesian vision of the city, with its rigid divisions of activities and searched for ways making the city a better place according to their standards. New Babylon was Constant Nieuwenhuys’ masterpiece, a means to realise his own and the Situationist’s architectural ambitions. This masterpiece became a symbol of utopia where architecture and culture worked collectively in harmony.
Much of Constant’s work involved unique and organic structures but were very vague, leaving gaps to be filled in by the imagination, but this was the way of Situationalism. Audiences would find it easier to see the theory behind New Babylon rather than its physical functioning with moveable partitions and atmospheric conditioning systems. This fantastic vision was highly speculative involving many modern materials and technological machinery.
The physical structure of New Babylon was designed to stretch as far as possible, to unify the functions that are accommodated within the traditional city. This mega-structure was to be elevated from the earth’s surface to provide a clean sheet for planning in three dimensions. A metabolic system was assembled from short term internal components contrasting to the huge long term structure facilitating a spatial urbanism. Through the standardisation of components spaces could be erected as quickly as they were deconstructed, however I find this idea of mass produced components somewhat controversial to theories of the Situationists.
Superstudio proposed a much simpler structure. With the anti-design theories and previously worked on Histograms, Superstudio conceived the Continuous Monument as an unbroken grid covering vast spaces of the city. “It is a “modern utopia” to imagine a near future which all architecture will be created with a single act…”and so the covered city below would only be remembered as ancient skyscrapers from a time when there was no single plan for the city.
To visualise this monument Superstudio made many photo collages depicting the structure around the globe, including, and probably most famously, Manhattan. The monument itself was an attack on the current trends of culture and society and the impact of globalisation. Cities were becoming more nondescript whilst buildings were becoming more bland and unoriginal, so much so that we might as well be living on a continuous structure where “Architecture becomes a closed, immobile object that leads nowhere but to itself and to the use of reason.” The world would become a condensed and technologically uniformed vision by culture and other forms of imperialism.
Yet both these systems, New Babylon and the Continuous Monument became systems of control, just as inflexible as the very systems they were trying to substitute. To truly achieve either ambition would be to create a true utopia; something that only exists in theory, and can never be personified. The very nature of human life is free choice, as soon as you control through consumerist goods, architecture, even the ideologies of a utopia you are implementing your ideals onto someone whose free choice may wish to conceive things differently; a true utopia is unattainable.
The two groups had very different ways of representing their ideas but fundamentally believed in very similar concepts. They both endeavoured to attack the current society through films and images and believed that consumerism was a driving force to sterilisation of design. The Situationists provoked towards a revolution whilst Superstudio published in reputable magazine. The Situationist would spread their understandings in pubs around Paris whereas Superstudio taught to the University of Florence.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two groups was Superstudio’s self-critical approach, deconstructing everything to get to the purest form of design. The Situationists tried to visualise the construction of situations but had no awareness of what constituted as a situation, but this difference is understandable as they had differing aims and concerns. Superstudio had to make a living and so was constricted to work within client’s boundaries, and could only push their fanatic ideals so far.
The groups’ radical theories of architecture’s environmental impact, the role of technology and the inefficiency of politics to sort out social problems are now considered to be core issues of contemporary architects today.
Sadler, S 1999, The Situationist City, MIT Press, London.
Lang, P & Menking, W 2003, Superstudio: Life Without Objects, Skira Editore, Italy
Wark, K, M 2011, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, Verso, London
‘Translations published in the print version of NOT BORED! 1983 to the present’ 2009, viewed 6 June 2012, < http://www.notbored.org/trans_rep.html>
‘Superstudio Architectural Group (1966-1978) Design Museum Touring Exhibition’ Design Museum, viewed 7 June 2012, < http://designmuseum.org/design/superstudio>