The latest and most comprehensive exhibition on the work of the Italian design group Superstudio has recently opened at the MAXXI Rome, Zaha Hadid’s concrete neo-brutalist masterpiece. In an impressively fearless maneuver, the Superstudio veterans Adolfo Natalini, Cristiano Toraldo di Francia, and Gian Piero Frassinelli have rammed their signature Continuous Monument straight through the entrails of Hadid’s longest suspended gallery. Revolutionary red and stretching over 100 meters, the broad elongated slab serves to reinforce Hadid’s sinewy and gravity-defying series of splayed ramped spaces, some futilely narrow, others in hairpin twists. Though clearly the MAXXI installations in this canted structure are improving as the curators come up with increasingly clever ways to hang shows in these spaces, Superstudio’s revisited monument functions as the critical datum on which this important retrospective is organized.
MAXXI’s artistic director Hou Hanru offers up one of the museum’s prime spaces for the exhibition, and it pays off with great dividends as Superstudio’s work gets the kind of ample spatial treatment it has long deserved. Moreover, this show, curated by Gabriele Mastrigli, comes with a comprehensive book-catalogue that weighs in at over 660 pages and proves that Mastrigli, who spent more than five years compiling the publication, has mastered every aspect of the group’s oeuvre. While now only available in Italian, an English edition is promised in time to accompany the show’s move to Shanghai early next year.
The MAXXI exhibition offers more than 200 works by Superstudio, with a surprising amount of pieces never before placed on public display. Organized mainly in chronological order, the first objects one encounters at the ground floor entrance to the gallery are full-scale reproductions of the first Superarchitettura installation made for the Jolly2 gallery in Pistoia in 1966, mounted by the Tuscan manufacturer Poltronova. As soon as one alights the top of the main stairs however, the real show begins with the group’s timeline, beginning in the fanciful pop phase, journeying through the design storyboards, the histogram assembly, and the gridded villas, until a few stairs up, one gets to meet with the Continuous Monument in all its splendor and folly. From there, things get gnarly, as visitors can branch off in different directions, depending on which ramps they follow: A few contemporary works pop into view, such as the new digital animation based on the Continuous Monument storyboard by Lucio Lapietra. Present among these new works are also the Trieste-based architect and photographer Stefano Graziani’s collection of unmediated photographs made while working in the Superstudio archive, and the mesmerizing “living Photoshop” compositions by Nadia Hironaka and Matthew Suib.
Then there are the late pieces made for the 1978 Venice Biennale curated by Lara Vinca Masini in the Magazzini del Sale: The Wife of Lot, a table-stand supporting the primary archetypes of architecture made in baked salt, and the Life of Zeno, a documentation on the farmer who contributed to the important extra-urban material cultural studies conducted at the school of architecture in Florence through the 70s. There are some notable absences however. Like any superstar rock group worth remembering, there are misgivings among Superstudio’s members. Alessandro Poli is conspicuously absent, along with him some prime works from the group’s first collective film effort, Interplanetary Architecture. Contributions of two other members, the brothers Roberto and Alessandro Magris, remain evident throughout the show.
Stephen Wallis’s recent T Magazine preview, “The Super Superstudio,” carries the subtitle “A ’60s Architecture Collective That Made History (but No Buildings).” The myth that Superstudio never completed a single building is a convenient notion that serves to disempower the group’s revolutionary impact on mainstream architecture. If indeed they had built nothing, theirs would be a non-threatening movement of the coffee table variety. But that’s far from the truth. Superstudio was a fully functioning architecture office, with clients seeking designs for discotheques, bank interiors, homes, industrial designs, and a consistent production of competitions, exhibition installations, etc. Furthermore, it was precisely this very real and frustrating daily architectural practice that provoked these Florentines to push even further their anti-design philosophy.
When compared to the Milanese retrospective organized at the PAC in 2015, MAXXI’s Superstudio 50 is a much more introspective story. There are none of those previous controversies present here at MAXXI. This exhibition is unabashedly all about Superstudio, and there are no diversions whatsoever to undermine this essential premise. But therein lies the exhibition’s greatest weakness. If the PAC juxtaposed the works of Superstudio with a set of questionably unrelated contemporary artists, the Rome exhibit acts inevitably to “ghettoize” the primacy of the content: Is Superstudio really a standalone act of architecture? Or is it in fact something much more than that, something that has embedded a majority of the great conceptual themes of an era? Isn’t the work of Superstudio so incredibly significant today precisely because it reaches across professional disciplines and political boundaries, connecting the arts with architecture, humanities with science fiction, performance with deadpan spectacle? While the book begins to fill this gap by bringing together an encyclopedia of Superstudio related sources, the exhibition is hung dry. If architecture is to regain its role as social instigator ever again, and not just behave like a capitalist lackey, then a whole lot more must be brought to bear in the toolkit that serves architects today. That’s why Superstudio’s work deserves to be in more space, but also to be in more categorical places. Each document by Superstudio can be read as a call to action, inaction, violence, or desperation. These messages are not limited to architects—they are relevant to everyone.
Superstudio 50 (Five Decades Later) is on view at the MAXXI – National Museum of the 21st Century Arts, Via Guido Reni 4A, 00196 Rome, through September 4, 2016.