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05.06.2009
Domestic Disturbances
In 1972, the Museum of Modern Art presented Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, a provocative survey that questioned the role of high design in a world riven by poverty and urban decay. Here, curators Peter Lang, Luca Molinari, and Mark Wasiuta offer a precis of their recent exhibit Environments and Counter Environments: Experimental Media in Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, MoMA 1972, which reexamined that landmark show and is on view at Columbia's Arthur Ross Gallery and Buell Hall through May 8.
A scene from one of the exhibit's films.
From Italy: The New Domestic Landscape (1972)

As a striking moment in the history of architectural exhibitions, the celebrated Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, curated by Emilio Ambasz at the Museum of Modern Art in 1972, responded to the dynamic and complexly political Italian design context of the early 1970s.

To organize the exhibit, Ambasz first distinguished between Objects and Environments, and divided the latter into three groups: design as postulation, design as commentary, and counterdesign as postulation. In a cunning reversal, the Objects section was installed in the comparatively natural environment of MoMA’s sculpture garden, while the Environments were placed within the more conventional space of the galleries. It was this sequence of environments that we found particularly revealing within the context of the era’s experimental architecture.


Gae Aulenti's House Environment.
 
 
Joe Colombo's Total Furnishing Unit.
 
 
Cover of the catalog from the original 1972 show.
 
From Italy: The New Domestic Landscape
 
 

By 1972, “environment” had already circulated through the worlds of architecture and design via a range of disciplines, from the environmental design movement to biology, cybernetics, and the defense industries. While discriminating among the various politics and strategies of the participants in the Environments section—which included Gae Aulenti, Joe Colombo, Ettore Sottsass, Jr., Gaetano Pesce, Archizoom, and Superstudio, among others—the exhibition also tested the viability of the category itself. At the same time, it considered the potential survival or disappearance of architecture into an environment of perceptual relations and “domestic rituals.”

To demonstrate their environments’ alterability, the designers were asked to provide a film component. Several of the architects instead chose other media approaches, while Enzo Mari refused the installation and submitted only a text for the catalogue. Implicit in these responses was recognition that the conjunction of environment and media could generate what Ugo La Pietra would call “unbalancing systems.” Beyond illustrating the performance of the environments, the films and other media projects more carefully registered the design positions of the architects, especially as calibrated in relation to a recent history of expanded media practices.

In the encounter with film and other media, the loosening of the types and conditions of domestic space—manifest in the objects and installations—confronted the ever more indeterminate boundaries of televisual and informational territories. If the exhibition organized a debate around the social and political agency of new design, this debate was amplified through the suggestion—still topical today—that a new media environment itself might constitute the most potent landscape of domesticity.

It is therefore worth examining more closely a small selection of the films restored for the Columbia exhibition. Sampling the productions of Ettore Sottsass, Jr., Joe Colombo, and Superstudio out of the total produced for the original exhibition affords a closer perspective on these designers’ techniques.

Ettore Sottsass, Jr. envisioned for his series of plastic domestic elements a maximum of possible living scenarios, unrestrained by fixed objects or divided rooms. Massimo Magri, the director chosen to interpret Sottsass’ project, used music from the British rock group Pink Floyd for his score, creating a film interspersed with axonometric drawings, hand-held camera work, fade shots, double exposures, and no dialogue. The film takes the prefab units through a series of unsettling interior scenarios, wastelands of discarded objects, revolutions gone totalitarian, and domestic chores becoming neuroses.

The clear anti-commercial but also anti-conformist message of this short “promotional” film reflects Sottsass’ lifelong disdain for political ideologies, and his deep belief in the autonomy of the individual. The built-in irony is that Sottsass’ units are not intended to lead to the good life. Credit is due to the director Magri for staging a Brechtian theater denuded of distracting contexts; the film as such succeeds in presenting Sottsass’ units as the only furnishing necessary to live out one’s life.

 
Mario Bellini’s Kar-a-Sutra was conceived as “a mobile human space,” in which one could “eat and drink, make love, buy a horse and a piano along the way.”
 
From Italy: The New Domestic Landscape.
 
 

Joe Colombo died in July 1971, almost a year before the MoMA exhibit, but he instigated one of the most intriguing films of the eight produced for the Environments section. The film, supervised by his assistant Ignazia Favata, was a playful denouncement of standard product marketing. That this was no ordinary commercially conceived film is more than evident when considering the creative backgrounds of the two co-directors, Livio Castiglioni and Gianni Colombo, who worked with each other initially in 1962, when Castiglioni collaborated with Colombo and Bruno Munari on a temporary electronic tower adjacent to the Milan Duomo. The opening credits to Total Furnishing Unit are presented across a pitch-black background pierced by a dazzling flash of light and scored against an eerie, atonal soundtrack. Not quite the pristine space station module produced by Rosselli, Colombo’s film succeeds nonetheless in completely re-dimensioning the home environment, from the audio to the visual, from outside-in, to inside-out.

Produced by Superstudio, Supersurface: An Alternative Model for Life on Earth is filmed in the style of a popular documentary. In keeping with the group’s subversive double identity—Superstudio liked to represent itself as a professional architecture office moonlighting as design radicals—they engaged the commercial Marchi film studios to create a promotional version of their nomadic planetary utopia. The soundtrack begins with an incessant heartbeat accompanied by a professional announcer’s voiceover; the camera first spirals and then zooms in and out of a series of images of human bodies, electronic probes, engines, and space satellites; landscape perspectives are combined in an animated montage; and a final outdoor segment presents two American students in the Sienese hillside, who, with only the faintest irony, delineate what in effect are Superstudio’s “guidelines for a new society.”

In the staging of the MoMA exhibition, the films were played on portable, 8mm film cartridge units, located within each environment. As demonstration, elaboration, or challenge to the environmental thesis of each installation, the films offered mediatized approaches to redefining the environment that, at the least, transcended popular perceptions of domesticity and in most cases offered cogent experiments in representation that polemicized the acts of inhabitation, consumption, and communication.

Peter Lang, Luca Molinari, Mark Wasiuta

Peter Lang, an architect and critic, teaches at Texas A&M University. Luca Molinari is a regular contributor to design journals and professor at the University of Naples. Mark Wasiuta is a curator and visiting professor at the Columbia GSAPP.