There is a lot happening in Milan these days. The Milan Expo is attracting record crowds in its closing month; apartment towers are cropping up around the city center like trees in a forest; and on Milan’s immediate periphery, the Prada Foundation has opened its gilded quarters to an eager public of art and architecture aficionados. This jigsaw puzzle of renovated factory structures and new building additions by Rem Koolhaas are set against a broad expanse of freight rail lines, highway billboards, and graffitied walls. Featuring a collection of courtyards, ramped terraces, labyrinthine underground vaults, repurposed industrial spaces, and a singularly phantasmagoric floating glass pavilion, there is little doubt this ex-distillery turned contemporary-art-environment has set a new standard for the art patronage elite. The Prada Foundation is one of Koolhaas’s best works—and his most precious—yet it retains just the right proportion of off-kilter detailing to remind the visitor that Koolhaas won’t be tamed by any formal architectural system, not even of his own making.
The Prada Foundation was very much on my mind when I made my way to the opening press conference for the exhibition Super Superstudio at the Padiglione D’Arte Contemporanea (PAC), the latest overview on the Florentine Radical group Superstudio. Rem Koolhaas, without a doubt, is the most direct heir of the Superstudio legacy: Were it not for the Continuous Monument (1969–1970) and the Twelve Ideal Cities (1971), Koolhaas would have been at loss for both images and words. The 1972 Voluntary Prisoners of Architecture project (with Madelon Vriesendorp, Elia Zenghelis and Zoe Zenghelis) is a fusion between the spectacular imagery of the Continuous Monument and the verbal mastery and sheer imaginative stretch of Twelve Ideal Cities.
The discussion on legitimate heirs comes up precisely because the lead architecture curator of Super Superstudio is Andreas Angelidakis—who is also currently involved in the Chicago Architecture Biennial—introduced this show as a dialogue between the first inhabitants living on the surface of Supersurface and their imaginary offspring. Super Superstudio is the collaborative effort of three architect curators, Angelidakis, Vittorio Pizzigoni, and Valter Scelsi, who are responsible for assembling the collection and designing the in-situ Continuous Monument that succeeds in boldly rearranging the PAC’s modern interiors—completed in 1954 by the noted Milanese architect Ignazio Gardella.
The two-story, 30-meter-long exposed steel stud and gyp-board corridor serves as an arcaded spine to organize the display spaces into thematic collections—combining works by Superstudio with those of a younger generation of contemporary artists. Clearly the curators were aware that their choices as intergenerational matchmakers would appear controversial. Could the cryptic grids by RO/LU, the delicate armatures by Patrick Tuttofuoco, the apocalyptic plastic castings by Danai Anesiadou, the weightless paintings of Priscilla Tea, or the hermetic creations of Petrit Halilaj and Alvaro Urbano interact side by side with Superstudio’s mercurial creations? Evidently, credit goes to Vittorio Pizzigoni and Valter Scelsi for several years’ research to bring together the kind of comprehensive collection that would give ample material for these artists to play off of.
Yet does it make sense to associate categories and works together irrespective of what they might signify as an ensemble? Could one could have just as purposely created a random pairing of old and new elements with similar results?
Among the attending public, including Gian Piero Frassinelli, the only Superstudio member to make the trip up to Milan from Florence for the opening, there was in fact noticeable dissatisfaction. Frassinelli would have preferred matching their work to more familiar and respected brethren; Stefano Boeri, one of Milan’s most prominent architects and critical theorists, insisted that Superstudio should have merited the entire PAC space on its own. But others, mainly from the art world, were intrigued, especially as they were drawn to PAC precisely by the younger generation of artists featured, only to discover, many for the first time, the works of Superstudio.
Architectural curators are becoming converted by the art world’s engaged discourse on the nature of curating and display. It’s hard to fathom an art exhibition produced today that is not in some way conscious of not only what it puts on evidence but also what it wants to communicate, to represent. The visionary works by Superstudio were really never intended to be made concrete in the first place—they acted more like conceptual time bombs, as evidenced in the way their ideas keep creeping back. To place them like mere objects around a room diffuses their revolutionary impact, turning their projects into nothing more than fetishized things.
So it is a loaded question as to whether the PAC exhibition is worth it or not. On the one hand, a series of hitherto rare works are now on display. Consider the Bazaar plastic and pink fur sofa, or the Onos plastic bed, both made in 1968 and on loan by the design manufacturing firm Giovanetti. These, as well as the recently restored Sofo modular couch originally designed in 1968 and made from leftover stock fabric by Poltronova specifically for this exhibition, were never exhibited together. And then there are the hand-carved Alabaster lamps from 1969–71, the antithetical objects that defied mass production, and therefore mass consumption, curiosities rarely brought out into public view. These, along with the full scale reproduction of the Museum of Modern Art’s 1972 Micro-Event Micro-Environment, a number of rare photos from the archive collection from Superstudio cofounder Cristiano Toraldo di Francia along with restored videos and slide shows from Ceremony 1973, and the Five Fundamental Acts, 1972–74, make this show a historical event in its own right.
The catalogue comes in both English and Italian and provides an ample collection of Superstudio writings and Radical pronouncements. There are, of course, lacunae; missing are the original works on Interplanetary Architecture from 1971 developed with Alessandro Poli, the Superstudio member whose tenure officially lasted two years but whose creative association with the group deserves clearer recognition.
On the other hand, the formula to bring together radical architects with a collective of artistic ingenui, does work to reveal some of the buried ideals behind Superstudio’s provocations by setting up dialectical skirmishes between them. This mythic selection of artists that allegedly grew up on the compact gridded supersurfaces confirms the proposition that children are rarely acquiescent and tend to make their own dream worlds. Daniel Keller’s and Ella Previn’s Pure Disclosure combines their own designs for mesh shirts by DISown with detritus spread across the floor, alluding to today’s gloomier design future, Andrew Kovacs’s finely drawn Proposal for a Social Condenser, could refer to Twelve Ideal Cities, or Ila Beka and Louise Lemoine’s La Maddalena might evoke Global Tools. Yes, it’s a stretch to say the least.
Like the utopian Christiania in Denmark whose offspring run the kind of gentrified shops and businesses their parents once abhorred, there will be anguished truth in discovering who are today’s enfants terribles. Rem Koolhaas, let’s not forget, is nearly of the same generation as the members of Superstudio, and years of his toying with the Radical’s anti-consumerist ideology has led him right into the devil’s den: Prada.
It won’t be long before someone will be pairing him with a narrative he would utterly disapprove. And I am very much looking forward to seeing this come about. Until then, Koolhaas will remain masterfully in charge of his historic destiny, with few offspring willing to challenge him.