A new documentary on the Florentine radical architecture collective Gruppo 9999 joins last year’s exhibition at Yale Architecture Gallery, Radical: Italian Design 1965–1985, and the Institute for Contemporary Art in London’s 2016 Radical Disco: Architecture and Nightlife in Italy, 1965-1975 in reviving the contribution of 1960s Italian avant-garde architecture groups to visions of an ecological, technologically advanced future. This relatively small group of diverse practitioners would go on to deeply influence a reevaluation of the architecture discipline, its agency, and role in late capitalism. Besides the most well-known collectives, Superstudio and Archizoom, other groups shared a similar methodology of using the tools of architecture to produce critical elaborations of their contemporary world, making visible the extreme transformations happening in post-war Western societies.
Gruppo 9999 is perhaps the least internationally well-known of them, but their output through exhibitions, drawings, installations, and performances has been long-lasting. Radical Landscapes, a documentary film in the works, tells their story from the perspective of director Elettra Fiumi, whose father Fabrizio Fiumi was a key figure in the movement. The film will have its European premiere on June 15 as part of the Biografilm festival in Bologna, Italy. (An excerpt was screened online at Salone del Mobile in 2020 as “A Florentine Man.”) In addition to Fiumi, Giorgio Birelli, Carlo Caldini, and Paolo Galli, were other founding members who were later joined by Paolo Coggiola, Andrea Gigli, Mario Preti, and Giovanni Sani.
The group is most famous for Space Electronic, an experimental dance club that opened in Florence in 1969, inspired by clubs like the Dom, the Electric Circus, and Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, which its members visited during frequent trips to the U.S. Space Electric’s original concept used the latest audiovideo technology to create an engine of cultural production which brought together visual arts, music, spatial practices, and performance. It belonged to a movement of experimental dance clubs that sprung up in Italy during the period, known as Pipers—after a club that opened in Rome in 1965—designed by young architects who had studied at the University of Florence under Leonardo Ricci, Leonardo Savioli, and Umberto Eco. The formula was absolutely novel, and the phenomenon attracted international interest: Anyone interesting passing through Italy would stop by, according to interview subjects in Radical Landscapes.
By day, starting in 1970, the club transformed into an architecture school called S-Space, the Separate School for Expanded Conceptual Architecture, organized in collaboration with Superstudio. Gruppo 9999’s most widely distributed image came during an S-Space festival organized at the club in 1971 publicized as Life, Death and Miracles of Architecture. On the dance floor, they installed a landscape with a fish pond, grass, and trees, and on the balcony above, they planted a real vegetable garden. They produced a version of the idea as Vegetable Garden House for the seminal 1972 Museum of Modern Art exhibition on the movement, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, curated by Emilio Ambasz. It forecasted an idealized vision of ecology and technology working in harmony, anticipating contemporary projects like WorkAC’s 2008 Public Farm 1 and Stefano Boeri’s 2014 Bosco Verticale.
At the time, Italy was becoming a laboratory for cultural practices engaged in critical theory in a way that was peculiar compared to countercultural movements elsewhere in the West. Despite their belief in play as a tool of social action, the group took politics seriously and worked intensely until disbanding in 1972.
As Giorgio Birelli, the last surviving member of Gruppo 9999, emphasized in a recent interview, his peers felt a political urgency about the challenges of contemporary societies experiencing tremendous growth and grappling with immense changes. One of the defining moments of their collaboration, the occupation of the University of Florence architecture school in 1968, predated and inspired the Space Electric. They foresaw the need for new hermeneutic tools and narratives that would allow generational changes to be understood, challenged, and digested.
Like most of their peers, Gruppo 9999 did not construct any buildings; they instead worked on exhibitions and architecture competitions with an unique focus on ecology, which located the natural environment and agriculture at the center of their critique of capitalism and technology. Their take on ecology might have been inspired by the location of the group’s headquarters in the countryside near Florence, where rural, pastoral life was still very much alive in the face of rapid transformations and the economic boom in post-war Italy. In this respect, Gruppo 9999’s contribution should be reevaluated as deeply contemporary, foreshadowing today’s preoccupation with ecosystems with more accuracy than many of their famous peers. It should come as no surprise, then, that the concerns of artists working at the same time in Italy, such as Piero Gilardi, a pioneer of the ecological turn in visual arts, and the Arte Povera movement are increasingly being seen as closely tied to Florence’s radical architecture groups.
Today, a large number of practitioners—myself included—follow in the pioneering steps of groups like Gruppo 9999 through working as a collective. Their precedent forces us to constantly reassess the cultural relevance of public debates about architecture and spatial questions. The contemporary art world is much more equipped to host and support these kinds of practices, yet their architectural specificity often gets lost. Public interest in spatial questions in the built environment have been systematically eroded by the increasing privatization of space and the rampant speculation that has characterized the production of buildings in the last 30 years. One cannot look at exhibitions like Italy: The New Domestic Landscape and Bernard Rudofsky’s many MoMA exhibitions without some degree of nostalgia for a time when the public debate surrounding architecture was alive and popular.
Think about The Line, one of NEOM’s urbanistic projects being planned in Saudi Arabia, that takes the form of a gigantic linear building crossing the desert. While the project has been widely criticized for its environmental impact and dystopian take on the future of urbanization, it’s out-of-scale imposition of an abstract line through the landscape materializes some of the most well-known visions of 1960s radical architecture. Originally intended as a critique of capitalist society, the visions are here repurposed as a technocratic capitalist solution to ecological crisis.
While Grupo 9999 could not have foreseen the hollowing of countercultural forms into hegemonic projects of this scale, their groundbreaking work nevertheless established a mode of collective imagination that evidenced how different the future could have been.
Alessandro Bava is an architect based in Milan, where he runs the collaborative spatial practice BB and the art gallery zaza’.
Radical Landscapes will have its European premiere on June 15 as part of the Biografilm festival in Bologna, Italy. Later in the year, it will be screened by the Royal Institute of British Architects in London and in Florence.