Exhibition Review: Utopie Radicali—Florence 1966-1976

Utopie Radicali: Florence 1966–1976 exhibits at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal until October 7.

The Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) welcomes visitors to its current exhibition, Utopie Radicali: Florence 1966-1976, with Remo Buti’s Piatti di Architettura (1962-1975), a long table set up with plates adorned with architects’ drawings. This domestic setting hints at the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal 1972 exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, curated by Emilio Ambasz, which first introduced 1960s Italian design to a North American audience. The CCA exhibition focuses on the more radical representatives specifically from Florence, adding lesser-known protagonists to the more famous Superstudio, Archizoom, and 9999 that were part of the MoMA exhibition. But whereas the earlier exhibition presented these investigations through “environments” that were directly criticizing the political and social contexts of their era, the CCA presents an archivist’s point of view that takes away some of the political power of the original projects.

 Utopie Radicali: Florence 1966-1976
“Nuova Università di Firenze,” 1971. San Casciano Val di Pesa. Archivio 9999 ABOVE “La città come ambiente significante,” Alberto Breschi, Roberto Pecchioli
(Zziggurat) 1973.

Curated by Pino Brugellis, Alberto Salvadori and Gianni Pettena (who acts as an engaged historian of the era, since his work is also on show) the exhibition started life at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence in late 2017. The Montreal iteration adds more work from Superstudio’s Alessandro Poli, whose archives are held at the CCA. Archizoom and Superstudio are often exhibited in group exhibitions, where their contributions to international countercultural movements are celebrated, but the Florence focus helps situate them within their local context, in addition to shining a light on less-celebrated protagonists. To be sure, the exhibition focuses so intensely on Florence that it almost completely ignores any links to other movements around the world and the influence that they had on later generations.

“La città come ambiente significante.” Alberto Breschi, Roberto Pecchioli. (Zzigurat) 1973.

The exhibition presents drawings, models, films, clothes and furniture across eight sections: Pop, Disco, Azione, Territorio, Corpo, Città, Natura, and Luna. The fairly traditional exhibition design is shaken up only by a platform under the furniture pieces that stretches across from the Pop section in the central gallery to the Corpo section behind it. This physical connection appears particularly appropriate, as if the Pop influence is undeniably visible and recognized. It is the focus on the body that emerges as one of the most important legacies of the Florentine Radical movement, present in many of the other sections. For example, under the theme of the discotheque as a space of multidisciplinary experimentation, UFO’s works explore how design can be organized around embodied characters and stories, while Gianni Pettena’s 1971 “Wearable Chairs,” created while he was teaching in the United States and presented at the CCA under the theme of urban action, become meaningful as extensions of the body, celebrating collectiveness and the involvement of people in shaping and changing the city. Similarly, the clothing experimentations of Archizoom’s “Dressing Design: Nearest Habitat System” (to be worn in their famous No-Stop City) and “Dressing is Easy” reject consumerist culture and work by stripping away excesses linked to traditional notions of design, but also radically rethink what can be understood as the domain of the architect.

 Utopie Radicali: Florence 1966-1976
Installation view of the “Wearable Chairs” project.

Even when staying closer to the traditional focus of architecture, such as in the furniture many of them designed, the Florentine Radicals sought to challenge notions that had emerged with modernism, making explicit references to modernist heroes such as Mies or Le Corbusier. On a guided tour of the exhibition, however, it became jarring to hear Poli describe the Superonda and Safari sofas, designed by Archizoom for the 1966 Superarchitettura show, as active pieces where people were invited to move elements and to imagine together how to sit—as an anthropological investigation about the body and commercial production—but to not be able to touch and interact with the pieces themselves. The embodied experience that was at the core of the Radicals’ work and that is on view everywhere stays only that, “on view,” as archived artifacts. But it would have been more true to the Radicals’ ideals and intentions if the exhibition included either reproductions of some of the original installations and furniture to be interacted with by visitors, or commissioned new pieces that would present Radical takes on contemporary issues. That kind of interactive approach is limited to the public programs, which include events such as a “Curatorial Loaf” where visitors are invited to share a communal meal or a “Futurniture” workshop for families to create furniture for a “global disco” collaboratively.

 Utopie Radicali: Florence 1966-1976
of one of Archizoom’s various clothing projects. Along with “Wearable Chairs, the project is one display at the CCA’s Utopie Radicali: Florence 1966–1976

The last section of the exhibition focuses on the potential of lunar colonization—and by extension of space, seen as an expanded territory of exploration in response to what was seen as our incomplete future. This final section makes clear that most of these architects were not interested in building, but more in challenging norms and translating into architecture their resistance to consumerism. Only later would some architects like Bernard Tschumi and Rem Koolhaas manage to transform similar investigations into built form. This section also links closely this exhibition to previous CCA investigations into prospective aspects of architecture, with the most explicit links being to Other Space Odysseys (2010), for which the initial Poli donation was made.

Meeting fra Mao e Nixon a Graz, Archivio 999, now on at the CCA's Utopie Radicali: Florence 1966-1976
Meeting fra Mao e Nixon a Graz, Archivio 999, now on at the CCA’s Utopie Radicali: Florence 1966-1976

Like the CCA’s recent exhibition about the Open University’s experiment with architectural education, Utopie Radicali explores the 1960s and 1970s reassessment of the modern movement and rethinking of mass culture as something that can improve people’s lives. However, if the CCA’s goal is, as Phyllis Lambert’s words on its website suggest, not to be “a museum that puts things out and says, ‘This is architecture’” but instead to “try to make people think,” this exhibition would benefit by bringing these critiques more directly in dialogue with our contemporary context. The CCA could then be as radical in its presentation of its rich and challenging archives as these objects were to begin with.

Utopie Radicali: Florence 1966–1976 exhibits at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal until October 7.

Olivier Vallerand is an architect with 1x1x1 Creative Lab and a visiting post-doctoral scholar at UC Berkeley College of Environmental Design.