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Radicals revisited

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Superstudio: Life Without Objects At the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1, until 8 June

Superstudio was, like Archigram, a product of the 1960s, formed to expose (as one of its founders later explained) the futility of architecture, 'its uselessness, its falsity and its immorality'. For many who trained as architects during the late 1960s and 1970s, the rhetorical style of Superstudio will be familiar. This was the era of 'kick-ass design', iconoclasm, anti-architecture, romantic visions, quixotic gestures, bombast and sheer bullshit. Leaf through back copies of AD for the period and you soon get the flavour - Superstudio, of course, got plenty of coverage in that magazine during the early '70s.

The context of Archigram, Superstudio, Archizoom and other radical groupings of the time was a growing mood of disenchantment, among architects and the general public, with the achievements of the Modern Movement and the dominance of the International Style. The New Brutalism and Team X were harbingers of the revolt, which gained a momentum from the political unrest of the later '60s. The rise of community architecture, ecology, conservation and, eventually, Post-Modernism were all part of the rich mix of ideas that shattered the Modernist hegemony.

In its own time, the Modern Movement had itself been a radical and optimistic movement, bent on changing the world for the better. Its early visions had become encumbered by its doctrine of functionalism (the radicals of the 1960s argued), so that the architect had become merely a facilitator for the consumer society. 'The thing to do is not to take part in the race, ' said Superstudio's Adolfo Natalini in 1969, 'but to get out of it as soon as possible, and to isolate oneself apart to collect together slowly the pieces of our existence and forge the instruments for our survival, the instruments for the satisfaction of true needs'.

Superstudio was launched by Natalini and Cristiano Toraldo di Francia in 1966, when its ideas were featured in an exhibition in the Tuscan city of Pistoia, close to Florence (where both had graduated). As Peter Lang explains, in the book that he and cocurator William Menking have written to accompany the exhibition (Skira, £19.95), Superstudio's 'nihilistic operation' needs to be understood within the context of postwar Italy and Florence in particular.

The years of 'il boom', with the decisive transformation of Italy from a largely agrarian to a modern industrial society, generated a critical counter-culture that infused schools of architecture. The dynamic centres of architectural teaching after the Second World War were Rome, Milan and Venice - it was the stifling conservatism of the Florence faculty that goaded the young turks of Superstudio into action. The catastrophic flooding that hit the city in November 1966 only highlighted the identity of Florence as a 'heritage city', where the past was what counted and there was no scope for innovation. In 1970, Superstudio's Rescue of Historic Centres project depicted Brunelleschi's dome projecting over the waters of a lake which had once been Florence. Another drawing showed Venice's Grand Canal paved over.

The contradictions contained within Superstudio's provocative proposals and pronouncements emerge from even a cursory exploration of this show, and have been highlighted by a number of critics. There was something despotic, even fascistic about some of the group's visions, Charles Jencks argued. The Continuous Monument (1971) was a model for 'total urbanisation', a single structure wrapped around the globe, a model for 'a near future in which all architecture will be created with a single act, from a single design' - in effect, the end of architecture as a creative art.

By turns mechanistic (see the proposals for a 'conveyor-belt city') and nostalgic, optimistic and ironic, freethinking and prescriptive, Superstudio's ideas can today seem confused and ultimately rather pointless.

From megastructures, the group was able to move on - with little effort, it seems - to painstaking studies of the surviving culture of rural Italy. There are some striking schemes for real buildings in this show - the proposed State Archive for Florence (1970), for instance - but Superstudio was never about the process of building (though it did produce furniture designs, which were manufactured commercially).

Superstudio's continuing significance is to be found in the realm of ideas, as part of a movement to free architecture from traditional constraints of form and function and facilitate a new architecture of the imagination. Without the confused visions of Superstudio and other 'think tanks' of the recent past, Koolhaas, Hadid and Libeskind might never have built.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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