Washing machine drums and refrigerator casings were among the furnishings decorating Space Electronic, a nightclub that opened in 1969 in an abandoned engine repair workshop in Florence. Yet, as much as they may sound like bizarre props, they were perfect decorations for this place created by Gruppo 9999, four guys (Giorgio Birelli, Carlo Caldini, Fabrizio Fiumi and Paolo Galli) who were also members of Italy's Radical Architecture movement.
The space - inspired by New York's Electric Circus, the writings of Marshall McLuhan and the topics analysed at Florence's Architectural School - was indeed conceived as a venue for multimedia architectural experimentation. Music, theatre, light projections and other forms of performances were all welcomed and Gruppo 9999 even used the club as a classroom for the S-Space (Separate School for Expanded Conceptual Architecture). In 1971 in occasion of the Mondial festival, a co-production with Superstudio, the nightclub was redesigned to include a lake (the flooded ground floor...) and a vegetable garden.
This is actually just one interesting tale from the early history of Italian dance clubs, a topic that has fascinated throughout the decades many people, not just dance fans. Nightclubs can indeed be read as social and anthropological phenomena and they have strong links with the cultural development of a country, so it's perfectly understandable why they should represent a compelling topic. Yet there is something more behind the history of Italian discos and nightclubs.
The ICA in London seems to have understood it so well that is currently dedicating the issue an exhibition entitled "Radical Disco: Architecture and Nightlife in Italy, 1965-1975". The event features archival photographs, architectural drawings, film, music and articles from the international design press.
The event, co-curated by Dr Catharine Rossi (Kingston University London; author of the "Space Electronic: Then and Now" project presented last year at the Venice Architecture Biennale) and Sumitra Upham (ICA), looks at a specific period of time between the '60s and the '70s when Italian discos were conceived as places where art, experimental performances and politics met on the dancefloor.
Everything started at the Piper in Rome where a lot of young people (and quite a few architects...) used to hang around before the emergence of radical architecture. Designed by Manilo Cavalli, and Francesco and Giancarlo Capolei, the Piper featured reconfigurable furnishings, audio-visual technologies and a stage for Italian and British acts from Patty Pravo to Pink Floyd, who performed against a backdrop of works by artists including Piero Manzoni and Andy Warhol.
Interestingly enough, the Rome-based club spawned a degree course: architects Paolo Deganello (member of Archizoom) and Adolfo Natalini (co-founder in 1966 of Superstudio) persuaded Italian architect and painter Leonardo Savioli to give a degree course at Florence University on the topic of the "Piper" intended as an avant-garde disco (participants included Giorgio Ceretti, Pietro Derossi and Riccardo Rosso who designed both Piper in Turin in 1966 and L'Altro Mondo in Rimini in 1967).
Florence actually lacked a place where young people could hang around, but it soon made up for lost time when Superstudio opened Mach 2 (1967; mainly featuring transparent and reflective materials and characterised by a pitch-black interior, lined with bright yellow handrails and pink strip lighting that, reproducing a futuristic supersurface, helped people not to loose their way) and Gruppo 9999 created Space Electronic (1969).
In the meantime, in Milan Ugo La Pietra designed Bang Bang (1968), a disco entered through a boutique, while on the Tuscan coast Gruppo UFO launched Bamba Issa (1969), inspired by the Disney story "Donald Duck and The Magic Hourglass", that UFO interpreted as an allegory for capitalism.
Discos were designed by architects who quite often also ran the business, and this meant that, rather than just forms of mass distraction from everyday boredom or from a collective state of decline, clubs were considered as experiments in radical architecture.
These nightclubs weren't indeed just leisure spaces, but were deviced as places of spectacle where various dialogues developed: for example, the architects behind Bamba Issa would change the way it looked over several years to make sure they could tell a continuous story tackling various key social issues, capitalism included.
Superstudio, Archizoom, UFO, Zziggurat and 9999 believed that everything could be architecture and that the architect was committed to society and not to buildings.
Discos were therefore new concepts for life and social relationships, spaces where young people gathered and expressed their creativity, conceptual territories where thought could be developed and where art, culture and fashion could all come together.
Sadly, the phenomenon didn't last long: some discos closed, others were transformed in commercial spaces. Things changed even more with rave culture and the '90s, while, in more recent years, the Internet prompted people to abandon fixed locations in favour of itinerant gathering places that can be occupied for one night only, or dramatically changed people's habits by allowing them to develop virtual spaces in digital locations where they could let their avatars do all the dance and the talking.
The debate about discos remains open, though, and it's still incredibly inspiring: Italian radical architects saw the dancefloor as a stage or a surface in constant transformation where protest, politics and multidisciplinary experiments developed, but nothing like this exists anymore.
Will it be possible to recreate such neutral spaces that seemed to offer people a cross-disciplinary approach and allow play, performance, disorder and social exchange to take place? Who knows, maybe Prada will open one day a conceptual nightclub with the help of Rem Koolhaas' OMA/AMO, in the meantime there's plenty to learn at the ICA, just remember to bring with you a sketchpad in case you get some clever architectural idea to recreate a shared cultural platform and a space for social involvement.
"Radical Disco: Architecture and Nightlife in Italy, 1965-1975", ICA, London, from 8th December 2015 to 10th January 2016. The "Designer Discos" talk, on 16th December 2015 (6:30 pm, £7.00 to £8.00), chaired by Justin McGuirk, with Ben Kelly, Amanda Moss and Catharine Rossi, will tackle the countercultural and social value of nightclubs.
Image credits for this post
Space Electronic during the Mondial Festival, by Gruppo 9999 and Superstudio, Space Electronic, Florence, 1971. © Gruppo 9999, courtesy of Carlo Caldini.
Gruppo 9999, prototype for the Vegetable Garden House at the Mondial Festival, Space Electronic, Florence, 1971. © Gruppo 9999, courtesy of Carlo Caldini.
3C+t Capolei Cavalli (Giancarlo Capolei, Pinini Capolei, Manlio Cavalli), side elevation of Piper club, Rome, 1965. © 3c+t Fabrizio Capolei, Pino Abbrescia e Fabio Santinelli (face2face studio), Corrado Rizza.
Bamba Issa, Forte dei Marmi, 1970. Photograph by Carlo Bachi. © Lapo Binazzi, UFO Archive.
Mach 2 © Superstudio, axonometric projection.
Mach 2 © Superstudio, pink lights.
Interior, Piper, Turin designed by Pietro Derossi, Giorgio Ceretti and Riccardo Rosso, 1966. © Pietro Derossi.
Stage, Piper, Turin, designed by Pietro Derossi, Giorgio Ceretti and Riccardo Rosso, 1966. © Pietro Derossi.
UFO, camels returning to Africa, Bamba Issa, Forte dei Marmi, 1969. Photograph by Carlo Bachi. © Lapo Binazzi, UFO Archive.
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