Superstudio - Hidden Architecture
"Hidden Architecture" is a 1970 project by Italian architectural collective Superstudio, first published in the US journal Design Quarterly. The project consisted of the design of a new building by Superstudio, the plans for which were concealed inside a metal box, remaining inaccessible and "hidden in hermetically sealed covers for ever."
The Published Project
"Hidden Architecture" was presented as a short text and a series of images documenting the action of sealing the designs inside the metal box, published over five pages of a special edition of Design Quarterly dedicated to conceptual architecture.
The first page contains the collective's short statement on the project, including a description of the process of the designs' concealment, with each step numbered according to a set of images on the following pages.
The thirteen black and white images document the stages of the action: the open zinc box with copies of the architectural drawings arrayed alongside; the burning of the original drawings; the sealing of copies of the plans inside protective coverings and their placement inside the box; its welding shut; and finally, the signing of a letter by the lawyer "Dott. Proc. Andrea Orsi Battaglini", whose besuited figure has been visible witnessing the proceedings throughout. Various members of the Superstudio collective can also be seen in the photographs and the events appear to take place in a workshop space. The sealed box was labeled with the date, July 25, 1970 and titled "HIDDEN ARCHITECTURE + SUPERSTUDIO". Its dimensions are given as 50 x 350 x 75 mm, 1.5 mm thick.
Following the two pages of images is a full page reproduction of Dr Battaglini's signed letter attesting to his witnessing of the events, while the final page adds short bios of the Superstudio members.
Of the architectural project contained in the drawings (which, of course, is not revealed in any of the imagery), Superstudio founding member Adolpho Natalini described it in a notebook at the time as‚ "a great project, an important project, a beautiful project‚ a project resolved in all its details and designed with even more care than usual."
In their introductory text to the published project, Superstudio invoke a "semantic redundancy" at the heart of architectural magazines by way of context for "Hidden Architecture". If the publication of "theories, projects and buildings" in the architectural glossies tends toward becoming a goal in itself, divorced from any kind of end product in the built environment, "It is therefore an act of coherence to attempt a logical extrapolation of this process, and to propose a project which coincides with the act of its own transmission."
Superstudio further state: "We propose a HIDDEN ARCHITECTURE as conceptual architecture: architecture which is only an image of itself and of our instrumentalizable muteness." This somewhat ambiguous phrase could be taken to refer to a muteness or powerlessness of architects bound up in the "great race" of novelty, fashion and design in which architectural magazines play such a key role. Or it could invoke a tactic by which a conceptually based practice such as Superstudio might retain leverage within such a system: by withholding or deflecting the image of their architectural design in order to 'take back' some of its power and meaning. Writing about the project in 2015, Adolpho Natalini rejigs the phrase to emphasize the latter sense, referring to "Hidden Architecture" as "a project that is only the image of itself and of our non-exploitable muteness."
Superstudio's contemporaneous writings
"Hidden Architecture" can be related to a number of ideas being explored contemporaneously by Superstudio in some of their own published texts.
In "Invention Design and Evasion Design", published in Domus in June 1969, they had proposed the term 'evasion design' as a counter to 'invention design', where:
"Evasion design, punning and easy overtones of political disengagement apart, is the activity of planning and operating in the field of industrial production assuming poetry and the irrational as its method, and trying to institutionalize continuous evasion of everyday dreariness created by the equivocations of rationalism and functionality. Each object has a practical function and a contemplative one: and it is the latter that evasion design is seeking to potentiate."
The project can also be seen as part of an overall shift in the practice's work away from architectural and product design toward conceptual strategies. Whereas Superstudio had continued to produce highly covetable designs for lamps and chairs alongside their first conceptual work, the group had announced by the end of 1967 their decision to abandon traditional object design altogether.
The strategy reflected a growing dissatisfaction with the role of architecture and design within the broader luxury goods market, one that tended to reinforce the glaring inequities of a rampant consumer market. A project such as "Hidden Architecture" can be understood as a conscious negation of the consumable object, its 'withholding' of its architectural contents from the design publication, as a "...destruction of the syntactical ties which bind the object to the system...".
Their position reflected a strong utopian impulse, a desire to reconstruct relations of ownership and use value from the ground up; Superstudio's 1971 text "Destruction, Metamorphosis and Reconstruction of the Object" maintains that what this negation of the designed object creates space for is its return to a system that is non-exploitative, allowing access again its transformative powers: "The metamorphoses which the object has to go through are those during which it is re-loaded with the values of myth, of sacredness, of magic through the reconstruction of relationships between production and use, beyond the abolition of the fictitious ties of production-consumption."
The displacement of design to its mediation
Writing more recently on the the project, Sebastiano Fabbrini has emphasized "Hidden Architecture" as not anti-architecture: "Hidden Architecture did not suggest the negation of design, but rather a shift of focus from the design of the architectural project to the design of the processes of creation and communication of the architectural happening." He notes how "the design of the hiding happening itself" was planned and executed with such attention to detail, as was the presentation of the project within its allotted pages in Design Quarterly, that Hidden Architecture could be thought of as an architectural design after all, just one displaced onto the mechanisms of architecture's mediation. Fabbrini locates Superstudio’s approach as part of a broader concern with redefining architecture in light of the decline of the certainties of the Modern Movement: "As the major language of action, synthesis, and spectacle quickly faded, a minor language based on conceptual thinking, analysis, and self-questioning began to emerge."
The context of post-war Florence
Fabbrini and others have also noted the role that the post-war redevelopment of Florence played in defining Superstudio's position. The city had been heavily damaged by retreating German troops during the war, and the reconstruction was dominated by free-market building that emphasized a conservative and conventional approach to restoration. The foment within architectural schools across Italy in the 1960s was a response to these conditions, and radical architects who were largely left out of the reconstruction process were pushed into teaching and the development of theoretical work.
The restrictions of Florence's approach to architectural preservation was a linked factor. The first Superarchitecture exhibition, which showed work by future members of both Superstudio and Archizoom, was scheduled to open on November 5th 1966: the same night a catastrophic flood hit the city of Florence when the Arno river burst its banks, damaging many of the city's priceless artworks and buildings. The issue of preservation, of what constituted an architectural monument, was an ongoing debate that found its way into many Superstudio projects, including the Continuous Monument (1969-), and their collage series Rescue of Historic Centres (1970), which included proposals to flood the Arno Valley, and enclose the city of Rome in a smog filled glass cube.
From a 'people's architecture' to an 'architectural people'
Ultimately, the restrictions of working within 1960s Florence provided the platform for Superstudio to think beyond architecture as a discrete discipline. They were seeking to hypothesize no less than an entire reconstruction of the relationship between design, object, use: "...no longer existence under the protection of design objects, but existence as design. The time being over when utensils generated ideas, and when ideas generated utensils, now ideas are utensils."
Superstudio's contribution was one less of the 'invention of more architecture', and more the creation of a critical framework around the process of design itself. Their projects imagined a society in which architecture as an external discipline was no longer necessary; one where society itself was a perfectly designed unexploitative entity: "Not with a new form of people's architecture, but an architectural people ready to give their world a form."
"Hidden Architecture" played an important role in the collective's formulation of their position—"...the transcendence of architecture to a realm of absolute representation, one that embraced the critical value of the fantastic and the fictional", was a key strategy in the liberation of architecture from its constraints.
- Superstudio "Hidden Architecture", Design Quarterly No. 78/79, 1970, 54-58
- The issue was edited by Peter Eisenman whose opening essay “Notes on Conceptual Architecture,” consisted only of footnotes, the 'body' of the text itself erased.
- Quoted in: Sebastiano Fabbrini, "Hidden Architecture: Superstudio's Magic Box", Pidgin Magazine, Issue 19, Princeton School of Architecture, Spring 2015, 10.
- Adolfo Natalini had used the phrase, writing of Superstudio's white cube modular furniture, in "A House of Calm Serenity", a 1969 text published in Vogue magazine. Reprinted in Peter Lang, William Menking, eds., Superstudio - Life Without Objects (Milan: Skira Editore, 2003), 73-77
- Adolfo Natalini, "A History of Exhibitions", in: Andreas Angelidakis, Vittorio Pizzigoni, and Valter Scelsi, eds. Super Superstudio (Milan: Silvana editoriale, 2015), 47.
- Superstudio, "Invention Design and Evasion Design", Domus 475, June 1969. Reprinted in Angelidakis, Pizzigoni, and Scelsi, eds., Super Superstudio, 74-75.
- Superstudio, Gherpe Lamp, 1967, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Retrieved June 22, 2018.
- See: Peter Lang and William Menking, "Only Architecture Will be Our Lives", in Lang and Menking, eds, Superstudio - Life Without Objects, 19. Superstudio's position is evident by implication in the "Evasion Design" essay, and the authors also refer to a 2002 interview with Toraldo di Francia, where he admits that the collective realized around 1967 time that their furniture was only initiating "a new level of consumerism, and consequently another level of poverty."
- Superstudio, "Distruzione, metamorfosi e recostruzione degli oggetti (Destruction, Metamorphosis and Reconstruction of the Object)", IN 2-3, March-June 1971, reprinted in Angelidakis, Pizzigoni, and Scelsi, eds., Super Superstudio, 98-99.
- Ibid. In their 1972 article "Supersuperficie", published in Casabella, Superstudio elaborated on this need to break down traditional understandings of the design object in relation to the contexts of the city and work: "The destruction of objects, the elimination of the city and the disappearance of work are events closely connected. By the destruction of objects, we mean the destruction of their attributes of 'status' and the connotations imposed by those in power, so that we live 'with' objects (reduced to the condition of neutral and disposable elements) and not 'for' objects. By the elimination of the city, we mean the elimination of the accumulation of the formal structures of power, the elimination of the city hierarchy and social model. By the end of work, we mean the end of work seen as an alienating activity".
- Fabbrini, "Hidden Architecture: Superstudio's Magic Box".
- Ibid., 12
- See: Peter Lang, "Suicidal Desires", in Lang and Menking, eds, Superstudio - Life Without Objects, 31-51.
- Reproduced in Lang and Menking, eds, Superstudio - Life Without Objects, 172-173.
- Superstudio, "Vita, Educazione, Cerimonia, Amore e Morte: Cinque Storie del Superstudio", Casabella 367, July 1972. Reprinted in Angelidakis, Pizzigoni, and Scelsi, eds., Super Superstudio, 118-123.
- Lang, "Suicidal Desires", 49.
- Fabbrini, "Hidden Architecture: Superstudio's Magic Box", 20-21.