Architecture at the Disco: Radicals, Rhythms and the 1970s Avant-Garde
You might be wondering what Space Electronic is doing at the Biennale. What’s a disco, of the sort found in nearly every city in and outside of Italy, got to do with an architecture exhibition? And what is it doing in one devoted to examining the current state of Italy?
Of course the Biennale isn’t just an architecture exhibition, and Space Electronic isn’t just any disco. Established in Florence in 1969, behind it was Gruppo 9999 (Giorgio Birelli, Carlo Caldini, Fabrizio Fiumi and Paolo Galli), one of Radical Architecture’s lesser-known collectives. In line with the movement’s broader interest in discos, and with influences ranging from New York’s Electric Circus to Marshall Mcluhan’s media theories, 9999 created one of this mythologised movement’s few physical spaces; an old engine repair shop furnished with discarded washing drums, refrigerator casings and the latest technologies.
In the 1970s, an international avant-garde came to experience multimedia experiments in architecture, music, theatre and technology at the venue. Live performances came from British and Italian prog rocks groups including Audience, I Dik Dik, New Trolls and Van der Graaf Generator and the likes of Dario Fo, Franca Rame and the New York group Living Theatre.
In the daytime Space Electronic housed S-Space, an experimental architecture school. For 1971’s Mondial festival, organised with Superstudio, 9999 flooded the lower level and put a vegetable garden on the dance floor, expressing their desire to unite nature and technology. This idea became their best known work; a ‘Vegetable Garden House’ at MoMA’s Italy: The New Domestic Landscape: Achievements and Problems of Italian Design, the 1972 exhibition which marked the Radicals’ high point, shortly before the movement’s demise.
Space Electronic has outlived the Radicals. It is still going today and is still run by Caldini and co-founder Mario Bolognesi. Physically, much is the same. Washing machine drums still provide seating and technology remains its signature. Yet now the club is less known for radical experimentation and more for its commercial vibe. Given the ephemerality of 9999’s activities, what can the students and tourists who frequent it know of Space Electronic’s utopian past?
Space Electronic: Then and Now re-imagines the club to consider its legacy. Designed by Ben Kelly, the designer behind Manchester’s Hacienda nightclub, inside is a film directed by artist Gilly Booth that evokes the club and its soundtrack past and present, to tell Space Electronic’s story. It is a deliberately ambiguous narrative. We want to bring Space Electronic’s inspiring past to a new generation of experimental, socially committed practitioners, but to also show up the contrast of then and now. Is Space Electronic a metaphor for Italy; for the apparent disappearance of an earlier radical energy? But who is to say whether what happens in, or outside, of Space Electronic is more or less radical in the 1970s or today? This is up to the visitor to decide.
Dr Catharine Rossi is a Senior Lecturer in Design History at Kingston University and is the curator of Space Electronic: Then and Now. This is a version of an article commissioned for Zero’s Notte Italiana, one of Biennale Architettura 2014’s Weekend Specials.
Casini, Bruno, Ribelli nello spazio: culture underground anni settanta: lo Space Electronic a Firenze (Arezzo: Zona, 2013)
Coles, Alex and Catharine Rossi (eds) The Italian Avant-Garde: 1968 – 1976 (Berlin: Sternberg, 2013)
Lavin, Sylvia, ‘Andy Architect: Or, a Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Disco’, Log no. 15 (Winter 2009)
Piccardo, Emmanuele, Archphoto 2.0 Radical City no. 1 (2011)