As part of the project’s ongoing research, I conducted a number of interviews with those involved in order to shed light on Space Electronic’s history. Together, these shed light on what it was like to go to the disco in the 1960s and 1970s, the larger context of Florence and Radical Architecture, and the current condition of both these, and Space Electronic, today.
Conversation with Andrea Ponsi, 16th May 2014
Andrea Ponsi is an architect based in Florence. As a student at Florence University in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Andrea was a part of the city’s Radical Architecture scene and a visitor to Space Electronic, where he took part in S-Space (the Separate School for Expanded Conceptual Architecture), an architecture school of experiments and performances that 9999 organised on the disco’s empty daytime dance floor. In conversation with ‘Space Electronic: Then and Now’ curator Cat Rossi, Andrea speaks about his memories of that time, and the effect of the Radicals on his subsequent career.
I’d like to start with some context. What were you doing in Florence in the late 1960s?
I was a student at the time. Between 1968 and 1974 I was enrolled at Florence University, where I studied architecture, and I was in contact with the Radical Groups, above all Fabrizio Fiumi [of 9999], Superstudio and UFO. They were a bit older than me – they’d already graduated – and I used to visit their studios.
Do you remember when you first went to Space Electronic?
I don’t remember exactly when it was I first went. It wasn’t that I went a lot. I did go for performances, such as those by Living Theater, by UFO. I do remember the impact of the place, this type of large space, a big room in which it seemed as if there were people from all over the world. There was this feeling of not being in Florence, but being in an international pace. I remember that when Fiumi returned from his trip to the USA he brought back several parachutes [which they used to furnish Space Electronic]. When you were there you felt a link with the world outside, in particular with the Anglo-Saxon world, with the California of the late 1960s and 1970s. There were all types of performances; artists from Florence and elsewhere took part in a mixture of theatre, music and happenings. There was a lot of energy, a creative energy, and an atmosphere that was very relaxing and welcoming. Space Electronic was open to the city; it was not exclusive like a nightclub.
So Space Electronic was different to what went before?
It was very different to what went before. Previously there were sophisticated nightclubs, maybe also discotheques. I remember Mach 2, a disco designed by Superstudio [Mach 2 opened in Florence in 1967]. It was bello, refined and traditional in the sense that you went there to drink – to drink whisky! There was nothing artistic about it in that sense; it was more of a place that continued the myth of the Italian playboy. It was new in its design, it was a very neon, pop environment – pop had a big influence on the furniture and spaces designed by Archizoom, Superstudio, UFO and 9999.
How did you get involved in the S-Space?
I don’t remember. Every so often I took part in performances, mostly those organised by Fiumi, who I knew best. I remember that it involved installations, and baths [these were actually refrigerator casings] that we stood inside and arranged ourselves in. I was a student, 18 or 19 years old – it was a long time ago!
Can you tell me about your education at the University, where Leonardo Savioli was an influential figure for the Radicals?
I was a student between 1968 and 1974, and it was a period in which there weren’t reallynormal courses. There were strikes, experiments and performances. Some students organised themselves into groups to do experiments in architecture and town planning. The atmosphere was one in which there was a lot of emphasis on the idea of possibilities, of suggestions. I didn’t do the course that Savioli taught on disco [in 1966 – 1967], which I do remember was very important. Savioli was the most important person for me, in particular his Interior Design and Furniture courses. I did a course as part of this that was led by Adolfo Natalini [of Superstudio] who was Savioli’s assistant, in which we experimented, creating drawings, put on performances – this was my most radical experience.
I was also friends with a young physicist called Giovanni Del Signore. He was not involved in architecture, but was connected to my interest in alternative energy. I was become increasingly interested in becoming more environmentally friendly in my approach. I started to get interested in the environment from a political, rather than technological, perspective. The environment wasn’t a big interest amongst the Radicals, except for 9999, who had been to California. You didn’t see it in Archizoom, Superstudio or UFO, whose interests were narrower. After I’d travelled to America I remember speaking with Natalini, who introduced me to an architect friend as being interested in merdate (shitty) sustainable housing on Elba. For Superstudio, the environment wasn’t sufficiently left wing; it wasn’t avant-garde enough as an issue to be interested in.
The only group who did understand these things, from around 1968/1969 onwards, was 9999. In 1972 they were part of the MoMA exhibition. They were a bit apart from everyone else, but they had won their place there for their electronic garden [the ‘Vegetable Garden House’]. This was very different from what Archizoom and Superstudio were doing, Archizoom were very politicised for example. 9999 understood the politics of a revolution that was based on nature. They also had this fascination with technology, with Buckminster Fuller for example, and so the garden was hyper technological. People were suspended above the garden with these sorts of air cushions. There was this hybridisation of technology and social revolution. There was this inconsistent hope that technology could save the world. And so the environment became politicised.
You’re right that the Radicals weren’t that interested in nature. The only other exception to this could perhaps be Cavart, which was group set up by another Florence architecture student, Michele de Lucchi?
Cavart’s interest was more symbolic. De Lucchi, who was a student at the same time as me, asked what I was doing my final project on. I said I was doing it on solar energy – it was called la casa autonoma (the autonomous house). De Lucchi asked me what was new about this subject, as he said he was only interested in things that were new. The attitude was a bit like that in general. For me it wasn’t about whether nature was old or new. Of course De Lucchi is a great creative, but Cavart’s environmental approach was a bit superficial. I didn’t take part in Cavart.
Given your different approach to the Radicals, what effect did they have on your subsequent career?
I followed a different path. Once I’d graduated, I travelled around South America for 5 – 6 months. This caused me to distance myself even further from the metropolitan experience, and I got more interested in the poetic and environmental experience of life, not one lived in political groups, which was the Italian thing – either that, or go to Milan to do your career. I was the only one interested in solar energy; there wasn’t even anyone at the University to talk to. There was one department – technological systems – but what I wanted to do was unusual, to put together architecture, ecology and art. This was certainly an impact of the Radicals.
I went to London, to the AA graduate school, but I found it either too focused on discussions of economy, or too technical, and I missed out on the design part of an architectural education, this was even true of my education under Savioli. So I went to the normal part of the AA, where I did research on solar energy in Italy and could work on architectural projects. I got married in London and then I got a scholarship to go to the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia. I then went to California, where I worked for four years in a studio that was very interested in energy, and which was the first place where I saw architecture and the environment come together. This was in the area of Sausalito, a place of houseboats, of the Whole Earth Catalog and Stuart Brand. This greatly interested me. Here I remained friends with Fiumi, who had supervised my final project al the University of Florence along with Savioli and Gianni Pettena. Pettena was great for going to parties.
There is much here that I’d like to ask you about, but for now I’ll just ask you one more question…do you still go to Space Electronic?
No! I’ve always had the impression that since the 1970s it has become a normal disco. I’ve never even thought of going. Perhaps I will now though, as talking with you has made me want to see it again. I imagine it’ll be very different, completely differently people I guess too.
Thank you for taking the time to talk. I hope to see you at Space Electronic – whether it is the Venice or Florence version…
Interview conducted via Skype between Andrea Ponsi and Cat Rossi, 16th May 2014. Translation by Cat Rossi.