Talking in Parables: Superstudio’s Narratives

July 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

(Abstract of my essay published in Le Journal Speciale’Z n.2. Image: Viaggio nelle regioni della ragione, storyboard).

In the twentieth century, novelists have often dwelt on the city as last conceivable protagonist of exemplary stories after the symbolic end of the Great Narratives; in a similar way, after the demise of modernism – possibly the last Great Narrative in terms of architecture – architects have turned to storytelling as a strategy to overcome a conceptual stalemate. In both cases, the lack of a reference framework triggered the use of a mechanism of estrangement: by shifting their focus,  disciplines threatened to sink in a babel of plural languages sought to reestablish their own basis. To write about the city meant, for authors from Joyce to Döblin, to address a collective subject, a subject that could raise narrative above a self-referential exercise of style. On the other hand, in the last fifty years some architects have attempted to redefine the root of their practice – indeed, the very necessity of architecture – by writing stories. For these architects, storytelling means to free architecture from its increasingly managerial character, as well as from the contemporary paradigm of ‘mere utility’ that far from being neutral is actually the apt offspring of an advanced capitalist society.

Between the examples of architecture by storytelling, one of the most interesting cases is the work of Italian radical collective Superstudio. Superstudio owe their fame to their Continuous Monument project (1969-70), a critical elaboration on the most narrative of architectural archetypes. Monuments stand for stories that need to be remembered, but the Continuous Monument addresses a condition where there are no more exemplary stories, to the point where the whole world becomes the mute signifier of some event that nobody can even recall anymore. In a way, the Continuous Monument embodies the end of history as we knew it, or at least the end of a belief in History as a coherent narrative.

If up to here Superstudio were still dealing with the endgame of the modern movement, in the work produced between 1971 and 1972 they ventured to imagine a future after this endgame – and they did it by writing and illustrating short stories. Twelve Cautionary Tales for Christmas (“AD”, December 1971),and  Fundamental Acts (“Casabella”, July 1972) are fictive inquiries into a future that might as well be a distant past, where extreme technological advancement is paralleled by a progressive reduction of human life to its biological essence. Discarding their previous utopian approach, in these stories Superstudio opt for a form of hyperbolic realism that takes the paradoxes of biopolitics to their most extreme consequences.

Superstudio’s stories architectural parables of sorts. By definition, parables are narratives through images, with static or non-existent plots, and they work as manifestation of the very ontology of the subjects they represent. By flattening the distance between récit and histoire, Superstudio’s parables expose the bare nature of architecture – its profoundly political character, its struggle to produce beauty within management, its essential cruelty.  As much as they are disquieting warnings on the destiny of the city, they can also be read as full-fledged projects for an architecture that finds once again its raison d’être in giving back to the most basic human needs the dignity of rituality beyond the reified genericity of the contemporary society.


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