As Italy emerged from World War II in the 1960s and 70s, the country found itself in need of reinvention. With the shadow of Mussolini and fascism looming large, the country set out to rebuild itself economically, culturally and socially. Out of this period of great transformation and uncertainty came the avant-garde designs by architects from the Radical design movement.
These architects, constrained by what they saw as the limits of post-war modern design, wanted to redefine the role of architecture in society. Inspired by the opportunity for experimentation, many viewed discotheques as an ideal vehicle for their creative drives. Innovative architects like Gruppo 9999, Superstudio and UFO designed a number of nightlife spaces that opened across the country.
Radical Disco: Architecture and Nightlife in Italy, 1965 – 1975, is currently on show at the ICA until the 10th January and displays photographs from this fruitful, if brief period in Italian culture.
As Sumitra Upham, co-curator alongside Catherine Rossi, tells BJP, the architects saw discos as an ideal avenue for the new ideas they wanted to express.
“This was a platform to expand their practice and to be experimental – there were no boundaries in these spaces between architecture, art and music. These were all disciplines they were interested in exploring but felt that perhaps the parameters surrounding modern architecture at that time were quite limiting and didn’t allow them to play outside of it. In comparison to a gallery or a traditional music venue, here were spaces where various disciplines could come together, that existed in the underground.”
The discos were mostly appearing in the industrial (and, thanks to the ‘Italian Economic Miracle’, newly prosperous) north, in cities like Turin (Piper), Florence (Mach 2 and Space Electronic, designed by Gruppo 9999), Rimini (L’Altro Mondo) and Milan (Bang Bang).
Some discos would host theatre performances and vegetable gardens, others were inspired by Mickey Mouse or could only be entered through a boutique. The diversity of styles show the lack of a unified design manifesto but the exhibition ties the disparate spaces together through different ways, Upham says.
“It didn’t feel like a movement in the sense of there being criteria to follow and they’re all inspired by different sources, but each of them is utopian and futuristic in their vision. They’re all experimenting with different themes and ideas in their own way.”
The co-dependent relationship between architecture and nightlife is the at the forefront of the exhibition – the manner in which these spaces transfigure in the moment into something ecstatic, even transcendental.
“What’s interesting about discos is that they’re not viewed as obviously architectural – they’re not historicised within a design context. Their exteriors are often done up in a way that conceals their identity from the outside, which makes it an even more interesting experience when you go inside and all of a sudden you’re confronted with this theatrical spectacle.
There’s something about the drama of subcultures and nightlife movements that, when architecture responds to it, it makes for really exciting design.”
As is befitting for such an organic movement, the photographs themselves were mostly taken by the architects themselves, who were also artists in their own right. As Upham notes, “very few of them were entrepreneurial and wouldn’t have hired a professional photographer to shoot the space.”
Despite providing a much-needed form of creative release during a period of astonishing Italian creativity – think cinema, fashion and automative design – this fertile time was short-lived and actually pre-dates the ‘Italo-Disco’ of Mr. Fiagio and Giorgio Moroder. Interestingly enough, most of them are still open today and now house vast commercial superclubs. A dubious legacy for ‘radical’ architects perhaps, but for Upham, this is a necessary part of the lifecycle of a nightlife space.
“All nightclubs have a lifespan. These discos were a response to a moment in time, and the fact that some of them closed within a year or two was really an aspect of what they were built to do.
“The way people enjoy and consume nightlife is ever evolving, and if spaces aren’t able to adapt or reinvent themselves to respond to contemporary life then I guess the spaces would ultimately collapse.”