Lexicon for the Provisional Future(s)

Media in Radical Architecture


PETER LANG, www.petertlang.net

…”The future as we know it was actually defined, understood, invented and packaged in a different period. You can imagine, from a film as simple as 2001 A Space Odyssey, Kubrick 1968, everything we use, everything we do in terms of technology was already there. But I actually pretty much have been finding that already in the late 50s and early 60s everything about definitions on environment – which were being considered ‘environments’ already – were being defined in terms of proto computer language and the whole culture around in the 50s and 60s was really beginning to establish the vocabulary of things that they still hadn’t got working yet. So they didn’t have the access to computers, but they knew already what computers were going to do, they didn’t have access to the kind of computational technology that we have today, but they could already calculate the environment is going to hell. It was a period in which they, then – and this is a point of discussion that is was going around everywhere; because if you go to Istanbul in the 60s and the 70s the graphics were fantastic, if you go to Belgrade they were coming up with experimental media art – everywhere there was this extreme excitement with technologies which yet hadn’t been fulfilled. And I think in the 70s, the 80s and 90s we fulfilled those technologies and destroyed them basically. My problem with the future as a term is, the future is not a word we use, today we don’t really talk about the future, our movies today about the future are usually in the past, medieval environments (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings) they are all ‘future’ but much more medieval stuff. So just from the very beginning, and that is the point when using the term, is that we don’t have a word as appropriate as ‘the future’ worked for those people working back in the late 50s or late 60s. So that’s a number 1 problem, and that’s a number one problem that we could begin to discuss. Does this word ‘future’ work or is there a word – perpetual or something. Right now we’re more in a ‘perpetual’ than we are in a ‘future’ …”

The 10th VictimOne time when I was talking to Dan Graham I asked him what was the most influential movie that he could remember from the 60s and he said absolutely the 10th Victim. 10th Victim is the film by Elio Petri, staring Ursula Andress and Marcello Mastroianni, done in 1965 (originally based on a book by Robert Sheckley). One of the interesting things about it is that the first part of the film was shot in New York City in the demolition area of Penn station which later was the site for Madison Square Garden. In the 10th victim you have a future society where there is no war, however to establish that, you have “hunters and hunted” game and you are allowed to kill, so you join this game you have 10 tries, 5 times you are a hunter, 5 times you are hunted. So, in the opening scene you see Urula Andress, who is being hunted, as she outsmarts her hunter and then kills him and she reaches the 10th position. She becomes a huntress and she can win a million dollars and Marcello Mastroianni becomes the victim, after he successfully made his kill. So she flies to Rome, but what she does beforehand is that she has contracted with a Chinese tea company, (its very global), to do a product promotion when she successfully kills Marcello. She flies with the film crew to Rome and they decide they want to set it up so they kill Marcello in the Coliseum. So this is the cynicism in the mid 60s about mass-consumption, mass society and of mass advertising. Now, when Ursula goes to find Marcello, he is very desolate because he cannot pay the rent and she finds him on top the very famous Libera building Palazzo dei Congressi reading a comic book. This is another thing that is very typical of Italy in the mid 60s, they invent an adult comic book culture. Here you see he is reading a comic book intensely and Ursula runs off because he does not really care about her. Later she tracks him to his house, he has this fabulous modern house, and she videotapes him live and this videotaping is being followed by the film crew that is going to lure him to the trap. There is live video, all this kind of simultaneity that is very prescient for the period, 1964-65.

Crepax - AnitaI also want to connect this to the Italian comic by Guido Crepax , beginning with the Anita series in 1965,1966. In one of the storyboards you can see the main character being seduced into the television set, which happens to be a Brion Vega model designed by Zanuso. Anita starts blurting out “piu bianco, piu bianco” (more white, more white) the advertising motif and she gets sucked into the television set. Mind you that this comic book was created about 10 years before Cronenberg’s Videodrome. She exchanges her identity: between her eye and the tv screen. Crepax also published in Linus and Alterlinus stories on Valentina, a professional fashion photographer and her boyfriend, an art critic. Valentina was like no other comic book, with totally contemporary discussions, characters having sex, going to the openings, talking about latest art work and it is just morphing into something that is visually and graphically quite striking.

And I think when you then figure out that also in 1964 Umberto Eco publishes the article “Reading Steve Canyon” in which he does an analysis of a cartoon, frame by frame, that is exactly like the film critique or analyse of the text. (Umberto Eco is one of the early promoters of semiology and semiotics). You can see how this critical culture is developing. Either in film, which is picking up this kind of mass media and hysteria and mass consumption issues, or in the cartoons which are also playing to this same sentiment. And you can see, by the way Umberto Eco is looking at graphics language, that he is dissects and deconstructs a broad range of icons in contemporary popular culture. He is developing this kind of critical vocabulary and not solely applying it to textual analysis, but applying it to comic book analysis to film analysis to consumption analysis and that become, I think, the critical tools of early 60s that allowed new forms of interpretation.

What I want to emphasize is that this was a period that was extremely aware and conscious of its evolving culture. We can also look at take a look at some of the environments that were produced for the exhibition “The New Domestic Landscape” in New York, for the Museum of Modern Art curated by Emilio Ambasz in 1972. For the exhibition Ambasz asked about a dozen Italian architects to produce “environments,” the term in English. I think it is critical to look back on definition of word environment from that period because the meaning was different then the way it is used today.

Environment, this is just out of the dictionary, means territory, surroundings, or conditions but it is also linked to computer learning, so setting the condition in which the particular activity is carried on or computing the overall structure with which the user and computer operates in an environment. And back then in the early 70s the environment was actually considered to be, or at least one of the readings that I give it, the entire system’s environment in which you can anticipate, what computers will one day be able to render in much greater complexity, thus anticipating environments in which you can use calculation and theory, but also sociology, design and urbanism, philosophy, communications, technologies and multimedia in order to establish environments. So this is what environment means to me, at least from that period, not so much kind of environment that we are settling into now. That brings me to 1973 when Global Tools is organized. Global tools was intended to be a school. 1973 signals the end of the radicalism. It is the year when Aldo Rossi opens his show in the Milano Triennale in which he produces the video “ornament as crime” and reintroduces “architecture” as we probably are all too familiar with.

Global ToolsGlobal Tools’ “Document One” is about the school and states: “the teaching program will deal with such subjects as the use of natural and artificial materials, the development of individual and group creative activities, the use and techniques of information and communication media, and the techniques of survival” and I think that we are really looking at of the premonition of the future that these guys were predicting. “a fundamental concept is that of a non-intellectual man with his age-old innate wisdom and all of the possibilities that may derive from this, even to the point of reverting to a nomadic way of life, destruction of the city, etc. Hence, the school proposes the stimulation of the creative faculties of each individual, up to now suffocated by the specialization and the craze for the efficiency.”

So, what suddenly is coming out of these things has nothing to do with technology, nothing to do with future utopias, but it is a sort of wake up call. Coincidently, 1972 is the year of the foundation of the Club di Roma, which is the first international group to publicly announce that the world environment was in danger. From the Global Tools document: “Construction is: all construction techniques linked to primitive or traditional technologies joinery, carpentry, leather, pottery, paper, glass, plastic, papier mache, weaving, spinning, communication, all activities linked to the instruments and techniques of communication.” This is the school: photography, lithography, typography, cinema, videotape, theatre, recording, music, rhythm and then survival: activities linked to survival, both physical and psychological, agricultural, hydrophonics, exploration, camping, gastronomy, meditation, contemplation, astronomy.”

Global Tools dissolved before it could have any significant impact. A few of the Superstudio members, Adolfo Natolini, Christian Toraldo della Francia and Allessandro Poli guided a class in the architecture school in Florence that lasted a couple of years called “ex-urban material culture” and they basically do an investigation, with all their students, on the disappearing generation of farmers in and outside of Tuscany, and they publish a couple of publications with this material.

One part of this research is about a peasant named Zeno. This one farmer basically lived on a plot of land that he owned and on that plot of land he had 3 or 4 shacks along the edges, which were made out of material that was found on the land and which were used during the day for working and resting. And this environment was so curated by him, as he would never buy anything new, that when a door would fall apart he would re-use it and repair it. So when you look at the door, you see 30-40 years of repair, meaning there was no original door left. Zeno could do everything for himself. This guy was completely self sufficient, today we would consider him living “off the grid”.

Where is the future going? Do we continue to live in a kind of pre apocalyptic sputnik era wonderland or do we begin to understand that future as something different where we might have to live with a much leaner set of tools? Think about where we are now, as we confront global warming, energy crises and wars over resources. In next 20 years we will not be able to imagine the future that costs more, but that costs less. I imagine we are moving towards a low-cost future.


On the Global Tools image: ARCHIZOOM ASSOCIATI: 1. Andrea Branzi – 2. Gilberto Corretti – 3. Paolo Deganello – Massimo Morozzi – 5. Dario Bartolini, Lucia Bartolini – 6. Remo Buti. CASABELLA: 7. Alessandro Mendini – 8. Carlo Guenzi – Enrico Bona – 10. Franco Raggi – 11. Luciano Boschini – 12. Riccardo Dalisi 13. Ugo La Pietra. 9999: 14. Giorgio Birelli – 15. Carlo Caldini – 16. Fabrizio Fiumi – 17. Paolo Galli – 18. Gaetano Pesce – 19. Gianni Pettena. RASSEGNA: 2O. Adalberto Dal Lago – 21. Ettore Sotsass. SUPERSTUDIO: 22 Piero Frassinelli – 23. Alessandro Magris – 24. Roberto Magris – 25. Adolfo Natalini 26. Christiano Toraldo di Francia. U.F.O.: 27. Carlo Bachi – 28. Lapo Binazzi (Patrizia Cammeo, Riccardo Forese) – 29 Titti Maschietto. ZZIGGURAT: 30. Alberto Breschi (Giuliano Fiorenzuoli) – 31 Roberto Pecchioli (Nanni Carciaghe, Gigi Gavini).

Note: this transcript was produced from a lecture held at Skopje (DETAILS), July, 2007.
The talk represents research conducted for an upcoming exhibition and catalogue on Multimedia to be presented in New York, Fall 2008. The transcript is a work in progress and cannot be used for publication or citations without specific permission from the author, Peter T. Lang. Thanks to Dubravka Sekulic for the initial transcription.


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