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Pushing the modernist ideal further than it could go

Rebelling against utopian modernism, crass consumerism, and "the sterilization of dreams," the radical Italian design group Superstudio (1966-1978) envisioned an even more reductive future of stark surfaces and neutral spaces devoid of objects. By 1969, these five rebellious architecture school grads had taken grids and modules to hideously logical extremes. They dreamed up The Continuous Monument, which would envelop the Empire State Building, Parthenon, Taj Mahal, holy cube at Mecca, and Colosseum in what soon became their signature white grid. They planned a New New York, embedding Lower Manhattan in one solid blocky expanse.

Minimalistic, super-utopian, conceptual, and surreal, their work oozes contradiction and irony. Like their contemporaries, the Situationists and Archizoom, they were countercultural rebels as well as urban visionaries. Their bleak vision is cynically ironic without being free from utopian zeal. Having pushed the modernist ideal further than it could go, Superstudio reveled in ridiculous, scary ultimate conclusions. When postmodernism burst upon the architectural scene in the late '70s, they disbanded. Says one ex-Superstudio member, "We ran for the hills."

Park Dedicated to the Resistance (1970)
Courtesy Artists Space
Park Dedicated to the Resistance (1970)

Now they're back in a three-part retrospective. Pratt Manhattan (144 West 14th Street, through January 31) has the earliest work. Artists Space (38 Greene Street, through December 19) offers a comprehensive overview. And Storefront for Art and Architecture (97 Kenmare Street, through January 31) focuses on their Twelve Ideal Cities, sinister post-Orwellian sci-fi narratives of life and death. A couple of these anti-utopian fantasies uncannily predict 21st-century realities. The Sixth City—before Las Vegas simulacra or lethal computer games—is an amusement park of scaled-down world monuments and virtual-reality adventure, in which (for a fee) you become your favorite celebrity, make love to Brigitte Bardot, or shoot whomever you wish. The catch: There's no exit but death.

 
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