Let’s talk about it, or new utopias by Rebecca Coates. Broke exhibition



Glenn Walls. Superlost: Prototype for Sophisticated Living 3, 2008



Let’s talk about it, or new utopias


Rebecca Coates is an independent curator and writer, Adjunct Curator at Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA), and currently undertaking a PhD at the University of Melbourne looking at site-specific, ephemeral based installations.

Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness[1], a new book by Elizabeth Farrelly, coins a new term for a new form of architectural horrible-ness. For Farrelly, Western society is now a “Blubberland”, a society in which ‘most of us have more than enough of what we need and more than enough of what we want as well’. As she continues, most of the inhabitants of Blubberland have far too much and more not only of material goods but also bodily fat, ‘to a degree that is dangerous for them and for the future of the planet.’

Thus the development of the McMansion: vast sprawling architectural monstrosities with too many bedrooms, an equal number of bathrooms, four-space garages, and so many windows that those commissioning them can’t afford the curtains. And filled they are to groaning point with all the stuff and possessions a family could not possibly want, let alone need.

The disillusionment and rejection of modernist architectural ideals by the 1960s Italian group Superstudio might be akin to a similar rejection of today’s faceless, tasteless, mass-consumist architecture in what was once the green belt. Once only the domain of savvy architects and design aficionados, Superstudio’s little-known architectural vision is undergoing a cult revival as architects and artists look to articulate their dissatisfaction with popular trends and developments.

Founded in Florence by a group of radical young architects in 1966, Superstudio laid out their vision of a built environment, ‘an efficient minimalist space that provides an ordered existence .. [The space should] not [be] constructed on the whims of consumerism and fashion.’[2] The location of this new form of avant-garde thinking is of course not accidental: Florence, Italy: a town ‘where all such contradictions become evident … [a town which] stands historically symbolic.’[3] And what better vehicle to launch their manifesto than Italian Vogue: anarchy and avant-garde are nothing if not fashionable.

Thus they presented their vision: space ordered, its cleanness projecting a sense of calm and order. Unnecessary objects and trinkets removed to reinstate the functionality of those remaining. Superstudio members went so far as to blame architecture for having aggravated the world’s social, political, and environmental problems – and there were a lot of them (think 1966: the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in China; increasing concern in the West about the Vietnam War; a rising tide of political frustration culminating in the 1968 student riots in Paris, London, Tokyo, Prague and Italy; the development of fledgling feminist movements; and the anarchy of the Brigata Rossa – or Red Brigade – in Rome.)

Superstudio responded by creating a series of visionary scenarios in the form of photomontages, sketches, collages and storyboards of a new ‘Anti-Design’ culture in which everyone is given a sparse, but functional space to live in free from superfluous objects. Reviving the grid as a ‘neutral surface’, that became the group’s best known motif, they created photo-collages of the grid cloaking significant architectural and urban planning monuments including Manhattan, amongst others.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to this exhibition Broke. As Glenn Walls asks, is the vision outlined by Superstudio really achievable? There is no doubt that now, more than ever, the world in which we live is – to put it mildly – not quite right: global warming, galloping consumerism, conservative politics where economic rationalism is all that counts, with arts and cultural thinking increasingly invisible in government policy and public sentiment. (How typical that the arts were relegated to a consolation prize for the Minister for the ‘Environment’) As Walls suggests, ‘we may be able to achieve a degree of peacefulness and calm within this ordered constructed environment, [however] it is both our internal emotions and external factors and influences that will constantly challenge this state of bliss.’[4]

Does Superstudio’s reflected architecture – all geometrical buildings covered in mirror polished steel and glass – fulfil these ideals? Is this utopian existence possible? Or are the minimalist environments we create devoid of extraneous objects such as books, paintings, and anything non-essential to a coolly sophisticated and fashionable lifestyle, themselves a form of conspicuous consumption?

Glenn Walls co-joins miniaturised, though actualised, renderings of Superstudio structures for buildings and forms that were never actually built – and perhaps not even intended to be built – with contemporary objects and symbols, enabling us to ponder such imponderables. His use of mirror and the grid, his building on skate-board wheels, and his meticulously formed collector’s item Adidas sneakers from balsawood and felt enable us to examine this disjunction between our desire for clean lines and a minimalist aesthetic, with contemporary society’s thirst for recognised materialist symbols and tropes. The utopian vision presented by avant-garde students and architects in 1966 is no more irrelevant today than it was then: it’s never going to be the mainstream of contemporary thought, but as a means of questioning our values and taking a good hard look at our own selves, perhaps we too, with a wry humour, can come to the conclusion that we are, in part, ‘one of God’s mistakes’.


Glenn Walls. Superlost: Prototype for Sophisticated Living 2, 3 & 4, 2008

[1] Kitty Hauser, ‘Nice design; shame about the builder’, The Australian, Review, December 15-16, 2007, p. 15. Review of Elizabeth Farrelly, Blubberland: The Dangers of Happiness.

[2] Glenn Walls, notes on recent exhibition Superlost, Seventh Gallery, 15-24 November 2007.

[3] The Design Museum notes on Superstudio.

[4] Exhibition notes, ibid.

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