Radical Disco_23_Piper, Turin

The stage and audiovisual system inside Piper, designed by Pietro Derossi, Giorgio Ceretti, and Riccardo Rosso (1966) (image courtesy of Pietro Derossi)

LONDON — During the 1960s and 1970s, a number of discotheques opened across Italy. The first and most famous, Piper, opened in Rome in 1965 in an abandoned cinema. Designed by Manilo Cavalli and Francesco and Giancarlo Capolei, Piper featured reconfigurable furnishings, advanced audiovisual technologies, and a stage for performers, which over the years was graced by the likes of Patty Pravo, Genesis, and Pink Floyd.

Piper immediately emerged as the focal point of the Roman bella vita, becoming a hub for star personalities from the world of entertainment and art, as well as characters from Rome’s social scene. The concept was inspired by the world of beat music, from which the innovative use of colored strobe lights coupled with modern tunes was copied.

The dance club was so successful, and its aesthetic would go on to be so often imitated, that the term “piper” became shorthand for this innovative new type of venue architecture. A group of young, experimental, and politically charged architects, most of them fresh out of university and looking for alternatives to the limitations of post-war modern design, led the movement, which would come to be called Radical Design. Design firms like Gruppo 9999, Superstudio, and UFO were all associated with this new movement, exemplified by a craving for architectural innovation.

The most famous of these groups, Superstudio, was founded in Florence in 1966 by Adolfo Natalini and Cristiano Toraldo, and later joined by Piero Fassinelli and Alessandro and Roberto Magris. The collective was characterized by strong avant-garde thinking and the use of photo collages, films, and sketches to illustrate their radical ideas. The best example of these is Superstudio’s fantastical plan to flood the historic centre of Florence by blocking the river Arno — a proposal that sounds awfully close to the Futurists’ cry to “Destroy the cult of the past [and] the obsession with the ancients,” which was stated in the first “Manifesto of Futurist Painters.”

Radical Disco_22_Piper, Turin

Interior of Piper, designed by Pietro Derossi, Giorgio Ceretti, and Riccardo Rosso (1966) (image courtesty of Pietro Derossi)

Radical Disco: Architecture and Nightlife in Italy, 1965–1975, a small show in the Fox Reading Room at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, explores the phenomenon of these innovative nightclubs through archival photographs, architectural drawings, film, and music, organizing the display in chronological order.

Radical Design was exemplified by the several Italian dance clubs these groups created. Piper opened in Turin in 1966, followed by L’altro Mondo (“The Other World”) in Rimini in 1967. In Florence, Superstudio designed Mach 2 in 1967, and Gruppo 9999 created Space Electronic in 1969. The latter hosted a series of events and performances by the Living Theatre, even featuring a vegetable garden. In Milan, Ugo La Pietra designed Bang Bang, a boutique with a pop interior and a disco downstairs, in 1968, and the following year Bamba opened in the upper-class seaside town of Forte dei Marmi, designed by Gruppo UFO and inspired by the 1951 Mickey Mouse comic Donald Duck and the Magic Hourglass.

Immagini 019

Gruppo 9999, prototype for the Vegetable Garden House at the Mondial Festival, Space Electronic, Florence (1971) (image courtesy of Carlo Caldini)

Radical Design combined a wide range of references, from the theories of philosophers like Umberto Eco and Marshall McLuhan to ideas from popular culture, including innovative materials like reflective and transparent plastic and cutting-edge technologies like electronic doors. The discos were strongly influenced by art, too: their surprising light effects were similar to the formal outcomes of contemporary art, especially the then-fashionable Kinetic art. In fact, works by artists like Gianni Colombo, who experimented with environmental practices and installations during the 1960s and 1970s, could be taken for discos’ interiors. Employing mirrors, fluorescent colors, and stroboscopic lights, Colombo’s spaces were perfectly in tune with the Radical Design aesthetic.

By the mid-1970s, the radical disco moment had come to an unceremonious end, with most of the discotheques closed or converted into more commercial spaces. Although Radical Design’s work was short-lived, its conceptual outcome had far-reaching implications, and the issues raised by the movement have preoccupied successive generations of architects and designers. The erosion of the boundaries between architecture, art, and music, which was back then a pioneering idea, is today accepted as the cultural norm.

Moreover, Radical Design proved to be an invaluable cultural force, channelling the political engagement of artistic movements like Fluxus, the new needs of self-expression, and the new modalities of leisure.

Radical Disco_19_Rome Piper

Side elevation of the Piper club in Rome, designed by 3C+t Capolei Cavalli (Giancarlo Capolei, Pinini Capolei, Manlio Cavalli) (1965) (image courtesy of 3C+t / face2face studio)

The exhibition at ICA efficiently sums up Radical Design’s history, and features some gems like one of the first videos of Patty Pravo performing at Piper in 1965. It also raises compelling and complex issues regarding the legacy of this short-lived experimentation moment and its lasting influence on the future of architectural design. It’s a proper homage to a moment when Italy played a major role in the course of architectural theory and design.

Radical Disco: Architecture and Nightlife in Italy, 1965–1975 continues at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (The Mall, London) through January 10.

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Francesco Dama

Francesco Dama is a freelance art writer based in Rome, Italy. He regularly writes for several print and online publications, and wastes most of his time on Instagram.