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The Radical Refusal to Conform

The Radical Refusal to Conform, ©Zoe Renwick

The 1960s and 70s provided a time where the demand for reform began to dominate all members of Italian society. Political, social and economic changes reshaped the lives of those living in Italy and fuelled revolts across workers and students of the time. The “Hot Autumn” of 1969 saw factory workers striking for improved pay and working conditions, and class divisions were prevalent across the country as well as the rest of Europe. Amongst these moments of cultural reformation, a group of budding students emerged, “revolting against the rules”[1] of architecture. The radical design period was born, created by those who could no longer conform to the social norms of the time and found a burning desire to confront the socio-political issues through means of design. The ideas of these students gained huge momentum, eventually bringing to light some of the most memorable radical groups we reference to this day: Superstudio, 9999, Archizoom and Studio65 amongst many.

The radicals renounced the long-established practices of architecture and instead openly embraced “life, education, ceremony, love and death”[2]. The key value of these groups was to reject the use of architecture as a product for mass consumption – fittingly, over their collective years in practice only a small proportion of their designs, if any, actually manifested into reality. In fact, it was specifically “building from which they abstained”[3]. Not dissimilar to the utopian socialism observed in France, over a century prior, radicalism was not only aimed toward a new way of tackling capitalistic consumption, but an entirely new way of life for society. The participants involved in this era percolated an air of provocation – yet the vital message from which their values grew ,never strayed from sight. Italy became an “incredible laboratory for ideas”[4], realising previously unseen approaches to creating design concepts. A myriad of creative experimentation emerged, with participants beginning to use film, photography and collage work to showcase designs and more importantly express their positions on the fragile political climate they were working within. Designing for equal use and enjoyment across all levels of society, it was inevitable that the radicals would receive backlash from more experienced peers. Resentment grew amongst the more conforming architects, who believed that radical practice was nothing more than wasted potential. Contrarily, the goal for these students was to not allow their potential to be wasted on capitalistic design but be used for a greater good.

Yet despite the initial shunning of the movement, if one observes the progression through time, it becomes increasingly noticeable that the work produced by these groups went on to significantly influence architectural design throughout history. Evan Snyderman wrote: “Like many movements in art history there is often a spark that ignites a flame that burns for a period of time, then diminishes and is forgotten – only, of course, to rekindle and be relevant again.”[5] And perhaps, despite the clear contrasts between the 60’s and now, it is possible that we see ourselves in a similar position in which a radical approach is the only reasonable path to take in order to tackle our own social and political issues.

When observing the fragile ecological position that we find ourselves in today, Phineas Harper asks: “what does radical architecture look like in the era of climate change?”[6]. We live in a time when designing with “green architecture”[7] in mind is no longer enough to maintain a sustainable world for future generations and radical methods still hold the potential to be the most effective tool we can use. The combination of modern -day issues along with these movements that have preceded us, must inspire us to design with the future of the planet in mind. Reuse and retrofit should be something considered before planning new builds; increasing our inclusion of reclaimed and recycled materials in the construction process will reduce the impact we have as an industry. In an ideal world, architecture would be designed and situated in an environment that would be beneficial to both the planet and to society – the core values that we extracted from the radical movement. We must acknowledge when to stop overproducing and overconsuming and perhaps that is the basis of radical architecture in our anthropocentric society. And so, if radicalism forms the basic ideas of sustainable living, is the term so bad when married with architecture?




A Second Year Architecture student from Northumbria University in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Always seeking opportunities to learn from those around me. I hope to provide positive change for those in need and invest in existing communities and their collective wellbeing.



[1]Mirko Zardini, Tomorrow in retrospect. Radical Utopias - Archizoom, Buti, 9999, Pettena, Superstudio, Ufo, Zziggurat (Quodlibet 2017) P14-17 [2]ChristianoToraldo di Francia. Superdesign.Italian Radical Design 1965-75, interviews by Francesca Molteni, (2017) [3]Ross K. Elfline, Superstudio and the “Refusal to Work” (2016) P.55-77 [4]Zardini, Radical Utopias P14-17 [5] Evan Snyderman, SuperDesign: Radical Passion, SuperDesign – Italian Radical Design 1965-75 (2017) P.34 [6] Phineas Harper, What is radical architecture in the era of climate change?,Dezeen, (June 2019) [7] “We need architecture that is not just green but modular and adaptive, that anticipates and responds to the changing environment”.Darran Anderson, As environmental catastrophe unfolds, we need architecture that is more than just green. Dezeen (January 2019)

Anderson, Darran.“As environmental catastrophe unfolds, we need architecture that is more than just green.” Dezeen 2019

Elfline, Ross K. Superstudio and the “Refusal to Work”. Design and Culture. 2016

Harper, Phineas. “What is radical architecture in the era of climate change?” Dezeen 2019

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