Second Nature: The World of Andrea Branzi
Commissioned by Friedman Benda for the exhibition Andrea Branzi: Genetic Metropolis, Projects 1979-2019, June 2019.
“The distance between the natural world and the artificial world no longer exists today, because the latter has become second nature.” – Andrea Branzi
In 1966 Andrea Branzi and three of his colleagues founded Archizoom Associati, a research collective dedicated to radical speculation on design. Over the eight years of its existence, the group charted a future that looks astonishingly like our present. Though Archizoom did make objects – among them, some of the era’s most enduring radical designs – their principle focus was on urban space, which they conceived in radically integrative terms. Projects like “No-Stop City” (1970) postulated an ever-expanding domain in which conventional oppositions (public/private, industrial/residential) are completely dissolved. Branzi pointedly compared it to a supermarket or factory. In contrast to those sites of consumption and production, however, it was conceived as a radically free space. In No-Stop City, individual identities would take on new, previously unimaginable shapes. Its continuous grid, potentially endless structure, and infinite flexibility made it a prescient forecast of the internet. Archizoom foresaw the liberating potential of future technology, and its tendency to surface the dark side of human nature. In 1967, the group wrote in Domus magazine, “we want to let in everything that stays outside the door: carefully constructed banality, deliberate vulgarity, urban fittings, dogs that bite.” Given what Branzi was able to see coming fifty years ago, what might he be able to tell us today?
Before attempting an answer to that question, a brief overview of this extraordinary thinker and creator’s career is in order. Branzi was born in 1938, in Florence, and like most of his colleagues in the world of radical design, studied architecture. It has been argued that his generation’s turn towards speculative practice was a response to national crisis; Italy was going through difficult times, economically and politically, and little of ambition could be built. Better simply to imagine an entirely different set of conditions. But Branzi’s impetus was more positively framed, and international in its inspirations. His early paintings, such as the 1965 neo-cubist work Madri, attest to his fluency with broader European currents in fine art, including the work of Jean Dubuffet and the CoBrA group. He’d had a revelatory experience with the avant-garde Living Theater company, based in New York; and was highly attuned to Pop Art developments in America and Britain (in fact, the name Archizoom was half-tribute to the London-based group Archigram).
The ensuing decade would see Branzi form associations with several further radical groups, both as a practical contributor and a sort of in-house theoretician. Even before Archizoom formally dissolved, Branzi had started an involvement in Global Tools, founded in 1973 in the offices of the design magazine Casabella. Alongside other luminaries such as Riccardo Dalisi, Alessandro Mendini, Ugo la Pietra, and Ettore Sottsass, Jr., Global Tools rejected capitalist technocracy in favor of craft-based social revolution: a “technical back-to-zero,” as Branzi put it. Workshops were envisioned in which familiar everyday objects would be deconstructed and then built back up into new, more individualistic arrays. The group was inspired, as Beatriz Colomina has pointed out, by the American counterculture bible The Whole Earth Catalogue, with its subtitle “Access to Tools,” and aimed at a comparable democratization of material culture.
If Global Tools sought a utopian de-professionalization of design, then Studio Alchymia, the next radical group to command Branzi’s attention, aimed at an even more thorough dismantling of the discipline, under the strategic leadership of Mendini – a playful nihilist with an editorial turn of mind. Branzi created some of Alchymia’s explicitly postmodern object-provocations, including colorful and disjunctive parodies of functionalism in the collections bau.haus and bau. haus II (1979-80). He conceived a “Gallery of Copyism,” populated by straight swipes of historical avant garde works by El Lissitzky, Mondrian, and Kandinsky, rendering them into mere furnishings – which is to say, underlining their status as commodities. Branzi also participated in the project Mobile Infinito (“infinite furniture”), designed along the lines of a Surrealist exquisite corpse, cobbled together from separately devised elements. These gestures make for a fascinating parallel with activities then unfolding in New York City, as in the appropriation-based work of Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine. But the Italian design context was different. Branzi and his allies did not intend to stage a “death of the author,” but on the contrary, sought to move past their earlier utopian radicalism into a more sophisticated engagement with the “flotsam and jetsam” of past styles, in explicit confrontation with new “languages of mass communication.” In the process, as he later noted, “we were already discussing the end of the historical avant-garde.” This was the intellectual quarry from which the shining superficialities of postmodernism would soon be mined.
The sheer extremity of Alchymia’s provocations, which seemed to enact an endgame for design authorship, inevitably raised the question: what next? For many observers, the answer to that question was Memphis, the Milan-based design collective founded in 1981 under the leadership of Ettore Sottsass. Adapting aesthetic solutions that had been trialed within Alchymia, it retained a degree of the earlier group’s acid satire, but was pitched to a broader marketplace. Its impact was, briefly, seismic. Branzi did contribute his own designs to the group’s collections, most memorably his 1981 Gritti bookcase, whose open-shelving system and floating geometric components presaged later work. But his involvement with Memphis was comparatively slight. At the time, he was primarily engaged as founding cultural director of Domus Academy (founded in 1982 as an outgrowth of Domus Magazine). He was also at the height of his powers as a writer. In Hot House, published in 1984 – arguably the decade’s most essential design book – Branzi glossed the whole history of Italian radical movements. He followed it up with the more programmatic Learning from Milan (1988; the title is a riposte to Venturi and Scott Brown’s Learning from Las Vegas). In both texts, he provided a dense theoretical framework almost unknown in design writing, emphasizing the concept of a “second modernity” dictated by flows of capital, mediation, and information. This required a comparable reorientation in the designed object. If modernism had channeled the energy of the industrial revolution in its materials and manufacture, there would now have to be a language appropriate to the post-industrial condition.
Branzi materialized this theory in a highly unexpected way, turning away from the extreme artificiality of Memphis and other postmodern design to embrace a style he called “neoprimitivism.” The key expression of his new direction was Animali Domestici (“Domestic Animals”), designed in collaboration with his wife Nicoletta Morozzi. The series featured rectilinear modern forms impaled by unfinished logs, sticks, and wood offcuts, upholstered with loose pelts. It was a surprising, but extraordinarily insightful. Branzi realized that it would only be possible to contend with the catastrophic aspects of “post-industrialism” by moving outside of the human perspective; and that this, in turn, required a shift from the architectural to the archetypal. Domesticated pets and livestock were a useful metaphor: the “extraordinary alliance” that humans and animals have forged through history constituted a relationship to which living environments, too, might aspire. Each of the works in the Animali Domestici series accordingly presented a hybrid, in which the artificial and natural were brought into equilibrium – a tactic also seen in Branzi’s Foglie (“Leaf”) lights (1988), which again confirmed Branzi’s anomalous position with respect to contemporaneous design. Thus, in the latter half of the 1980s, his work embodied the complete antithesis of the slick, postmodern luxury goods that dominated the scene. As so often, he was looking ahead, anticipating the characterful objets trouvés of Droog Design.
In recent years, Branzi has continued to use archetypes, which he defines as “very simple languages that however express a great universal communicative strength.” In the series Trees & Stones (2010-11), austere compositions of flat metal seem to conform themselves around natural specimens. In use, as Branzi eloquently puts it, “books and images find their place next to the strange presence of branches and trunks, like in the reality of the world.” Beyond this explicit opposition between industrial and organic form, held in equilibrium, the works have more nuanced conceptual undertones: a compositional reference back to the gridded abstractions of De Stijl (and, by extension, Branzi’s own earlier appropriations of that source); and still more subtly, the way that they complicate the logic of the limited edition, the mechanism by which much contemporary design is fabricated and sold. The introduction of natural elements into a repetitious framework ensures that each work is unique, but only partly so: “a naturally diversified series,” as he puts it. This thoughtfully-calibrated, median position between serial production and organicism can also be seen in Branzi’s lamps employing Japanese rice paper (2014). In Italy, lighting is big business, a mainstay of the design economy. The shades, monumental in scale (and hence implicitly sculptural), secure an autonomous presence by virtue of their artisanal facture and inherent fragility.
Branzi’s archetypal language reached a high refinement in the Walls collection (2013), poetic and pictorial works possessed of a somber gravitas. Executed in the delicate medium of chalk on canvas, and featuring domestically scaled still-life vignettes, they recall the metaphysical style of Giorgio de Chirico, but also the frescoes of Pompeii, or trecento Florence. There is a riddling, rebus-like quality to the arrangements. Despite the evident precision of placement, it is as if they could be manipulated at will, like shelved walls in an actual domestic space. In their temperament, the Walls are as close as Branzi has come to the melancholic historicism that defined much postmodern practice – born of a collapse of faith in the modernist myth of progress. That ideal was replaced by a perpetual motion that is also a form of stasis, as in ancient civilizations – in his words, “a return to circular time, that is, a time when everything changes, however without development.”
Branzi’s most recent cabinet works, the Plank series, again feature natural wood elements, but also sport vibrant color, like sculptural brushstrokes. The works present a physical metaphor for the artistic condition, with the moments of painterly liberty literally “framed” within a rigid order. These works retroactively rescript their own references. After seeing them, you are likely to dwell on the restrictive rectangularity of Abstract Expressionist canvases by Mark Rothko or Franz Kline, next time you encounter one. At the same time, the Plank series also speaks to 21st century life. They are, after all, for storage; they metaphorically evoke for the containment of individuality within rigid systems, like a personal account in a hard drive. The somewhat intuitive and elusive logic by which each cabinet is arranged, too, speaks to our associative, hyper-textual environment.
Paralleling his continuing investigations into objecthood, Branzi has continued his activities as a theorist of the large-scale. Urbanism remains at the core of his thinking. He has circled back time and again to the paradox that Archizoom isolated in the late 1960s: a utopia of total freedom would be nothing at all, just a yawning vacancy where culture might otherwise have been. As the world has caught up with him – has actually produced, in virtual space, a “territory criss-crossed by the free flow of information and human paths, without meaning, without memory, without a destiny” – he has continued to launch speculative forays into the question of how hyperfluid spaces could be inhabited more humanistically. These have taken many formats, including full-scale fragments (as in the recent Arazzo series, 2017) of a possible infinite architecture – another idea adapted from De Stijl. The most important, however, is his sprawling, ambitious ongoing series Territories, Branzi’s continued meditation on the metropolis. Physically, these are more or less the same: mirrored dioramas which extend into phantasmagoria. The intellectual reach of the project is vast, however, the logical deductions of fifty years of speculation. Each Territory is its own discrete research project, often exploring the interaction of biotechnology, agriculture, manufacture, and residential life. A summary of these investigations is far beyond the scope of the present essay, but one idea (put forward in Branzi’s Genetic Metropolis) project leaps out as representative: if the modernist city was a set of boxes, his vision is of a space akin to a textile, which can be folded in different configurations so that its various surfaces touch. The city is a fabric, which can give a little when put under pressure. It’s a revelatory conception, one that we might bear in mind when we feel that contemporary life threatens to carry us away from one another, on drifting tides.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, in awarding Branzi the prestigious Rolf Schock Prize for Visual Arts in 2018, noted that the implications of No-Stop City and anti-design were “today perhaps even more [relevant] than when they were originally formulated.” This brings us back, at last, to the question of his lasting legacy. Given that so many of Branzi’s theories have now become reality (or rather, hyper-reality), what wisdom does this great radical figure have for us today? Certainly, he remains an insightful observer of our contemporary culture, as thoughtful in matters of ethics as aesthetics. “Perhaps this is one of the fundamental achievements of the 21st Century,” he says: “accepting the existence of problems that cannot be solved.” And, “I talk a lot about uselessness in a positive sense, as a quality that represents an overflowing of energy, an overflowing of generosity… music, poetry, art, enjoyable things. That is what has enabled civilizations to develop.”
But perhaps the most important thing to notice is that Branzi has never been only a critic, only a teacher, only a historian, only an urbanist, only a designer. He has occupied all those roles simultaneously. In this respect, he personally embodies his own synthetic vision. The virtual and the physical, the industrial and the natural, the organic and inorganic, the idea and its manifestation: all these things find equilibrium in his work, and more importantly, they converge. Perhaps the greatest lesson he imparts to us is this: it’s not by setting up oppositions that true insight happens, but in the elastic space between.