Architecture on Film: Italy – The New Domestic Landscape, MoMA, 1972 + Q&A with Gaetano Pesce and Peter Lang

Thurs 28 November 2013, 7pm

  • Still from Superstudio's Supersurface – An Alternative Model for Life On The Earth © Superstudio. Courtesy of Cristiano Toraldo di Francia

A seminal exhibition curated by Emilio Ambasz at New York's MoMA in 1972, Italy: The New Domestic Landscape was described at the time as "one of the most ambitious design exhibitions ever undertaken by the Museum of Modern Art". Combining 180 design objects with 11 environmental installations commissioned from the finest of the Italian design vanguard (Joe Colombo, Ettore Sottsass, Gaetano Pesce, Superstudio and more), the exhibition went one step further in its representation of design culture, by inviting the environments' designers to produce a short film to activate and accompany their installations. 

The films’ cosmic critical abstractions and adaptations of design and space to the moving image continue to resonate and influence. Combining 70s electronic and rock soundtracks with sci-fi futurism, the suite of films document a mesmerising set of experiments and a time capsule of 70s design thinking. Often appearing like a form of abstract theatre set inside the house of tomorrow, the films are saturated both in the film-culture of the 1970s, the aesthetics of advertising, and the spirit of a pending near future; a future viewed with a mixture of utopic revelry and dystopic apprehension by the assembled designers. 

On the occasion of the Barbican exhibition Pop Art Design we are delighted to show these important films together for their London premiere, accompanied by a special conversation with acclaimed designer and architect, Gaetano Pesce and design historian and curator, Peter Lang, who has recently co-curated a revival and reappraisal of the New Domestic Landscapes exhibition, through the project, Environments and Counter Environments, which to date has been exhibited at the Swiss Architecture Museum, Disseny Hub Barcelona, Stockholm Arkitekturmuseet, and the Arthur Ross Gallery, New York. From 18 September - 14 December 2013 the exhibition will be on display at The Graham Foundation, Chicago.


(All films 1972. Total programme running time: 74 minutes + Q&A with Gaetano Pesce and Peter Lang)

Introductory/Orientation Film by Emilio Ambasz
(Dir. Giacomo Battiato,11 min 30 sec)

Gae Aulenti, Three Elements
(Dir. Massimo Magri, 4 min 20 sec)

Ettore Sottsass, Jr, Untitled
(Dir. Massimo Magri. 8 min 51 sec)

Joe Colombo, Total Furnishing Unit
(Dir. Gianni Colombo and Livio Castiglioni, 4 min)

Alberto Rosselli, An Idea for A Mobile House
(Dirs. Ernesto Prever and Osvaldo Marini (CINEFIAT) 5 min 23 sec)

Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper, Untitled
(Dir. Giacomo Battiato, 9 min 24 sec)

Mario Bellini, Something To Believe In
(Dir. David Mosconi, Visual ideas by Mario Bellini, Francesco Binfaré, David Mosconi, Giorgio Origlia, 15 min 58 sec)

Gaetano Pesce, Paesaggio Domestico: Habitat for 2 People
(Dir. Klauss Zaugg, 5 min 31 sec)

Superstudio, Supersurface – An Alternative Model for Life On The Earth
(Dir. Superstudio, 9 min 20 sec)

This screening is produced in partnership with the exhibition Environments and Counter Environments: Experimental Media in ‘Italy: The New Domestic Landscape’, MoMA 1972, curated by Peter Lang, Luca Molinari and Mark Wasiuta, organised by GSAPP, Columbia University.

Programme notes by Peter Lang

Film and Counter Film: moving images from MoMA’s Italy: the New Domestic Landscape

Italian design achieved major international acclaim when an expansive exhibition on the works of Italian contemporary designers and architects was assembled for New York’s Museum of Modern Art in May of 1972. Curated by the young Argentinian born Princeton educated Emilio Ambasz, Italy: the New Domestic Landscape: Achievements and Problems in Italian Design, showcased some of the most provocative design objects and environmental prototypes to emerge from Europe in these years. Ambasz’s gaze on Italy was part of a calculated strategy to introduce to an American audience a more politically charged, and critically complex approach to what had up until then been a largely rationally driven industrial process yielding consumer product designs.

Ambasz organized the exhibition into two programs, one around Italian design “objects” for the most part already in production, and the other around specifically commissioned “environments.” Each of these programs had their own critical obstacle course to navigate: the design objects were broken down into “reformist, conformist, and contestatory categories, while the commissioned environments were in turn divided into “design as postulation; design as commentary; and counterdesign as postulation.” The objects were displayed in rows of wooden crates arranged like towers in MoMA’s outdoor sculpture garden, while counter-intuitively the environments were located in the building’s sprawling basement. Ambasz in conceiving the environments’ program, requested from his chosen list of Italian architects and designers to also develop short films to be played alongside. In response, a majority of those invited, Alberto Rosselli, Gae Aulenti, Mario Bellini, Ettore Sottsass Jr., Joe Colombo, Marco Zanuso and Richard Sapper, Gaetano Pesce and Superstudio provided both prototype environments and films, while Archizoom produced a built environment with an audio installation only. Ugo La Pietra presented his destabilizing Domicile Cell, Gruppo Strum published specifically for the exhibit three magazines for free distribution, “the Struggle for Housing,”  “Utopia,” and the “Mediatory City.”  Perhaps most poignantly, Enzo Mari –whose work was already featured in an earlier MoMA exhibition on Optical Art, backed out of the this show submitting a letter of protest, published in the MoMA catalog. 

Whereas most of these built environments have gone missing from MoMA’s collection, the recently rediscovered films offer an unconventional view of the New York exhibition through the lens of the motion camera. Studying these films today, we can get incredibly vivid depictions of imaginary futures, deeply marked by events that transpired some 4 decades ago. The films succeed in communicating much more then just design, form or function. Their original impact remains largely intact, their messages loaded with irony and innuendo, exaggeration and black humor. What becomes apparent throughout most of these cinematic documents is the critical assessment of a society tormented by social and political conflict, alienated by mass consumption, and alarmed over Earth’s degrading natural resources. It is not surprising if read in this context that the overt utopian messages in many of these projects really act to shroud far darker and more critical theses on Italian and Western society as a whole.

What makes the films of the MoMA collection so compelling is precisely the medium itself, which has the potential to convey through the deployment of cinematic narrative primary rituals and ceremonies of daily life. It’s the films that domesticate these engineered containers, accessorized interiors, and high tech designs. In these films we glimpse worlds of industrial detritus and speedways, alienating fun parks and airport tarmacs, forests and gridded networks. We meet a cast of characters, from forlorn beauties, crass salesmen, uniform clad workers, hippies, squirming naked bodies and a fag puffing radio announcer. It’s a real world populated with real people struggling with their illusions and anxieties. Its what makes these domestic landscapes so familiar yet so eerily prescient. 

In viewing this set of 8 films projected at MoMA in 1972 one cannot help but recognize cultural references to Italian contemporary film, theatre, comics, TV advertising, literature, as well as the conceptual and performance arts. In other words, these films succeed in expressing dreams, moods, attitudes using a grab bag of alternative narrative languages that were culled from diverse contemporary multi-media practices becoming common at the time. These designers and architects were the contemporaries of a generation of artists and writers, art critics and semioticians who often collaborated in groups, co-organizing large-scale international exhibitions and avant-garde publications. Its difficult to understand just how the fields of architecture and design, with all of their professional traditions and heavy historical baggage could have jumped into such an expressive medium as film without taking the broader generational context into consideration. In the films we can watch this society unfold before us, but what’s even stranger is how we are able to recognize ourselves in their future.

Gaetano Pesce is a leading Italian architect, film-maker, and theatre, furniture, lighting, and product designer who reconciled his interests in the fine arts with design in the 1960s, Pesce, like many of his fellow contemporaries associated with Radical Design, sought design solutions that did not conform to the standardized forms associated with mass manufacture and mass consumption. He trained in architecture and industrial design from 1959 to 1965, during which he opened a studio in Padua and was a founding member of the fine arts-centred Group N. In the late 1960s he attracted attention through innovative designs such as the Up armchairs first seen at the 1969 Milan Furniture Fair. Other notable designs in this anticonventional vein included the Sit Down chair (1975) inspired by the ideas of Pop artist Claes Oldenburg. His work was also included in the seminal 1972 Italy: The New Domestic Landscape exhibition curated by Emilio Ambasz at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Other notable designs that have explored layers of meaning have included his melted plastic resin Samson and Delilah chairs and tables (1980), produced by Cassina, whose owner had done much to offer Pesce opportunities for experimentation since the 1960s. His multi- and interdisciplinary work was celebrated in an exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris in 1996.

Peter Lang
is professor in Architecture History and Theory at the Royal Institute of Art, in the Department of Architecture, Stockholm (Kungl. Konsthögskolans, Mejan Arc). He holds a Bachelor in Architecture from Syracuse University (1980) and a Ph.D. in history and urban studies from NYU (2000). From the Fall of 2001 to the Spring of 2009 he served as permanent Texas A&M faculty at the Santa Chiara Center in Tuscany Italy. In 2009 he was appointed Associate Professor at Texas A&M in College Station Texas where he has taught graduate courses and directed PhD students.He writes on the history and theory of post-war Italian architecture, with a focus on sixties Italian experimental design, media and environments. Together with Luca Molinari and Mark Wasiuta, Peter Lang has co-curated the exhibition Environments and Counter Environments: Italy: The New Domestic Landscape, MoMA 1972  on view at the Graham Foundation Chicago from September 18, 2013. Peter Lang is also actively involved in urban field research principally related to the understanding of informal cities and underprivileged communities.


In partnership with the exhibition Environments and Counter Environments: Experimental Media in ‘Italy: The New Domestic Landscape’, MoMA 1972, curated by Peter Lang, Luca Molinari and Mark Wasiuta, organised by GSAPP, Columbia University.

Programmed in response to the Barbican exhibition Pop Art Design