Adolfo Natalini: Child’s Play

Adolfo Natalini (1941), Detail, Quaderno Americano, p. 3, 1972. DMC 2129.3.

In 1972 Adolfo Natalini spent a few months in the United States. The main event of his visit was the seminal exhibition Italy: The New Domestic Landscape in New York MoMA (May 26 – September 11, 1972). Nevertheless, Natalini spent these months not only working on perhaps the most existential project of Superstudio, The Fundamental Acts, but also curating and re-curating his own and Superstudio’s work through a series of talks and exhibitions. These months’ thoughts and activities are largely recorded and explored in his Notebook No. 17, appropriately carrying the specific title Quaderno Americano (the American Notebook). The notebook presents a series of notes and ideas for lectures, exhibition layouts, storyboards and studies for imaginary landscapes that, true to Superstudio’s origins, explore the ‘regions of reason’ and fantasy, or rather the regions that emerge between reason and fantasy. These varying forms of texts and media are common occurrences in Natalini’s notebooks; nevertheless, in the Quaderno Americano they take on a different, perhaps ‘American’ turn when ‘a friendly little guy’ (as his creator used to call him), Walt Disney’s renowned cartoon character Mickey Mouse, turns up all of a sudden.

He appears in the very first pages of the notebook following a sketch of thoughts on a kind of Truman Show-type project. Una Vita Intera (An Entire Life) questions the boundaries between real life and representation, proposing the real-time recording of a man’s life from the moment of birth until his death. Immediately following this rehearsal of a project, Mickey circles and scouts a landscape seemingly pulled out from Supersurface (1972).

THIS SELF-PORTRAIT IS MY ARCHITECTURE.
THIS ARCHITECTURE IS MY SELF-PORTRAIT IS THIS ARCHITECTURE IS MY SELF-PORTRAIT IS THIS ARCHITECTURE IS MY SELF…

[Quaderno Americano, p. 3 (10.3.1972)]

Natalini offers a ‘possible explanation’ for the realisation of this sketch where Mickey for the first time inhabits a Superstudio landscape across three dimensions, at the same time introducing himself as a third dimension in the nature vs. architecture dualism that has driven Superstudio’s inquiry from the outset of their explorations.

POSSIBLE EXPLANATION:
THE LANDSCAPE IS [DONE] IN CERAMIC. THE SUSPENDED PASSAGE IS IN PERSPEX.
MICKEY IS A CLOCKWORK. ONCE CHARGED THE THREE MICE WILL BE LAUNCHED INTO THREE DIRECTIONS FALLING LITTLE BY LITTLE IN TO THE VOID__

In both the Voyage in the Realms of Reason (1966) and The Continuous Monument (1969) storylines, the opposition between nature and architecture has posed as the backbone of the question of a new architectural sensibility.

Above these two, and in the light of the extreme conjunction of ‘project’ and existence of the Vita Intera (foreshadowing the Fundamental Acts storyboard that follows) Mickey appears as a shadow upturning and challenging the phenomenal balance that the previous Superstudio projects explored. This small fictional creature, a symbol in American – and by now global – culture of the eternal child, adds on top of this universal dualism between ‘mother nature’ and the ‘disciplining’ of architecture the dimension of fantasy as an expression of desire.

The human subject has been present in Superstudio’s preceding works but perhaps most particularly in Supersurface: An alternative Model for Life on the Earth, which they presented in the aforementioned MoMA exhibition. But even before that, it is there in the conventions of reason and geometry, or as the simultaneous oppressed and oppressor of nature within the monumental. However, the point of tension that these two pages mark, can be considered as bringing to the centre-stage of Natalini’s inquiry the human subject as the architect rather than user of architecture by questioning the boundaries between reality and representation, between the ‘natural’ and the ‘constructed’, and acknowledging the mis-en-abyme relation between the architect’s creative desire and the tools that he employs: the fundamental real and the constructed architectural. As the inscription at the top of the page states: ‘This self-portrait is my architecture. This architecture is my self-portrait is an architecture is…’

A twentieth-century iteration of the eternal child archetype, the puer aeternus, Mickey stands for innocence as well as mischief. Originally inspired by characters such as those portrayed by actor Charlie Chaplin and nineteenth-century American writer Horatio Alger, he represented the naivety of the poor but honest antihero who eventually prevails over all hardship. Like a child, however, he is at the same time resourceful and restless. In the American context of the Quaderno Americano, he is also a symbol of pop culture as the result of commodification and consumerism. At once a rebel and a commodity, Mickey Mouse represents the utopia of the American-come-universal Dream on all levels: the innocence and playfulness of the eternal child as well as the commodification of the (children’s) dreams.

On one hand Mickey presents himself as an ‘architecture’; a spatial and cultural construct. On the other hand, his dark figure becomes the ‘keyhole’ that allows us to peek into a reflective architecture which no longer reflects the contrast between nature and architecture, but rather the ‘likeness’ between the architect and his work. There is therefore an existential commentary that one may discover in these sketches. Drawing emerges as a field of playful exploration, where the representational play of the architect is uncovered for what it is (with or without Mickey): a space of representation that operates on a condition of both innocence and mischief, on the conjunction of personal fantasies and geometric conventions. Appropriately, Mickey’s next ‘cameo’ presents him entrapped within and without a gridded box, across a page that explores a series of containers – and consequently definitions – of the architect.