In 1965, the now-legendary nightclub Piper opened in an abandoned cinema in Rome. Unassuming from the outside, the club’s interior was a technicolor playground for club goers complete with reconfigurable furniture, cutting edge audio-visual equipment, and performances by everyone from Duke Ellington to Pink Floyd. Multi-colored strobes hung beneath a hot pink ceiling, an enormous mural adorned one wall and candy-colored plastic chairs lined up like bumper cars across the floor.
The club was so revolutionary, and its aesthetic so influential, that the term “piper” became shorthand for a new type of nightclub that began popping up all over Italy. These discos were designed mainly by a group of young, politically-charged architects who founded the Radical Design movement. Disillusioned with what they viewed as ineffective postwar architecture, they sought to use architecture as a tool for social change, and use the dance floor as their canvas. An exhibition at London’s ICA, Radical Disco: Architecture and Nightlife in Italy, 1965-1975 explores this short lived movement and the wildly experimental spaces it produced.
During the late 1960s, Italy was experiencing a similar political and cultural upheaval as much of the rest of the Western world. By 1968, the country was in the midst of its own socialist movement and students were protesting Vietnam and political repression. The architects of Radical Design wanted to design spaces that took part in that cultural conversation. Piper, for instance, aimed to be a collaborative space for artists, architects and the general public–both the rich and the poor–where everyone could be united through dance. Another club, Tuscany’s Bamba Issa, used a Disney-inspired aesthetic to address Italy’s colonial past and systemic exploitation.
Though that might sound heavy-handed, the results were playful, provocative and often absurdly theatrical. These were the types of clubs that not even Stefon from SNL could come up with. There was Space Electronic in Florence: part architecture school, part nightclub, and located in a former engine repair shop. Designed by the Florence-based architecture firm Gruppo 9999, the space was decorated with discarded washing machine drums and refrigerator casings, and for 1971’s Mondiale festival, a vegetable garden was planted on the top floor.
Meanwhile, in Milan, the disco Bang Bang could only be entered through a boutique on the floor above. The boutique was full of Perspex cylinders of clothes which, at the flip of a switch, would lower into the club so that patrons could hop in and try them on. Bamba Issa, designed by the avant-garde architecture collective Gruppo UFO, was actually inspired by the Disney comic book Donald Duck and The Magic Hourglass, and featured cartoonishly huge lanterns, hour glass-shaped furniture and a DJ booth that looked like it was on a flying carpet.
Alas, the Radical Design movement didn’t last long. By 1975 most of the discos had either closed or lost their outrageously experimental charm. Today, Piper looks like any other crowded, neon-lit dance club in Europe. With their exorbitant operation costs, it’s possible that most of the radical discos were never expected to last. But as the Guardian reports, they live on in Italian academia–the movement is now taught in architecture schools all over the country.