Emanuele Quinz: The exhibition “Radical Design: Ricerca e Progetto dagli anni ‘60 ad oggi,” which you curated in 2004,[1] opened up the possibility of an extension of the radical experience beyond the confines of the years 1960–1970, by including not only the postmodern experiments of the 1980s (the Memphis Group, Alchimia, etc.), but also some of the most recent design work, from Droog Design to Ron Arad, and from Philippe Starck to the Campana brothers. What are the elements that are common to all these experiments, which are actually very different?


Gianni Pettena: The first Radicals discovered that design was a great system for constructing things on a scale of 1:1 and verifying whether the language used was capable of transmitting the ideas. It was like a virus, which emerged on the dividing line between reason and emotion and spread to subsequent generations by “contaminating” their working methods. Moreover, very few of the first Radicals—perhaps only Branzi, Sottsass, Mendini, and I—have continued to experiment with and alter functions, and transform the materials, concepts, and languages.


EQ. On the other hand, you have always been very close to Hans Hollein, who had declared in 1967, "Alles is Architektur (everything is architecture)"...


My relationship with Hans Hollein is mainly driven by the mutual congruence of attitude towards the discipline. Hans is a wonderful critic (he directs BAU magazine), he is for many years responsible for the Austrian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, he alternates between installations and built architecture... three aspects of his relationship with the discipline that are also mine. And then there is his relationship with Walter Pichler, who was born 10 km from the place where I was born, only his mother tongue was German. Hollein, an architect, looks at environmental art and expresses himself also through installations; Pichler, an artist, looks at architecture. So both of them tell their stories through an environmental language that sometimes needs to be functional as well. I feel Vienna, residence of both of them, as well as of Max Peintner, cousin of Ettore Sottsass jr., as a place familiar to me. After all, my mother had an Italianised Viennese surname... Austria and Italy coexist in us naturally, even in our physical features, as well as a common Central European culture.


EQ: The term “Anarchitecture” applies to your work and that of Gordon Matta-Clark. What are the similarities and differences between your respective approaches?


GP: I met Gordon Matta-Clark in March 1973. I’d recently published my first book L’anarchitetto (“The Anarchitect,” 1972) and he was planning to form the Anarchitecture group in June. It was a concept that was floating around at the time and several of us were interested in it. Gordon’s career was very similar to mine—the only difference was the ocean that lay between us. We’d both studied architecture, were licensed, and were members of the Order of Architects. We both preferred—and we didn’t even know one another—to worship our wife, Architecture, without obliging her to “prostitute” herself in the street for money. We eventually met in New York, in a bar in Union Square, which was called Max's Kansas City. I went there with Bob Smithson, Nancy Holt, Lucy Lippard, and Carl Andre. Velvet Underground was playing upstairs and Lou Reed was singing. And, around midnight, Andy Warhol turned up with his entourage. Gordon adopted a violent and categorical approach to “architectural cadavers” that took the form of a sort of coup de grâce. I preferred a less aggressive approach that involved letting the wind, frost, and time do their work; but I also worked on more ordinary and marginal architectural projects that were sometimes rather lifeless. In any case, nature always prevails in the end—in the long run, any architectural work is destined to turn into dust.


EQ: In the discussion you had with Robert Smithson, published in Domus in 1972,[2] you spoke at some point about the conceptual paradigm. Smithson expressed his reticence about the conceptual approach, which he viewed as a form of reductionism or idealism, because it tends to eliminate and ultimately exclude the work’s physical dimension, but you seemed to adopt a less categorical stance. You replied that, on the contrary, you saw the conceptual movement as an indispensable part of the history of art that enabled a work’s physical dimension to be viewed from another perspective. Could you explain your stance? How do you view this stance in the light of contemporary developments in conceptual art?


GP: I still think that conceptual art made a fundamental contribution, even though I never abandoned the physical dimension of my works. This conceptual movement may have helped to make visual languages more concise, leaner and, consequently, more precise. I’m still interested in the conceptual approach and its developments when they have spatial implications. Today, many young artists put forward projects that include the surrounding space, which is transformed into an “installation.” A leading example of this is probably Olafur Eliasson, and it can’t be said that he hasn’t also been influenced by the conceptual works of the 1970s.


Emanuele Quinz, “Removing Barriers and Divisions, Interview with Gianni Pettena”, in Strange Design, From Objects to Behaviors, Jehanne Dautrey, Emanuele Quinz (eds.), Villetranslation Jonathan & David Michaelson, Forcalqueiret, It:éditions, 2015, p. 75-76.

[1]  The exhibition “Radical Design: Ricerca e Progetto dagli anni ‘60 ad oggi,” curated by Gianni Pettena, San Giovanni Valdarno, Casa Masaccio, 2004. See Gianni Pettena (ed.), Radical design. Ricerca et progetto dagli anni '60 a oggi, exhibition catalogue (Milan: Maschietto, 2004).

[2] Gianni Pettena and Robert Smithson, “Conversazione a Salt Lake City,” in Domus, issue no. 516, 1972.