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A building as big as the world: the anarchist architects who foresaw endless expansion

Italy’s Superstudio collective warned against rampant development by imagining one continuous structure stretching around Earth. But did their warning actually inspire new Saudi plans for a 100-mile linear city?

Never-ending … the Continuous Monument reaches Monument Valley
Never-ending … the Continuous Monument reaches Monument Valley | Photograph © Superstudio Migrazioni

"There was a sense of deja vu last week when Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, unveiled his plans for a futuristic 100-mile-long linear city, momentously titled The Line. The dramatic promotional video showed aerial views of a glowing urban ribbon cutting right across the country, forming a “belt of hyperconnected future communities” from sea to sea. It will be free from cars, he declared, powered by renewable energy and run by artificial intelligence, slicing straight through the Arabian desert in one continuous strip. As part of the country’s $500bn Neom development, the plan was trumpeted as a “civilisational revolution that puts humans first”; but it had inescapable echoes of another project with a very different purpose.

Three thousand miles away, in a gallery in Brussels, hangs a 1960s photomontage of an eerily similar vision, part of a new exhibition about the radical Italian architecture collective Superstudio. A great white oblong is depicted cutting through a desert, slicing through sand dunes and marching past palm trees in an unbroken urban block, its surface inscribed with an endless square grid.

This is the Continuous Monument, a project dreamed up by Superstudio in 1969 – not as a proposal for a smart city, but as a critical warning against the relentless urbanisation of the planet. In a striking series of collages the designers depicted the vast blocky mass encircling the globe with an unstoppable belt of development, dwarfing the rocky outcrops of Utah’s Monument Valley, engulfing the Amalfi village of Positano and conquering Manhattan’s gridiron with its own inexorable grid.

The images were alarming, but also seductive, and they remain so today. Part endless office block, part minimalist land art, the powerful montages show the monument cutting across fields, mountains and seas in one pristine blank strip, imposing Cartesian order over the natural world. Adolfo Natalini, a founding member of Superstudio, later described the project as a “negative utopia,” a warning against “the horrors architecture had in store, with its scientific methods for perpetuating standard models worldwide”. But, at the time, the group’s intentions were more ambiguous, and often lost in translation."

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