Lanificio Gatti, a happy conclusion

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Lanificio Gatti–conclusion

Thanks to the incomparable staff here at ISU’s Rome Program, today’s attempt went, um, a bit more smoothly than the last. Armed with a formal introductory letter, I walked into the appropriate Fiat dealership (June madness sale on Cinquecentos!) and explained my quest to the manager.

As fun as it’s been to talk with building owners and caretakers who know and appreciate what they’ve got, this was even more fun. Nervi is a fairly well-known heroic figure here, and when I told the manager that I wanted to see his garage, “I disegni di famoso ingegnere italiano, Nervi,” he looked at me like I’d lost my mind. His English was better than my Italian, not by much, but enough to let me know that it was just a garage, nothing special.

I showed him the classic image on my iPhone. “si, si…È stato progettato da Nervi,” I told him and his eyes got just a bit wide. He walked into the back office and got the keys,

And sure enough, there it was, the iconic isostatic slab that combines construction technique and expressive static form do fluently. I’ve been seeing this image, and been impressed by it, since my first architectural history class, and it was a powerful thing to stand underneath it. The trick here is that it’s really a simple two-way waffle slab. But a normal waffle slab is all 90 degree corners, because those are easy to build. And even though you can coax loads into turning 90 degrees, they kind of don’t want to–they really want to flow, river-like, into the nearest column. Nervi was able to construct this more elaborate shape by setting up molds for each unique pan shape and having workers bend wire mesh over them, after which they slathered a thin layer of cement over the mesh, entombing it and guaranteeing a monolithic element. These pans were laid out on simple wooden formwork, reinforcing bars were laid in the resulting trenches, and a full waffle slab was poured on top. The result was slightly more efficient in terms of static performance, and much more expressive.

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“E famoso?” he asked. “Molto,” I said, and I explained as best I could that the ceiling inspired later buildings like the Palazetto. He was impressed, and obviously happily surprised. An employee dropped off a car while I was taking pictures, and I could hear their conversation in the background. “Il famoso ingegnere, Nervi,” the manager said, pointing up at the ceiling.

We had a nice chat on the way back to the dealership, as best we could. I explained to him that this was all maybe for a book, that I was on “un itinerario di Nervi,” and that students in America–especially mine–learned a lot from the structures Nervi designed. He said he certainly knew Nervi’s work, especially the Stadio Flaminio, which seems to be the one everyone knows. He shook his head as we said arrivaderci. “Cosi,” he said. “Il garage es famoso.”

I was glad to see this particular site occupied and well-maintained. The handful of folks I’d asked about it hadn’t known where it was, or if it still existed. Despite Nervi’s renown, that sort of response usually means the building is forgotten, abandoned, or worse. I have a feeling that the next layer of Nervi sites will have slightly sadder results–water towers, warehouses, etc., that were important to his development as a designer but that wouldn’t be much noticed unless you knew what you were looking for. But Gatti has survived, and this lower level continues to prove useful as a storeroom. For Lancias and Fiats now, instead of for wool, but the widely spaced columns handle the turning radii of the cars as well as they must have handled fork lifts in the 1950s. A good outcome to a rather long search, and a really enjoyable morning. The best part is that the manager and I both have good stories to tell.

Kursaal Ostia

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Nervi was brought in to the 1950 project to rebuild the Kursaal beach club at the invitation of Rome architect Attilio Lapadula, and he ultimately contributed two pieces to the overall plan: a diving tower (which, I’m pleased to have learned, is a “trampolina” in Italian–perfect) and a small restaurant.

The restaurant’s ceiling took the wrapped lamella geometry of the Turin Exposition Hall’s Salone B and refined it considerably. Where the earlier project had some geometric errors, here the layout of the pans followed rigorously the principles of similar geometry and proportional scale that led to precise approximations of logarithmic spirals across the ceiling surface. More provocatively, Nervi turned the curvature of the Salone ceiling inside out here–the ceiling is actually conical, and it opens outward toward the ocean views.

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That’s a bit hard to capture in photographs, but the structure is both clever and, even given its small scale, something astonishing. The entire ceiling is supported by a single central pier of reinforced concrete that blossoms into the ceiling pattern. There is no support whatsoever at the edges–the ceiling literally hovers above a lower, perimeter structure that supports a continuous concrete “eyebrow”. This piece shelters outdoor seating while bouncing daylight into the restaurant, illuminating the underside of the concrete roof with reflected daylight. The resulting space is both bright and shady, with an even wash of diffused light and an almost eerie sense of lightness.

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How the inevitable roof deflection is handled is a mystery waiting for a more detailed session in the archives. The structure has had problems–the manager told me that part of the eyebrow had collapsed some years ago, but the Kursaal took that as an excuse to renovate the entire pavilion, including the upper clerestory that is now just the barest skin of mullion less glass. The renovation also stripped off some of the plaster on the roof’s stem, exposing the rough board form concrete and–happily–giving a good idea of how this lower portion was built. It’s a gorgeous space, and even though it stands as one of the smallest things Nervi designed, it condenses a lot of structural theory and gymnastics into a tiny package.

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The diving structure, which featured the Kursaal logo rendered in reinforced concrete, was not so lucky. Just 29 years after its construction, the salt air of the beachfront site took its toll, and with grave corrosion problems evident the tower was razed and rebuild in laminated timber. The forms and general configuration have changed, but the profiles are necessarily bulkier and a it less elegant.

I came away impressed by two things. Firstly, this is another example of Nervi playing not only with structure, but also with light. Just like the ceiling at Chianciano, this one brings in daylight at the edge of the structure, making it seem to float and defying our expectations of what a sturdy structure “should” do. There’s a touch of the baroque, here, and it shows both Nervi’s confidence in the overall performance of the tactic (in this case a Johnson Wax-like mushroom slab, an idea that would be deployed on a much larger scale at the Palazzo Lavoro), and his desire to make the structure do something experientially. Which it does.

The other thing that has been universal in these little quests has been the immense love that people feel for these spaces. The manager who showed me around was obviously a huge fan of the building, and the enthusiasm he had for Nervi and for the project’s history more than made up for a rather serious language deficit on my part. It was clear that the restaurant was the most popular on the Lido in large part because it was such a comfortable but captivating space. And, just like the Sala Nervi at Chianciano, the designer’s name has become part of the club’s branding campaign:

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