Kursaal Ostia

June 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

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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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