Le grand tour

After three weeks of Nervi sites and archives, my partner and I have headed out for a grand tour of sorts. There’s a long list of sites in Europe that we’ve long wanted to see, but for whatever reason haven’t yet been to. We decided that there were a handful that were kind of unforgivable lapses in our travels, and that we should start seeing them together,

We’ve had kind of a loose theme. Her research interests are in cognition and perception in architecture, in particular in detailing. And I’ve been ready for a break from the rigors of expressive structure–something with a bit of mystery sounded good.

So we strung together a loose itinerary starting from Rome and ending in Paris, where I’ll be hanging out at the triennial Congress on Construction History this week. There’s a lot between those two, and we think we’ve done a pretty good job of it.


We started in Verona, at Castelvecchio. We’d both seen this one, but not together, and it’s just the sort of immersive environment that gets you thinking about what’s really going on in your mind when you approach a detail–in this case, details that are often a bit baffling. Scarpa’s hugely improvisational approach means that there are families of details–handrails, for instance–that subtly change throughout the museum, and it’s not always clear why. That lack of clarity, though, makes connections that keep you engaged and kind of staring at things over and over–effective, if not always generous.


Zumthor’s baths at Vals, Switzerland, on the other hand, seem more than generous, even if they’re famously enigmatic. The spaces inside all flow into one another through the detailing, which consists entirely of horizontally laid, thin-set local stone and concrete floor and roof slabs. After a while, the material recedes into the background, meaning that there’s a really meditative experience between you and the pools. Small changes in smell, sound, and temperature all become super important, which plays into the intensity of the baths culture. Midnight sessions are silent, and incredibly beautiful. (As a small thanks to the good folks of Vals and surrounds, I’ll mention that we got there and back entirely by public transit. While you can get there by car, the town is small, the road is unbelievably tight, and less traffic obviously is better. We went from Zurich to Chur and then Ilanz by local train, and then caught a 45 minute bus ride from the Ilanz train station that took us to the door of the Hotel Terme. Beautiful ride, all of the connections are designed to work efficiently, and it was cheap…)


From Vals we took trains to Belfort, France, and the next morning caught a €25.00 taxi to Ronchamp. I’ve always found Corbusier interesting but not always compelling, and I have to say that Ronchamp was utterly impressive and convincing. It’s a building that should give the tech historian in me fits given its mysterious construction techniques and its insistently willful form. But the space and the light are everything people say, and as an immersive experience it’s absolutely transcendent. Every moment seems composed if slightly off balance or enigmatic, but the collection of little vignettes ends up being remarkably coherent. Not all of the iconography makes sense to someone who’s not steeped in the liturgy, but it doesn’t really matter. The space is profoundly emotional, and whatever your spiritual engagement it is hard not to be moved by it.


The most impressive moment, though, has been Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. I use Gaudi all the time in my structures courses, but I was totally unprepared for what an immersive experience his buildings are–and how convincing even the quirkier elements of his designs are. L took me to Casa Mila almost right off the train, and even though I expected to like the attic structure and rooftop details, the entire building made sense not only as structure, but as a meandering set of spaces that never seemed quite the same, but that were always connected through materials of details. Sagrada Familia has all of that, but it also has the absolutely awe-inspiring forest of undulated and striated columns that collectively work with and against one another to support the vaults overhead. It’s as thorough and as captivating a space as I’ve ever been in, and to see it first hand after a month of running ideas about Nervi through my head this seems both reassuring–you can make poetic, even willful architecture out of efficient structural diagrams–and challenging. Nervi undoubtedly knew of Gaudi’s experiments, and it’s clear that he took some of Gaudi’s ideas and found ways to rationalize and efficiently construct them. I have to admit, though, that he never quite reached the emotional resonance that Sagrada Familia offers. Not that every building or architect has to be a piece of poetry, just like not every building has to be structurally rational or expressive. But to see this amazing piece of stonework do both so fluently has been a real revelation, and I’m thinking that it offers a nice coda to this round of research, one that asks more questions than it answers…

2 thoughts on “Le grand tour

  1. Hey! that’s a very interesting article. I’m going on small nervi-tour myself on a couple of days, mostly around Lazio area. The problem is i can’t find where the Gatti Wool factory is, all my googling on its address directs to your blog, but still i can’t find the exact address. Could you help out on that? Thanks!


    • Sure. It’s at 940 Via Prenestina. The problem is that there are about six buildings with that address. The Factory is actually about 200 meters off of the road, and it’s now a Decathlon sporting goods store upstairs, so follow the signs. The more famous statically expressive slab is in the basement, which isn’t open to the public but is leased by the neighboring Fiat/Lancia dealership. Hope that helps!


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