calatrava gets hammered…

September 26, 2013 § 1 Comment

Oh, you knew this was coming…

The table conversation last night involved this wonderful hatchet job on Santiago Calatrave.  I’ve occasionally baffled people by mentioning how no designer on the planet irks me more, so it was pure schadenfreude to seeing him get raked over the coals in yesterday’s New York Times.

“But he’s a structural poet!” is the usual response, and that gets the casual conversationalist a small flamethrower of a rant  from me on structure, economy, poetry, and beauty.  Calatrava’s work often looks ‘structural,’ but the fact is that after a dozen or so super-elegant and rigorously conceived bridges in the 1980s, his work has been less about actual problem solving, and far more about creating sculpture.  Very, very expensive sculpture, that sometimes can’t be left out in the rain.

The Times points out a litany of complaints from recent clients ranging from well-documented cost overruns (the Valencia City of Science project, presented as the primary exhibit, was some 300% over budget—even my garage wasn’t that bad) to construction problems so basic as to be actually baffling (a glass bridge in the same city’s rainy and occasionally snowy climate that has contributed to 50 serious injuries).  The article appears as his PATH station in New York is rising above ground level, giving critics and residents alike a glimpse of what (ahem) $4 billion dollars is getting them.

Being in the middle of Nervi research, it’s impossible to not draw a comparison.  Calatrava gets compared to Nervi, and to Maillart, all the time because his buildings look like “structural” architecture.  But that comparison ends with the visual similarities.  In the words of signor Nervi:

I am convinced that the structural architecture of today, like that of the past and of always, must give the impression of a stable and tranquil equilibrium rather than that of an astonishing, if not frightening, marvel of acrobatic exercise.  Daredevil construction acrobatics, encouraged and made possible by present-day materials and calculating methods, at best must be limited to temporary structures with precise publicity goals, such as exhibitions. [emphasis added]

Calatrava’s gymnastics are usually in response to a problem he creates for himself—what would happen if we took a museum and buried the whole thing in the ground?  And then applied a random physiological metaphor—say a whale’s rib cage—to the whole enterprise?  You’d get something unusual, that’s for sure, and Calatrava’s response to the Times was to point out that he gets paid to design “extraordinary” things for cities.  True enough, but that sounds dangerously close to the ever-feared “interesting,” which jurors use to euphemize a scheme that went off the rails early in the process and never looked back.

Valencia, or PATH, or the Bilbao Airport (which, whoops!, doesn’t have an arrivals hall) …these are what happens when a designer doesn’t have constraints.  We’re all tempted to follow design ideas down whatever rabbit holes they take us into.  But most of us have clients who start to tug on the leash when things get weird, or we have contractors who do their jobs of saving us from ourselves.  The real world has a way of putting up constructive resistance and making us distill our craziest ideas down to the essential, problem-solving spark that usually got us interested in the first place.  Any architect who had clients coming to them saying “money is no object, we want one of your things to make our city the next Bilbao,” would produce some baffling, if mesmerizing, stuff as well.

(By the way, why do we still talk about the “Bilbao Effect” twenty years later?  The fact that we haven’t had another building that’s single-handedly rescued a region with architectural tourist dollars–the fact that we still say “Bilbao Effect” at all–doesn’t this disprove entirely the wisdom of handing superstars a blank check and expecting the Moleskine-wielding hordes to fly in to the rescue?)

Am I piling on?  I am piling on.  But the idea of a designer who has built his reputation on allegedly integrating art, architecture, and engineering–and who then details a mosaic tile roof on a concrete shell without building in a single expansion joint has richly earned the cracking, buckling building skin that results.  And the lawsuit.  And, frankly, the awesomely sharp criticism of the New York Times in full attack mode.

It may be, as the late Herbert Muschamp hoped, that the soaring lines of PATH will add a “spiritual” dimension to downtown.  What’s $4 billion if the result is as “extraordinary” as promised?  Well, the question is, “extraordinary” for whom?  As the New York Observer noted this past spring:

With its contribution to the project, which was supposed to cost it virtually nothing, ballooning to nearly $1 billion, the Port Authority now finds itself unable to fund the sorts of regional transportation projects that have traditionally justified its existence.

IASS Nervi Day

September 25, 2013 § Leave a comment


IMG_6825Waiting for the fog to clear at Wroclaw airport after two good days at the IASS symposium here.  Yesterday featured three special sessions on Nervi, and I was honored to be part of the proceedings.  The papers’ range was good evidence that Nervi’s career was remarkably broad in its achievements, as architects, engineers, scholars, and preservationists all had something interesting to say.  Marco Nervi, Pier Luigi’s grandson and the President of the Pier Luigi Nervi Project talked about that group’s work to raise awareness of Nervi’s career and the current state of his works, and the afterparty showed off the exhibition that the Project has assembled in Wroclaw’s architecture museum.  The exhibition is truly extraordinary—a collection of drawings, photographs, videos, and new physical models that show how the buildings and structures demonstrate static and constructive principles.  The venue, in a 15th century hall adjacent to one of the city’s historic churches, provided a good tectonic contrast to Nervi’s work (in addition to an ace wine bar…)


My paper was on the formwork methods used to construct Nervi’s famous variable section piers and how these related to the economic conditions that would have permeated any jobsite in Italy in the 1950s and early 1960s.  Italy’s construction industry was dominated during the decade by small firms—there were none of the large conglomerates that were forming in Germany, say, or the U.S.  As a result, most building in the country was based on an artisanal model (think Scarpa, for example).  The large projects that Nervi designed would have suffered from the lack of large-scale mobilization, equipment, and fabrication that other economies enjoyed.  And, at the same time, massive labor migration meant that cities like Rome or Turin had a surplus of unskilled labor even as skilled workers were in higher and higher demand.


04So, my working hypothesis is that Nervi & Bartoli won the competitions they did based on their ability to wring as much sophistication and efficiency out of simple construction processes as they could.  The curved formwork for these piers, for instance, produced complex shapes that were based on very simple construction algorithms.  By using ruled surfaces that could a) be drawn with nothing more than straightedges and a compass at the drawing board, and b) be constructed using only metal jigs and thin, twisted timber boards on the jobsite, the firm was able to limit the amount of metalwork required to a few simple frames.  Laborers could then be instructed to perform a fairly simple task—twist a board so that it lays up against its neighbor, twist it so that it fits into the widely spaced stack of metal jigs, and then nail the board into each jig to make it hold the twist.  Once you’ve twisted and nailed all the boards, you set the reinforcing, fill the thing with concrete, and voila—you have a set of elegantly curved surfaces formed out of simple materials and processes.


10You also have a pretty efficient column form, if you’ve done things right.  Two graduate students from Cambridge and Harvard presented another paper on these piers, but focused as much on their structural performance as their construction.  Their work showed that Nervi’s shapes create an ideal set of column cross sections based on the need for movement or stability at the ends (rectangular, circular, or cross-shaped plans, depending on what you need to do), and maximum moment of inertia/radius of gyration at the midpoint, which helps prevent buckling.  This is a hunch I’ve had for a while, but good to see that there’s some engineering to actually back it up.  (Did our presentations both have essentially the same animation showing how the geometry of a typical Nervi pier gets developed?  They did).


Fortunately the papers are all collected and published in the current, just-released issue of the IASS Journal (requires membership, but worth it…)  Good reading while waiting for a turboprop to Warsaw, which is an hour-and-a-half late and counting…

[UPDATE: despite that threatening sky, made it back to Rome only an hour late, thanks to an assist from the Alitalia counter staff in Warsaw…my travel luck is the same the world over.]


iass day one

September 23, 2013 § 2 Comments


So that’s about the most incredible piece of 100-year old board formed concrete I’m ever likely to see…

Wroclaw’s Jarhhunderthalle was designed by Hans Poelzig and city architect Max Berg to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the region’s liberation from Napoleon.  Exactly 100 years later, the International Association of Shell and Spatial Structures celebrated the first night of its conference here.  It’s an awesome, awesome piece of work in the literal sense–imagine a couple hundred structural engineers walking into a space and stopping dead in their tracks.  And it’s not just the technical achievement, especially given the primitive state of concrete engineering and construction at the time.  It’s the unbelievable scale of the thing–the largest dome in the world in 1913, and the first one to span farther than St. Peter’s or the Pantheon.

IMG_6794There’s another aspect to it for those of us who were Cold War kids.  I remember very well seeing this and Erich Mendelsohn’s Einstein Tower in Potsdam in my first architectural history class.  They’re both examples of German Expressionism (albeit two very different takes on the theme), and both of them were total mysteries, being behind the iron curtain and completely out of reach for westerners.  Both were assumed to be in ruins, but having now seen them both I can attest that they survived in fine form–you can see that the Jahrhunderthalle was being set up for a rock concert.  It’s an amazing thing to see something in person that was once considered unseeable.

IMG_6787Wroclaw has been a great host city–eminently walkable despite the rain (0% chance today, but guess what…)  The papers today that I saw were all solid, including one by the poor structural engineer working on Libeskind’s double sphere office tower in Milan (don’t ask…)  His take on it was, basically, sometimes the engineer just has to say sure, we’ll make it work.  Frei Otto was supposed to attend to receive the Torroja medal, but is too ill to travel–nevertheless there were enough superstars in the structural firmament to keep things interesting.

Tomorrow’s all-day session on Nervi awaits.  I’m going to change my slides around one last time before nodding off…


September 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

Made it here for the Nervi session of the International Association for Shell and Spatial Structures.  Not much to report other than that the plane from Munich was about 100% structural engineers (within a one-architect margin of error).  Good conversations.

Full report on day one tomorrow, including the Max Berg pilgrimage.  Flight got in after dark, so this is the only sightseeing I’ve been able to do so far:


No complaints at all, and not unlike a night out in NW Chicago.

Gioventù Italiana del Littorio

September 21, 2013 § Leave a comment


A quick walk down the hill this afternoon with the other preservation Fellow and a couple architecturally tolerant colleagues to see this–the Gioventù Italiana del Littorio by Luigi Moretti.  Moretti was a Roman native,  born in 1907, and he came up through the city’s Royal School of Architecture.  Timing, of course, is everything, and as one of the brightest stars in the country during the peak of the Fascist movement he ended up becoming Mussolini’s primary architect.  His best known fascist work is in the Foro Italico, but he designed this local headquarters for the Fascist Youth Organization in Trastevere in 1933.

It’s hard, of course, to separate the building from the politics, but it’s easy to read the confusion of the era into this facade in particular.  Is it International Style?  Art Deco?  Classical?  All three, and then some, of course.  Moretti was clearly an accomplished stylist–the building hangs together despite trying to bridge the monumental ambitions of the regime and the fashionable tastes of the moment.  Sketches for this facade show the entrance as a large triumphal arch (the inscription, somewhat chillingly, reads something like “if you want to win, you have to fight”), but obviously a cooler, more moderne aesthetic ruled.


Inside, the international style won out–Moretti designed some really lovely spiral stairs, and this one is superb.  Nervi, of course, had just done the widely publicized stairs at the Florence Stadium, but the concrete spiral goes all the way back to Perret, who did them in his Paris work twenty years before.  (is the Trastevere building open to the public?  It is not, and this was confirmed to us about ten seconds after that photo by a couple of very polite but insistent workers–the building is still an active gym, though, so the morning workout may be a way in…)


The rest of the exterior, once you’re past the monumental tower, follows the interior’s lead.   International Style and streamlined Art Deco, but with details of travertine and an occasional nod toward the stripped-down classicism that was becoming the Fascist’s signature style.

Moretti was prosecuted after the war and served time in jail for his support of the Fascists, but eventually founded a development company that built housing throughout Italy in the 1950s.

Nervi connection?  Sure.  Moretti was the architect for the Tour de Bourse in Montreal, for which Nervi was the engineer.  (And, before dying in 1973, Moretti designed the Watergate complex in Washington).

Off to Poland tomorrow for the International Association for Shell and Spatial Structures 2013 Symposium.  I’ll be presenting some preliminary work as part of a day-long special session on Nervi, in addition to scoping out Max Berg’s awesome Jahrhunderthalle…

forum romanum, even more mind-blowing than usual

September 20, 2013 § Leave a comment


There’s a rite of passage here that involves an introductory walk through the Forum for the fellows, led by the Mellon Professor.  We were inducted this morning, and in addition to it being a bright, warm day perfect for the task at hand, it was also an amazing discussion.

That centered around what the “Forum” actually is.  At a simple level, it’s the center of Rome, and always has been, and thus it formed the center of the Empire.  But Prof. Bowles put that myth through its paces by pointing out that what you see in the Forum today is really only a century to a century and a half “old.”  A medieval neighborhood was cleared in the nineteenth century to reveal the ‘floor’ of the Forum that we now see today, and Mussolini finished things off by excavating what’s now the Imperial Fora (and bulldozing a good piece of the Velian Hill in the process) in the 1920s and 1930s.

This makes sense–if you were dropped into this space without knowing what it is, you might well imagine that the Forum Romanum was actually a rather dingy picturesque garden, with ruins reconstructed and rubble arranged just so.  And, in fact, that’s more or less what happened.


But it even goes beyond that, and here’s where walking around Rome with a gaggle of antiquities scholars is proving to be as fun as it sounds.  What the nineteenth century excavations revealed was a ruined forum that had, itself, been rebuilt and reconfigured any number of times.  The Temple of Saturn to the left there (a ruin that I’ve forced students to sketch any number of times, and which I’ve presented as a pretty straightforward piece of Ancient Rome) actually burned in the fourth century, and was reconstructed shortly thereafter–folks with better Latin training than mine can read the inscription, which says, basically, “there was a fire, and then we rebuilt this.”  (Yes, we have an epigraphic expert on the team).  And current scholarship suggests that, in an era where pagan worship was falling out of fashion and Christianity was beginning to take hold, the reconstruction of the Temple of Saturn was, essentially, an exercise in beautification and not in reconstruction.  In fact, there’s some evidence that the temple front was all that was reconstructed, leaving the worship space behind in a pile.  Facade-ism, ca. 500 A.D.  Or, if you like, a bit of the Colonial Williamsburg approach in ancient Rome–it was rebuilt not because it was needed, but because of a fascination with and love for history.

So to the archaeologists and antiquities folks, the Forum is a genuinely problematic place (never mind the total lack of interpretation, the crowds, etc.).  And to the medievalists it’s a crime scene.  But that left me puzzled, because even after hearing all of that I still find the place meaningful.  I think, though, that when an architect goes to the Forum, especially one with a rudimentary sense of tradition and history, you realize that what you’re seeing is the same thing that architects on the Grand Tour saw.  Yes, it’s staged, and no, it’s as far from authentic as you can get.  But the roster of architects who walked those paths is mind-boggling.  I’m still waiting for Lou Kahn’s ghost to show up in the Academy halls, but the Forum is one of the places we know he went to draw, and it’s that Forum that might be the most readily accessible–the playground of Classicism that even modernists felt duty-bound to learn from.

Speaking of which:  Michelangelo a sinistra, Nervi a destra:


ponte del risorgimento

September 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

Oh, this is fantastic…

I’m going through the various Nervi notes, books, and archival material that I’ve been collecting over the last year or so, and inevitably starting to find connections between projects that I hadn’t noticed before.  This, to me, is the best part of a research project, because at some point the themes become pretty clear and for a while it feels like everything has its own momentum.

Take the Ponte del Risorgimento, for example, a bridge in Verona that Nervi designed in 1962.  Like many projects constructed after the crest of the miraculous Italian economy of the 1950s, it suffered from the country’s sclerotic bureaucracy and wasn’t built until 1968.  It’s never gotten quite the attention that other Nervi projects of the era have, and I have to admit that when I saw it last summer I was a bit underwhelmed.  The sides of the bridge undulate so that the structure is widest over the supports, in addition to being deepest.  The depth story is pretty intuitive–it’s a doubly supported beam, and this family of structural types has its greatest bending moment over the two supports.  (OK, can’t resist–here’s the classic doubly supported beam, by Nervi student, employee, and disciple Myron Goldsmith:

goldsmith hangarIt is AWESOME when internationally-renowned engineers go out of their way to provide examples for SCI-TECH).

Anyway, you can see the similarities, and at the time I chalked the Ponte up as a good example in concrete that might pair with the UAL hangar as another good example of a statically-shaped doubly-supported beam.

But, I’ve been going through Nervi’s variable section pier designs this weekend, and something clicked.  These piers are some of his better known structural elements, about which more later, but for now it’s enough to say that they were made by twisting straight boards to match stacked metal jigs, connecting an ideal shape at one end with a (different) ideal shape at the other, creating a set of ruled surfaces:


That’s one of the classics, from the Palazzo dello Sport.  And if you look closely at that pier, or at the image of the Ponte, above, you can see the timber form marks–both geometries were figured out and formed in the same way, by setting out the end sections as well as a set number of transitional shapes between, and then laying straight lines/boards into them.

So why would you go to the trouble to make the deep parts of the bridge bulge out, in addition to bulging down?  Down gives you greater section modulus over the support, to counter the greater bending, but what does out get you, besides a little extra lateral stability in a heavy piece of structure that surely doesn’t need it?

Ah, this is a lesson in doing your reading.  Mario Sassone writes, in his essay on the bridge in the exhibition catalogue to Pier Luigi Nervi: Architecture as Challenge:

The cross-section of the bridge varies not only in height, but also in form, going from a trapezium shape in the abutment area to an upside down trapezium in the arch area.  The width of the compression zone is then always wider than the width of the tension zone, following the alternation of moments that compress the lower fibres in the supports and upper ones in the bay.

Bingo.  Nervi could handle the tension aspect of a really big bending moment by adding more steel, which doesn’t do anything to change the shape of the bridge.  But to handle compression, he had to add more concrete, and the further that extra material from the center (neutral axis) of the bridge’s section, the better.  So the angle of the board forms changes as the need for additional compressive material changes; there’s more on the bottom of the shape over the abutments, because the bridge is getting bent in that direction, but where the moment ‘shifts,’ and causes more compression in the top of the section, toward the center of the span, the boards start to lean the other direction, making the top of the deck wider than the bottom.

Subtle, but genius, and all of a sudden what had been a nifty but less than remarkable bridge becomes part of Nervi’s long-running experiment in ruled surface formwork and an integrated example of not only section modulus at work, but also of the complex moment distribution across the section of a doubly supported beam.

Any morning with one of those moments of clarity is a pretty good morning.  Celebrated with a walk down to Forno Campo di Fiore for lunch.

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