Nervi was commissioned by the Vatican in 1963 to design a space specifically for papal audiences, in line with the developing emphasis of the Second Vatican Council on accessible liturgy and communal worship. Traditional audiences in St. Peter’s Basilica had degenerated into what one critic termed “Shea Stadium on banner night,” and there was a growing need for a modern space with good acoustics and views. One of Paul VI’s first efforts was to construct a new Hall specifically for the traditional Wednesday events.
Nervi’s design began from exacting studies of sight lines, even before the site was selected, and this formed the basis for the cavernous hall that was ultimately built to the south of the Basilica, wedged up against the Vatican Wall adjacent to the Via Porta Cavaggelleri. The result was a shallow bowl of seating for 7,100, all on one level, covered by a dramatically arched roof that employed the ferrocemento ribs that Nervi had used in the Turin Exposition Salone B and the Palazzo dello Sport. These ribs, however, were shaped to reflect the long, trapazoidal shape of the site, narrowing as they leap from the wide lobby end to the narrower stage. The ribs are supported on large hollow girders at each end–a far different feel from the gathering fans that resolve the pans of the earlier structures onto their ground-level supports. There’s a functional advantage here, in that the girders house ductwork that serves air supply ducts in the arches themselves, but the architectural effect is also in line with the combination of strength and drama that suffuses the entire hall. (The arches also contain acoustic absorption and lighting, meaning that–if you count the visual effect of their deeper, more closely spaced folds–they combine five functions into one. In my baker’s Italian that’s a fair crack at a true architecture integrale).
The structure is fantastic–the arches are rendered in white cement, and the piers at both ends are bush-hammered concrete with (wait for it) Carrara marble aggregate. This was not one of Nervi’s legendary cheap buildings by any measure. And there’s a nice asymmetry between the ten blade-like piers at the audience end and the two massive, ruled-surface piers that support the ribbed roof at the stage end–even if the metaphor of papal arms and laity hands isn’t immediately obvious, it’s hard to miss the structural allusion and framing that the two sets of structure provide.
The Hall itself is served by a low lobby underneath a second floor composed of press functions and the Vatican’s Senate chamber (didn’t know the Vatican had a Senate? You’re not alone). The lobby ceiling deploys a version of Nervi’s isostatic ribbed slab in a manner that’s more ornamental than structural, though as I’m coming to find out thanks to some new research by a team working with David Billington at Princeton, these isostatic ribs are pretty much ornamental throughout Nervi’s work. Here, they seem like a nod to Baroque churches, and they foreshadow the oculus over the papal throne, which is a version of the same pattern. This is a move very much inline with Vatican II–the ceiling over the pope is the same as the lobby ceiling over the worshippers.
The Hall had always been a big question in my mind–from the photographs and the descriptions it had seemed like Nervi barocco, a mash-up of his greatest hits filled with more ornamental touches and maybe lacking some of the rigor that his more modestly budgeted works celebrate. But it’s a lot more straightforward than it sounds, and the hall itself is remarkably disciplined and logical–even the seating is painstakingly laid out so that sight lines occur between heads in front of you and there’s space between the seats that allows for good crowd flow if they need to evacuate. Even the more decorative touches–the stained glass oval windows and the specular metal columns in the lobby–play off the rough surfaces of the structural piers and the spare whiteness of the ceiling ribs. It’s a genuinely thrilling space, and a few touches of 1970s religious art actually work well in this context.
It is a tough space to see, though, and I couldn’t be more grateful to the Academy staff for arranging a visit–a real joy to see with the other architecture and preservation fellows here this morning, and a fantastic tour by Arch. Rainaldi, the Vatican’s architect who spent a good hour and a half showing us around. As if the Hall itself wasn’t spectacular enough, we got to see the papal suite backstage, where the pope meets dignitaries and foreign leaders. That’s accessed by this signature piece–a porte cochere that incorporates Nervi’s ruled-surface piers and an inverted sunflower dome. It’s a nice piece, playing some good equilibrium games and making it only too clear who the designer of the Hall was–not sure it’s ever been published before.
A great morning, and always nice to be happily surprised…