October 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

OK, so I haven’t been chained to the desk all week.  I spent a good afternoon at Roma 2 University at Tor Vergata on Monday listening to graduate students present their research work on the history of Italian structural engineering as part of the SIXXI project.  They were presenting to Spanish Construction History superstar Pepa Cassinello, and I was honored to be invited to tag along.

This is an amazing initiative–worth checking out.  Sergio Poretti and Tullia Iori have assembled a great team of students and a growing body of work that explores the Italian contribution to 20th century engineering.  Nervi is part of it, of course, but only the best known of a long lineage of engineers who developed theories for reinforced concrete frames and shells beginning as early as the late 19th century.  The topics going on there range from looking at the academic laboratories that began around then all the way up to the major infrastructure projects of the “Italian Miracle” in the 1950s and 1960s.  And there’s one project that looks at the globalization that took place from the 1970s on, after which it’s hard to identify a genuinely Italian strain in the engineering here.

As always, I came away with a small note pad filled with new names and examples.  Silvano Zorzi, who I’ve mentioned before, but also other figures who contributed to the development of a genuine Italian School.  The Autostrade del Sole, the highway built from Milan to Naples in the 1960s, is its own story; built in small segments by individual contractors, it’s a collection of amazing viaducts and bridges, arched during the first decade of construction, mostly prestressed during the latter years for reasons that had as much to do with the Italian economy and twenty percent inflation.

A great afternoon, fantastic work and a great conversation afterwards over calamari and good wine.  All good Construction History events should conclude like that…

But seriously.  I am working here.


October 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

IMG_7360Slowly sorting through the inbox after four days in Italy’s heel–a place that maybe more than anyplace else can claim to have seen better days.  Because of its location it was a crossroads between the eastern and western empires, and there are cities throughout Puglia that can claim all kinds of visitors and trade with the most exotic parts of the orient.  But that’s all long in the past, and today the region is mostly agricultural (really one big olive grove from top to bottom), though tourism is clearly a growing thing.  We did our part.

That’s Matera to the left.  The other fascinating thing about Puglia is its geology–the region sits atop limestone outcrops that have given it a really distinctive stone and good soil, but in this particular case it also gave settlers a 400-foot deep gorge with cliffs soft enough to dig into.  So over the centuries Materans have gradually dug themselves caves, and built facades with the spoils.

IMG_7384There’s a new city on the top of the hill, and in the 1950s most of the cave-dwellers were relocated by regional authorities who were embarrassed by the primitivism that the caves implied.  You can guess the rest–those same caves are now hotels, restaurants, and popular vacation houses.  But the city is still an amazing space to be in, as you can see.

IMG_7276We also spent a day looking at the unique regional variant on the Baroque in Lecce, where a handful of builders used the same stone to achieve a really heavily modeled, deeply carved set of churches, all within a couple of generations.  It doesn’t hurt that the light in this part of the world is crazy, crystal-clear Mediterranean sun, raking over these deep carvings and seeming to sink into the stonework. Hard to capture in a photo but weirdly rich.

IMG_7550The most surprising day, though, was the final, on-our-way-to-the-train stop in Canosa di Puglia.  Never heard of it?  Neither had most of us.  But it was a major agricultural and political center in its day, and while it’s a nondescript city today, it has an active–and activist–archaeological community that has sidestepped the sclerotic national Soperintendenza and found ways to combine development with careful archaeology–and tourism.  So this site, for example, is underneath a large condominium building; the community got the developer to agree to let them excavate, to design the building so that it would do the least damage to the ruins, and then to open it as a tourist site and amenity for the residents.  Visiting Canosa?  You call ahead and can arrange tours of this or several other sites.  Full access, no lines, and you pay the folks who have actually been doing the work.  Genius.

IMG_7575An amazing weekend, full of good sights, great food, amazing conversations.  Exactly what this place is all about.  And just for the record, in case there are colleagues out there wondering whether I’m actually doing any work or not, that there to the left has been my view more or less since we got back…

coda–iowa state’s program at its finest

October 22, 2013 § Leave a comment

Our graduate program has just published CODA, a brilliant piece of portfolio/annual report/catalogue design that’s online here. Thumbing through it, I couldn’t be prouder of our students, who put this together, or our program, which produces this kind of solid work. The publication nicely encapsulates what we’re all about–refined, elegant midwestern pragmatism that isn’t afraid to go out on a limb every so often and speculate on how we might be doing things differently.

Worth checking out, and mad props to everyone involved with putting this beautiful thing together.

aula paolo vi

October 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

IMG_7206Nervi 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.

papal hall sectionsNervi’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).

IMG_7580The 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.

IMG_7234The 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.

IMG_7620It 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…

tor vergata

October 20, 2013 § 2 Comments


That’s a genuine Nervi there–the last of his ferrocemento boat hulls, built for his family in 1972.  And that’s one of Italy’s leading construction historians, Sergio Poretti, to the right there telling me about it.

Prof. Poretti and Tulia Iori run the construction history program at Roma 2 Tor Vergata, and they very graciously hosted me last week after we met in Wroclaw at the IASS symposium last month.  Their program is astonishing, using history to teach structures to engineers, not just architects, and the work they’ve done both researching and preserving local Nervi works has been critical to raising awareness and keeping some of his smaller projects alive in the face of development and sheer lack of familiarity.

IMG_7025In particular, Iori led the restoration of Nervi’s Magliana warehouse last year–apparently right after I got into it–against incredible odds, which has probably saved the building for the immediate future despite threats of development.  (More later on this, as she’s conveyed some good information about what else exists on the site…)  That’s a full-scale mockup of the early ferrocemento system used at Magliana, and similar to the formula used for the Turin Halls in the late 1940s.  Their student work is amazing–scale models of key Italian bridges and structures of the 20th century, all done out of intricate paper and cast plaster.

File:Viadotto Sfalassa, autostrada A3.jpgPoretti’s book, Italian Modernisms. Architecture and Construction in the Twentieth Century, has just come out in English, and it makes a convincing case for the role of construction in the development of important styles and types in the country over the last century–in particular making connections between the autarchic policies of Fascism and the architecture that resulted.  It also covers a number of Italian engineers and builders that were new names to me–including the Viadotto Sfalassa, there to the left, a SCI-TECH-ready example of simply supporting a beam in the simplest, most elegant way possible, and the Ponte Pietro Nenni, done with Luigi Moretti, that carries the Metropolatana over the Tiber just north of the Piazza del Popolo.  (Ran under it this morning as a sort of tribute).

Great stuff, and kind of thrilling to see a program that combines history as a pedagogical method so well.  They’ve invited me back for a student-led symposium later in the month, which should be a good afternoon… 

imperial construction

October 20, 2013 § Leave a comment


Two history walks in one week, both about the high point of Roman construction abilities during the Imperial era.  The Colosseum is an obvious example, of course, and we got a fantastic behind-the-scenes tour, including basements and the attic story.  Lights-out construction nerd stuff, but the really interesting part was the ongoing discussion between the antiquities scholars and the medievalists, who (mostly jokingly) talk about how much got removed during the 19th and 20th centuries to leave these places the way we see them.  And it’s true–you can see from the beam holes carved into most of the old Roman structures that they were absolutely encrusted with timber additions that made them into homes, warehouses, even barns.  That image, of course, hardly played into the Romantic fantasies of the grand tour, or into the fascist propaganda that sought to restore the Imperium along with the monuments.  Again, what we see today is a distinctly modern take on the ruins, and I have to admit that seeing these things inhabited, like a middle ages version of the opening scene of Neuromancer, would if anything be even more impressive.


We doubled down on Wednesday with a walk through the Imperial Fora–built by Caesar, Augustus, and Trajan–and being able to see these at eye level, instead of the usual street level overview, made them both more overwhelming and actually more legible.  These fora were sort of the mixed-use megastructures of their day, markets, warehouses, offices, courtrooms, general meeting places, and their scale is absolutely incredible.  Trajan’s forum is especially impressive–the central basilica spanned something like 55 meters by 115 meters, all in stone and timber.  We had James Packer, who’s the leading authority on these ruins, lead the tour, and to hear him talk about both what’s there and how its been variously interpreted brought things into focus a bit.  Archaeology, of course, is as argumentative as architecture, with about as many absolute answers, and this issue of “stuff” versus “texts” seems to permeate their work in the same way that architectural versus construction history underlies many of the debates we have; they seem to do a better job of acknowledging the debate and the limitations of hewing too closely to one set of evidence or another.


One interesting lesson in tectonics.  The eastern end of the Imperial Fora are still partly filled with medieval ruins, and once Prof. Packer pointed out the differences between Roman walls (perfectly aligned brick and stone, pretty homogeneous material) and medieval walls (pretty much anything goes, and almost inevitably incorporating marble fragments that were appropriated from ancient buildings) you could see the layering much more clearly.  To the classicists, these are genuinely wailing walls–who knows what amazing Roman building those marble chips came from?  But medievalists, only slightly tongue in cheek, see this as a brilliant recycling job.  Nothing I’ve seen talks more clearly about the difference in technological culture between the two periods.  Rome, we were told, went from a population of over a million to something like 10,000 after the fall of the Empire, and much of the Imperial Fora ended up being agricultural land as the population retreated to higher ground.


digital palazetto

October 11, 2013 § 4 Comments


It’s not all Borromini, fascist youth clubs, and the Colosseum (about which more soon).

One of the most interesting parts of the Chicago Skyscrapers project was realizing that we could easily reconstruct key buildings from extant construction drawings (or, occasionally, far less).  I had a great team of grad students who dove in and put together great digital models that told us a lot about how the buildings were put together, and they made for great illustrations in the book.

Before heading over here, I had an ace grad student start to put together some models of the Palazetto dello Sport, based on what we were able to find published, and one of the things I’ve been doing in my down time is building on her work to get some full models of that and other key Nervi structures built.  It’s a good process not only to have the information in digital form, but also to force myself to completely understand the geometry involved.  Which, as you can see, can get pretty complex.  (And yes, it’s just Sketchup, but even this has been a pretty big jump for me…it will get the Cinema 3D treatment, plus a few tweaks, by the digital experts back home).

Except not really.  What’s there looks complicated, but it’s actually pretty simple to build.  You have to get the spherical geometry right, but tiling that into the diamond-shaped tavolazza only takes a few minutes.  There are two ‘families’ of rings–one that starts at the base with a triangle, and one adjacent to it that starts with a diamond.  Once you have those, you can go through a fairly simple set of operations for each ring on the dome.  The diamonds get smaller, but they stay the same shape–at least until you get to the really fiddly bit up at the top.  Then, of course, you start to realize that eventually the tavolazza will get infinitely small by the time they reach the top, and you (like Nervi) say the hell with it and finish off with one last, long pan that avoids things getting too small.  And once you have both families of pans sized, you just rotate the whole thing around the dome surface, and Robert’s your mother’s brother, as the Brits say.

palazetto 11 oct 2013The windows and fans at the base are a bit trickier, but of course once you’ve done them once you’re done.  And this relates precisely to the jobsite process that built this–once they had solved one ray of pan sizes, one fork, one eyebrow, and one fan, they had molds that could cast the entire structure.  I’m working up a bit on how this process was fundamentally algorithmic, in that the foremen could give a group of unskilled laborers one set of precise instructions, turn them loose in the casting yard, and end up with a fairly sophisticated set of nesting pans.  That played into the economics of construction in postwar Italy, and its rigor contributed to the (staggering) aesthetic impact of the thing–every bit of it is part of a rich set of patterns that has to do with the disciplined patterning of the process.

Fun stuff.

Update:  by request, here’s one ‘slice’ of the pie…palazetto 11 oct 2013 slice

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