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.
The 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.