tor vergata

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.