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.


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…