friday afternoon…

Image…and I’m plowing through Nervi’s rare but vital 1945 book, Scienza o Arte del Costruire?  And early on, he lays this down:

“Architectural work must therefore correspond to multiple constraints and requirements that can be grouped in the three major cateogries of statics, functionality, and economics. The satisfaction of these constraints in line with the fundamental aesthetic idea or, rather, turning these constraints into terms of speech and expressive means, constitutes the real essence of the problem and one of the major sources of the incomparable loftiness and difficulty of architecture.”

I  think I’m done for the day because I can’t imagine adding anything to that.  “The incomparable loftiness and difficulty of architecture?”  Perfetto.

(my own translation, so take this with a  huge grain of salt).

data, design, and… has a great post by ISU alum and digital thinker Brandon Wlosinski that’s worth a read.  He points out that we have the tools now to not only analyze buildings digitally, but also to generate forms and solutions that are based not just on whimsy or hunches, but on genuine data.  It’s a topic that I find fascinating–despite my concentration on history I try hard not to be a luddite, and it’s articles like this that make me wonder what someone like Nervi could have done with the tools we have.  The real world still puts up resistance in all kinds of ways–modeling something is a certain way to discover that things in general are more complex than we can ever account for–but the examples Brandon gives (including an ace studio project…) show where things might head.  

My other morning reading was the New Yorker’s article this week about driverless cars, which makes me more optimistic about digital technologies than I usually allow myself to be…

pier maria bardi on berta stadium

IMG_8267Library day yesterday.  Having earned beer money working in Avery Library during grad school I am always eternally grateful for library assistants who are willing to talk visiting scholars through the peculiarities of each collection, and Roma Tor Sapienza was no exception.  In addition to finally getting my hands on Nervi’s rare 1945 book Scienza o Arte di Costruire? they had an (almost) complete collection of Casabella going back to the beginning, in the early 1930s, and–most surprising–a complete collection of L’Architettura, which was the official magazine of the National Fascist Syndicate of Architects.

It’s a slightly uncomfortable thing to page through, but necessary and of course absolutely fascinating.  Nervi’s stadium in Florence, finished in 1932, made the cover of that year’s March issue, and it seems to have represented something of the dynamism and energy that the regime paid lip service to–even while wrapping structurally innovative forms like this in heavy-handed classicism outside.

IMG_4252That’s all for another post…in the meantime, Casabella, which wasn’t short on vaguely propagandist exhortations itself, had this to say about Nervi’s design and Nervi & Nebbiosi’s construction, through critic Pier Maria Bardi.  Describing the structural expression within and the fascist wrapper outside (there to the left and yes, that’s the same building), Bardi seems to nail it:

There has been some controversy back and forth between architects and engineers to determine whether the [stadium’s] architecture was of relevance, whether it was primary or secondary: one way as another losing time. But the idle discussion serves to clarify that good construction does not require the submission of school papers: whoever has the sentiment to build is a constructor, and can be as a graduate engineer or a graduate architect, or even a simple foreman. What matters is the understanding, with the inspiration of his time, of the responsibilities and the art of raising the walls. “

The time’s “inspiration” was troubled, but certain things about the stadium seemed to resist the political message of the facade, especially that elegant roof…

nervi in chicago


(updated with corrections…it takes a village…)

One of the errands I set for myself last week in the CPAC archives in Parma was to get to the bottom of the “Fermi Memorial” that’s listed in several Nervi catalogues.  There aren’t any published drawings of it, and it (obviously) never happened, but in 1964 Nervi submitted  a design to the University of Chicago for such a thing, honoring Enrico Fermi, the atomic scientist who set off the first controlled atomic reaction on the campus in 1942.

Fermi died in 1954, and there was an international competition held in 1957 for a memorial hall that was to have been part of a downtown development on the block between Illinois, Hubbard, Wacker Wabash (thanks, Kim), and State Streets.  As you can see if you (ahem) walk past that block today, it didn’t happen, but it did attract over 300 entries, including one from Louis Kahn that represented his first collaboration with engineer August Komendant.

fermi 13 nov 2013bSo why was Nervi submitting something seven years later?  It turns out he was on the jury for the 1957 competition, and from a few clippings in the Tribune, he seems to have been invited on his own to propose a monument for the site of the original atomic reaction when Stagg Field, the football stadium adjacent to Fermi’s shack under which Fermi had his lab (thanks Rick!), was torn down.  Whether this was official or not, Studio Nervi produced three sheets of presentation drawings that more or less would have looked like this (former students will enjoy seeing how my sketch up abilities have progressed, but squint and you’ll get the picture–obviously the archives aren’t keen to have people posting shots of original drawings).  It’s not a brilliant piece of work, but it incorporates two construction types that were very much in the Nervi toolbox at the time: variable section piers that transform from wide cruciform shapes at their bases to round at the top, signifying a fixed base connection and a pinned top connection, and a ribbed slab that incorporates a pattern based on the isostatic flow of forces within (roughly–there’s new research by David Billington’s team at Princeton that shows this to not be quite so simple).  The ribbed slab had been an expedient way to get an efficient and visually interesting pattern using ferrocemento formwork, but it would become an honorific ceiling pattern in the Vatican Audience Hall, still in development when this project was proposed–so for that reason alone the Fermi Memorial should at least be a footnote in the canon.

What’s even more interesting to me, though, is how clearly it references Mies van der Rohe’s 1957 project for Bacardi in Santiago, Cuba.  This was an iteration of his clear span pavilions, supported only at their edges by pillars–usually steel, but in the case of Cuba, the entire structure was to have been concrete.  A major critique of these pavilions has been their extraordinary structural inefficiency, since the piers’ placement at the very edges of the roof essentially maximizes the bending moment in the middle of the roof.  Nervi’s scheme pulled these piers inboard, balancing the main span of the roof with cantilevered spans at the edges–reducing the bending moment at the center considerably.  The glass skin suspended between roof and floor is a pretty obvious quote, but notice the distinction in the ceiling–for Mies, there was an argument here about ‘universal space,’ meaning that the ceiling is rendered in a strict grid–statically inexpressive compared to Nervi’s pattern, which shows the shear forces collecting as they approach the piers.

fermi 13 nov 2013c

So, was Nervi channeling Mies?  Designing an homage to the emerging ‘Second Chicago School?’  That isn’t quite as ridiculous as it sounds, as Myron Goldsmith, by this point well-ensconsed at SOM, had been a pupil of both Nervi and Mies.  But it’s also impossible to know, at least at this point.

I’m keen to dig further into this from the other side of the pond–especially since the project seemed to go absolutely nowhere, quickly.  All of Studio Nervi’s drawings are dated in December, 1964–even though the project was announced in March.  And the site proposed in the drawings was in the center of the Midway instead of at the old atomic pile site–that site is in fact commemorated by Henry Moore’s sculpture.  So it’s possible that the University changed its mind about both the site and the nature of the monument.

A nice find–not one of Nervi’s best, but interesting for what it represents…

one world trade center height ‘official,’ but come on…


CTBUH tallest ten…

The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitats has just issued its ruling on the height of One World Trade, and surprisingly it has ratified the “vanity height” of 1,776 feet, agreeing with the developers that the raw antenna structure on top of the building is a “spire” and not an “antenna.”

You can see the results of the “architectural top” criteria in their revised “tallest ten” to the left.  Just to make the point, those are in order, from tallest to shortest…

I’ve hammered away at this enough already–but it’s worth pointing out that you’ll soon be able to take the elevator to the top floor of “America’s Tallest Building” knowing that, 800 miles to the west, tourists on the Willis Tower sky deck will only be 83 feet higher above the ground than you are…



i grattacieli di nervi, milano

ImageNervi’s first two skyscraper projects are literally right across the street from one another in Milan–the Pirelli Tower, finished in 1956, is well-known, but the Galbani Building (to the left there), finished simultaneously, is more interesting than it looks.  Nervi was a consultant to Soncini, Soncini, and Pestalozza on this one, and while the outer form is less dramatic (and much shorter) than Pirelli, the construction system is a clever variation on the folded-plate ferrocemento system that he’d used with increasing sophistication in the Turin Halls.

IMG_8015Fortunately, the system forms the lobby ceiling, so even on a Sunday afternoon (and even more importantly, without a good inside contact to open doors…) you can see a bit of it.  It’s a pretty tight grain, and from a section published in Buildings, Projects, Structures it doesn’t look like there was any room for integrating lighting or mechanical systems.  There was, however, a good code loophole that let them measure floor-to-ceiling height to the mean depth of the ceiling, which allowed the Soncinis to squeeze an extra floor in under their height restriction.


Which, of course, begs the question of how this 415-foot tall elegant thing got built across the street…working on that, but it is a beautiful piece of work.  Gio Ponti was the architect, and while I can only imagine the conversations between one of Italy’s great postwar aesthetes and one of its greatest hard-nosed engineers, the result was a well-integrated but very odd skyscraper.  To start with, of course, there’s the fact that it was an all concrete structure.  Not at all unusual for Italy, but this was–by far–a record beater for the material at the time, even as the U.S. was stacking up records in steel.  And Nervi’s structure took particular advantage of the material–the end cores provide a huge amount of lateral stiffness (they’re made up of two triangles each in plan, splayed slightly to get that vertical shot line down the sides), though the elevators themselves are in a third core that’s around the back.

Inefficient?  Very.  The floor slabs are already super-skinny, so the net-to-gross on Pirelli must also be a record-beater, in the wrong direction.  But Pirelli wasn’t intended as a speculative office building, it was intended as a statement about the company’s arrival on the international scene and as a similarly bold statement about Italian technology and design.  In that, it succeeded brilliantly.  The floors in Nervi’s design span from the cores to those two concrete piers that form racing stripes down the front elevation, and if you look closely you can see that they taper from bottom to top, showing you that their loads increase as they carry more and more floors.  And then there’s the hat–the roof over the public area at the top hovers above the whole thing, cantilevered out on concrete beams that tie back to those tapering piers.  The curtain wall (redone fairly recently, I think) was also advanced for its day, and it sits absolutely flush with the cladding on the structural elements, so that the whole things reads almost as a piece of finely crafted furniture.

IMG_7992Ponti clearly intended Pirelli as a statement about Italian architecture, too, and it’s as rational and sleek as anything that came out of Olivetti, or Ferrari, during the era.  Ponti wrote a (somewhat endless) article in Domus as it was nearing completion (Gio Ponti, “ ‘Espressione dell’edificio Pirelli in Costruzione a Milano,” Domus, 316.  March, 1956.  1-16) that was meant as an obvious comparison to the steel and glass skyscrapers then emerging from Chicago and New York.  In his words, the “forma finita,” or “closed form” was dialectically related to Mies’ “universal space”: instead of an abstract piece of volumetrics, Ponti saw Pirelli as an urban object, one that was tightly composed, resolved, and to which nothing could be added or extended–much like (say) a typewriter or a racing car, the tower was for him firmly located in its site, material, and structure, a riposte to the indifference Mies increasingly felt toward all three in his march toward infinite space and abstract, prismatic geometry.

But this attitude–more or less, of building as product design–irked many critics.  Pirelli was compared to “an elegant bar cabinet,” but Reyner Banham offered a more direct critique, noting that the elegant tower sat atop a very odd jumble of ancillary structures:

“The Pirelli tower is a giant billboard, and must be instantly legible from outside, because it has no public interiors to speak of….As a billboard, Pirelli is magnificent…but the billboard effect depends on the simplicity of the total image—that the whole building should be an immediately comprehended slogan in itself.  This simplicity has only been secured by the suppression or disguise of ancillary accommodation.”

IMG_8012And Banham had a good point; despite a sloping plaza at the front (now gated and barricaded from the large Piazza Duca d’Aosta), the tower meets the ground in almost every possible unfortunate way–the building at the back tries to distinguish itself, essentially, by being boring.  Compared with the ‘bustle’ that backs up Seagrams, this isn’t much to write home about, and Banham saw this as an indictment: in trying to gain a pure form, both Mies and Ponti had to shove plenty of program and function into minor structures that contradicted the tidy logic of the main tower.

IMG_8002But that logic is pretty tempting, and as “billboard architecture” Pirelli seems quite rigorous compared to contemporary symbol-building.  That the engineering should play such a role in the expression was very much in the strain of static diagramming in high-rises that Nervi would continue to explore–with mixed success–in his later two (or, depending on how you count, three) towers.

local boys, Turin style

20131109-201657.jpg. Ok, so actually Modena, in this guy’s case, but Turin was certainly his adopted town. A day off today, serious research-wise, but a full day to spend walking around Turin. Guarini Guarini was a Theatine monk who was an amateur mathematician and, eventually, court architect to the Savoy dukes in the late 17th century. Turin was a center of power and wealth at the time, and this is one of two churches that he did within about 100m of one another. The Sindone Chapel, the more famous one, suffered a fire fifteen years ago and is still under restoration, but this one, the Real Chiesa DI San Lorenzo (1687), is no slouch’ especially for an amateur. You can see the mathematical influence at work in the ribs, which are laid out in four pairs–each one of which connect nodes that are three corners apart. So you can “follow” the ribs as they bounce around the dome, a really captivating balance of visual statics and dynamics.

20131109-203607.jpg and speaking of dynamics, another famous son of Turin (again, more of an adopted son, by bear with me) was Battista “Pinin” Farina, whose automotive design firm was founded there, eventually working with both Ferrari and Fiat on some of the postwar eras most iconic designs. In addition to the Nervi and Guarini buildings (and a Egyptian museum, and oh, yes, a shroud…) Turin has a world class automotive museum that was assembled and built with Fiat resources, but that is remarkably global in its collection. My car-nerd days are largely past, but the classics still strike a chord with me. I think it’s the same sense of a really clear design emerging from hugely constraining circumstances–or, maybe, I just haven’t outgrown the 15-year old in me after all.

20131109-204341.jpg I mean, come on…that is a beautiful, beautiful thing, isn’t it?

On to Milan, where one or two more beautiful things await…

torino esposizione c

20131109-091930.jpg. Turin, again, with expert guidance from faculty at the Polytechnic, where there is also a small but devoted group of Nervi scholars. I came here last year to see the Palazzo del Lavoro (still rotting away while a plan to develop it as a shopping mall founders in legal limbo) and the first of the two halls Nervi designed for the Fiat-sponsored Esposizione in 1949. The second hall, done a few years later, is smaller but even more refined, with a poured-in-place set of inclined arches and a ceiling of precast tavelloni that open up at the base to let in an incredible amount of sunlight.

20131109-092341.jpg. This was an important project for Nervi, as it combined the diamond geometry of the aircraft hangars he did in the 1930s with the lightweight prefabrication he had experimented with during the war–and deployed successfully in the first hall. The result is even lighter and more breathtaking than it looks–because of the perimeter lighting, the solid roof really does seem to however above the space, even while you intuitively read the poured-in-place ribs as serious bits of structural and lateral support. It’s totally resolved–structurally, constructionally, and compositionally–one of the best spaces of his I’ve seen, and one I have to admit underestimating so far.

Daylight is one theme that I’m trying to sort through. Unlike most engineers of his day, Nervi always seemed to find a way to integrate natural light with his structural designs. Light punctuates his structure, helping to distinguish, in this case, between elements that span and elements that support. The perimeter curtain wall at the Palazetto does the same thing. But in both cases the visual separation that light creates also gives the roofs this uncanny sense of floating above you, very different from some of the heroic long span structures of the day. Not sure where that bit is going, but it seems to crop up again and again.

20131109-093045.jpg. We did take a few minutes to revisit the earlier hall, too. Last year it was full of a dinosaur exhibit, which was not in-awesome, but did get in the way of the pure, publication-worthy shots I was after. A little cajoling got us into the upper galleries, where you can see the poured-in-place buttresses really well (and in some places where the paint is peeling, you can see that they were originally…yellow…). The formula here is the same as that in the later hall–poured supporting elements that get out of the way of circulation below, lightweight precast elements connected by poured ribs forming the roof. Here, of course, the daylight percolates through the structure itself, not quite the same as in the C hall, but another idea that he came back to several times, including the Papal Audience Hall.

20131109-093507.jpg. All of this is no less wonderful for having seen the first hall last year. Both are now completely disused–the C Hall was last occupied for the Nervi addition in 2011, and the B Hall has done time as an exhibition space for contemporary art and as a temporary display space for the Italian Museum of the Automobile, which was entirely appropriate since it was originally designed to exhibit cars. All of that is gone now, and there are even bits of it that haven’t been touched since the 2006 Olympics–signs and temporary drywall that turned some of the perimeter galleries into offices. Turin has suffered since then from Fiat’s relentless move to move production to Eastern Europe and from a declining population. But it also suffered from a surplus of large exposition spaces, from the 1961 centenary to the Olympics. There simply isn’t enough going on to pack the number of big spaces like this in the city, and that’s worrying from a preservation point of view.

We did hook up with a group of itinerant students from the Bartlett whose studio task this year is to re inhabit abandoned urban spaces in northern Italy, so hope springs eternal. But the money simply isn’t there to seriously re-imagine some of these spaces, and in a climate of enforced austerity it’s hard to imagine that happening over the next five to ten years. But the opportunities are amazing if these structures can hold on.

20131109-094201.jpg. For instance. The water tower at Mirafiori, the declining home of Fiat’s production. Nervi did this one in the late 1960s–you can see the precast tavelloni pattern on the conical tank even through the graininess of a post-sunset dashboard shot. And above that? The openings between the tank and the roof were a restaurant, accessible by elevator, from which you could see the entire factory–impressive enough, given the scale, here–the entire city, and in the distance the Italian Alps. Totally empty now, and owned by a skittish French company that in no way, shape, or form, is interested in letting a couple of Nervi scholars into it.

Thus ensuring a future visit…

Abbazia di Paradigna

20131108-091028.jpg. Doesn’t really look like the kind of place to hold the archives of a great 20th century engineer, does it? But this is the home of CSAC Parma, which houses the university’s collections. Including several thousand drawings by Nervi and his office. It’s a beautiful setting, just this side of impossible to reach (it involves asking a bus driver to let you off at a gas station on the side of a busy highway), and booked weeks in advance, I got a day wedged in yesterday (coming back in December), and while I barely made a dent in what I want to eventually see, a few hours paging through rebar drawings, dome layouts, and graphic statics calculations was at least the equivalent of months of reading. When the humanities folks talk about the problems of stuff vs. texts, I realize that construction historians are lucky, because drawings like these split the difference nicely.

And we’re particularly lucky when we find archives that come with good lights, a ladder, and a very liberal camera policy. I can’t post anything, but I did walk away with an iPhone full of good stuff–mostly the later aircraft hangars, which I’m coming to think of as the critical turning point in Nervi’s career, and the Palazetto, where the drawings gave up a bunch of secrets. In particular, the question of authorship seems pretty definitively answered–Vittelozzi may be listed as the “architect,” but there are handrail and seating details on Nervi & Bartoli drawing sheets that suggest how the thing really got designed.

There was one happy surprise, too–Nervi’s competition scheme for the Fermi Memorial in Chicago, tossed off in a couple of weeks in 1965. Not, by any stretch, one of the office’s better attempts, but interesting in other ways.

20131108-092226.jpg. Parma is a lovely little university town…looking forward to heading back next month when I’ve strung a few days of appointments at CSAC together. And yes, the Parma ham is as good as advertised and probably worth the trip in itself…


nervi’s lecture notes

I’ve been spending the last couple of days transcribing lecture notes taken by Robert Einaudi during Nervi’s lectures in the architecture program at Tor Sapienza in the late 1950s.  They’re included in a collection of papers called La Lezione di Pier Luigi Nervi, edited by Annalisa Trentin and Tomaso Trombetti (Milan-Turin: Pearson Italia, 2010), and they’re fantastic.

Einaudi is an interesting character in all of this–he attended Tor Sapienza after working for (of all people) Louis Kahn, and then went on to study at MIT.  When Nervi came to Harvard to give the Norton Lectures, Einaudi was roped into translating, and ultimately he went on to translate all of Nervi’s Harvard lectures for Aesthetics and Technology in Building.

He was shocked to find the casual attitude of his fellow students toward Nervi–attendance was more or less free-form, the classes started at odd times in the semester, and there was clearly a well-developed rivalry between student body and the then  70-year old professor.  Nervi comes across as passionate, deeply engaged, often baffled by current architectural trends, and occasionally grumpy (“Come on time, or don’t come at all,” he tells one latecomer.  I wish I could get away with that…).  And while he could be pointed in his published criticism of structures he found dubious, he was downright acidic in  the views he expressed in class.  For instance?

For instance.  Here he is on Saarinen’s TWA Terminal:

“Saarinen’s Airport is:

–a structure that makes no sense,

–a waste of money

–there is no need to create such a form.

One can resolve the same problem in other ways.  In a little while such buildings will leave us with the same feeling as the Milan Railroad Station leaves us today.  It is an unnecessary extravagance that is nothing more than a whim.  Morally it is wrong!”

Ouch!  Just to make the point, there’s the Milan railway station to the left.  Not a compliment.

And even when he liked a structure–Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, for instance, he was wary of its effect on impressionable minds.  “The chapel at Ronchamp is a thing of beauty,” he told his class.  “But it will breed horrible children.  Le Corbusier can do it well, but others cannot.”

And then, likely as not, he’d segue into a deep technical discussion about aggregate placement.

Or aesthetic philosophy.  Like Einaudi, I can’t imagine anyone missing these…