Nervi’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.
Fortunately, 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.
Ponti 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.”
And 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.
But 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.