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…