torino esposizione c

November 9, 2013 § 2 Comments

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

November 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

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

November 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

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…

SCI-TECH credo

November 1, 2013 § 3 Comments

National holiday here, and the entire Academy seems to be moving slowly after last night’s Halloween party.  So I’ve been in the basement translating old Nervi articles from Casabella.  Ernesto Rogers gave him plenty of page space in the 1950s, and it’s some of his best writing–occasionally calling out contemporaries for their ‘anti-static’ architecture.  Brilliant stuff.

Among other great quotes:

“Any structure, especially a complex one, lends itself– if it is deeply understood and felt–to quick and simple static calculations that require no mathematical developments, which are always too long, unnecessarily polarizing, and even counter-productive in the delicate, essentially inventive, phase of concept design. I therefore believe that the study of statics and construction science should be conducted in schools of architecture very differently than in engineering schools. Diversity should not mean superficiality, but deepening intuitive, intimate understanding and synthesizing, in simple first approximation formulas and processes of mathematical computation. ”  

 “Espressione architettonica e tecnica costruttiva,” Casabella, no. 299.  November, 1965. 38.

I love it when AIA gold medalists write my pedagogy statements for me…

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