Thanks to all for a pretty solid 2013!
In Florence this week, mostly on vacation, but also to see if an early stadium by Nervi & Nebbiosi (his contracting partner before Bartoli) still existed. I have a very, very patient travel partner.
It’s there, and still in use. Giglio Rosso is a long-time athletic club in Florence (named for the Red lily that’s the city’s symbol) that was run during the 1920s by Luigi Ridolfi, a local aristocrat, war hero, and Mussolini supporter. In 1926 he hired the then-young firm to design and construct a small athletics field and grandstand across the Arno from the city center for the club and its small football team.
It’s nothing groundbreaking–a few terraces built into the side of a small hill and gently curved to help with sight lines. It attracted little attention, but Ridolfi was clearly impressed; while this stadium was under construction he struck a deal to combine Giglio Rosso with another local football team to form Fiorentina, a team that was soon competitive in Italy’s top division. The newly combined team drew huge crowds, leading Ridolfi to propose a massive new stadium for Florence that was eventually designed and built for the Campo Marzio in the city’s northeast. Nervi and Nebbiosi were hired for the first phase, after which Nervi changed partners. The second phase was built by Nervi and Bartoli, and the international attention drawn by its helical staircases put the newly reorganized firm squarely at the forefront of concrete construction in Italy and throughout the world.
There’s a slightly uncomfortable undercurrent in all of this. The money for both stadiums came in part from Mussolini’s CONI, a national Olympic committee that was charged with using sports to advance the fascist cause of making Italy a more virile culture. The new stadium was named for Giovanni Berta, a fascist supporter who had allegedly been murdered by a communist mob in 1921. Complicated beginnings.
The original stadium is still the home of Giglio Rosso, which is now a fully amateur athletics club. It’s a good walk from the center, but along the way you hit Piazza Michelangelo and San Mineato al Monte. If you’ve had enough of 1920s concrete you do get this as a reward…
Thanksgiving in Rome was brilliant, thanks to a well-timed family visit and a spectacular turkey dinner put on by the Academy chefs. Lots of overdue tourism on this end, including getting my kids up St. Peter’s dome (again) and consuming metric tons of gelato (Fior di Luna in Trastevere, winner and still champion) and pizza a taglio (Pizzeria Florida in Largo Argentina, same deal).
But it’s not all carbs and frozen custards. At least not this week. The University archives are open eight days this month, and I’ve got two of them reserved. And opening up folders with dust on top of them and seeing things like that (a reinforcing diagram for precast seating in the Stadio Flaminio) is one of the best things about this gig. There is nothing better than an archive with an open photography policy, good lighting, and a stepladder. Surprises aplenty today, as usual–I’ll try to parse a couple of them out over the next week or two.
One thing that always strikes me in going through Nervi’s drawings is the sheer beauty of even the most quotidian stuff. The reinforcing diagram there shows every single bar with shading. The line weight is impeccable, and the drawings are always incredibly easy to read–whatever’s important jumps right out at you, even in a drainage detail. I was lucky to practice at the tail end of the drafting era–we still had a couple of folks, about to retire, who genuinely knew how to put a drawing together that hit you solidly with its message. A dying craft in this age of Revit; I totally understand why we don’t do this anymore, and certainly we have the ability to rethink things more quickly and agilely with everything on the box. But these drawings–hundreds of them for the Stadio in particular–are beautiful things, and they do make me think that this profession used to have just a touch of romance to it.
A quick shout-out to my fellow Fellow in preservation here at the American Academy. Tom Mayes is Deputy General Counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and his project while he’s here is a broad reflection on why our urge to preserve and protect old places exists at all. I often tell students (or colleagues) that the one question we ought to be asking every day in research is “so what?” and Tom is doing that on the largest possible stage.
One of his tasks is to solicit thoughtful responses on why we respond to historic–or even just aged–places so strongly, and he’s collecting them on an extraordinary blog on the Preservation Leadership Forum. Worth reading, and please consider leaving a response…
Big news from home over break last week was the opening of Renzo Piano’s addition to the Kimbell and the almost universally good press it’s received. When the design was unveiled, it looked to be as modest and as deferential a scheme as you could get–across the park from the original, with new underground parking and a carefully proportioned space between, as well as a finely crafted roof that owed something to the Kimbell’s top-lit galleries, but that also played off of Piano’s history of experimenting with lightweight, shaded glass roofs.
From a site perspective, the new building solves the major problem that every visitor to the Kimbell noticed even before they got in–you parked around back and shuffled in through the lower entrance instead of entering the building from the honorific, central bay on the park side. There are several earlier landscape schemes that showed a small street running across the front of the museum, which would have at least made the front feel like a useful entrance, but city politics ended up making the entire site a park–hardly a bad thing, but a conundrum access-wise. Kahn maintained a sort of fantasy about people walking across the park to get to the museum, but with all of the parking in back–in a heavily car-centric part of Fort Worth–that was never going to happen. Piano’s addition apparently brings you up from the car parking and presents you with the Kimbell’s west elevation first, which seems like the best possible way to honor Kahn’s original idea.
As loyal readers will know, I’ve argued before that much of Piano’s work reads as a tribute to Kahn, and to the Kimbell in particular. There’s a history there, in that Piano worked in Kahn’s office for six months on a scheme for a lightweight version of the Olivetti factory roof in Harrisburg, PA. Subsequently, Piano was given the task of designing the Menil Collection museum in Houston, a project that Kahn had been working on at his death. This project shows both the influence of the Kimbell and Piano’s riff on the provision of natural light through the roof; instead of post-tensioned concrete shells, Piano used ferrocemento fins that mitigated the centrality and hierarchy of the Kimbell, providing instead a more finely-grained ceiling and a more consistently diffused light. (And yes, that’s a Nervi connection…) Piano’s subsequent museum work–at the Beyeler Foundation in Switzerland, or the Art Institute in Chicago–all plays on this theme of a lightweight, naturally illuminated ceiling.
Until now, the Nasher Gallery in Dallas was Piano’s clearest tribute to Kahn. This building, opened in 2004, uses a thin scrim of perforated steel to bring in north light, and the character of the interior spaces is uncannily similar to that of the Kimbell. Piano played a game here of proportions and materials, in that the major walls are clad in thin sheets of stone, mimicking Kahn’s but very clearly expressing their veneered status on their ends.
The first round of interior images of the new Kimbell show something similar going on–though the material nod here is to the Kimbell’s concrete more so than its travertine. Piano has taken the light-admitting roof one step further, including scrim at ceiling level that diffuses the light even further, but the effect is similar to both the Menil and the Nasher.
Considering the horrifying prospect of the 1989 plan to extend the Kimbell by simply adding more vaulted bays to the ends of the building, which would have both confused Kahn’s original intent and destroyed the amazing south garden by Noguchi, it’s hard to imagine a better outcome here. The protests that Kahn alumni, preservationists, and Fort Worthians raised in response to Mitchell/Giurgola’s well-intentioned but in hindsight absolutely baffling scheme paid off. The Kimbell has a worthy extension, museum-goers get to experience the original as Kahn intended, and Fort Worth gets a museum district with another world-class building. And it only took 23 years to get there!
“Never doubt the power of many small voices to instill great change,” or something like that.