A good day out this weekend in Naples, which has a tenuous Nervi connection (about which more later), but this trip was mostly for fun.  Catie Newell of *alibi studio had some nighttime photography to take care of there, and a couple of us went along as extra pairs of eyes, with the promise of “the best pizza in Naples” according to someone who should know.

Naples is sort of like Rome with the training wheels off–it’s kind of anarchic, nothing runs quite right, but it has moments of absolutely breathtaking beauty.  That’s Vesuvius and the port from the heights of the Spanish Quarter, where we spent most of our time, and you get a sense for the layering and the patina that this place has.

It’s also a place that has had strong leadership and a thriving economy, as evidence by the Galleria Umberto I, a nineteenth-century shopping arcade that’s rivaled only by the one in Milan for span and ornament.  But those days are clearly in the past as the city’s fortunes have fallen.  The Archaeological Museum is maybe the city’s biggest draw (along with being a staging point for Pompeii and Herculaneum), but even there you get the sense–in closed galleries and the handful of guards scattered throughout the priceless antique sculptures–that things are teetering on the edge of collapse.

ImageStill, Naples is full of the energy it takes to collectively hold things together.  The Spanish Quarter was full of teenagers racing on motorini, helmets and speed limits be damned.  And the best pizza in Naples?  I don’t have an exhaustive comparison set, but the salsiccia at La Pizzaria Notizia, about four miles outside of the tourist area (taxi, trust me), was certainly impressive.  And shameless name-dropping of our source got us a quick moment in the kitchen watching them blast pies out of the 900°F oven.  If I didn’t like my job so much?  I’d drop everything and apprentice here, I think…Image


villa medici at night

ImageJust as the Fellowship seems to be winding down, a handful of amazing trips visits crop up.  Last night fellow Fellow Tom Mayes and I met Didier Repellin, an all-star preservationist from Lyon whose work includes the French government’s properties in Rome.  That’s a handful of churches (including San Trinità dei Monti, at the top of the Spanish Steps), and the French Academy, which is housed in the Villa Medici.  We spent a couple of hours touring the Villa–from its Roman foundations up.  Fascinating stuff, including a horse ramp (left) that’s now an art gallery, and a Roman reservoir under the entry courtyard.

Palimpsests like this happen all the time here–but rarely with such clear divisions between one century and another.  The Roman reservoir was oriented to run along the Acqua Virgine, parallel to the hill on which the Villa Borghese stands.  But the Medici wanted to face the city, so there’s about an 8° offset between the Roman structures and the house that sits on them.  Tricky stuff to preserve if you like flat floors.

The French fellows have studios that are scattered throughout the Medici grounds–a well-preserved 16-square formal garden that runs along the Aurelian wall.  One of the pavilions has been recently turned into a gallery for the Academy’s plaster casts, while another has ceilings painted in frescoes depicting every known bird or plant in Rome at the time.  (This room has a suspicious staircase running down to the base of the Roman wall.  Not so much for escape as for, um, bringing people in illicitly.)

I need to get back during the day to see the gardens themselves, but getting into the guts of a building with this much history made for an extraordinary trip.




Right after I arrived in Rome a Dutch affiliated fellow in film heard me mention Nervi and asked what I thought of the film Parabeton.  I knew that Heinz Emigholz, a German experimental film-maker, had done a piece on Nervi.  But the film, which came out in 2012, didn’t exactly make it to theaters in Iowa.

One of the great things about the American Academy is the connections here, though, and last week two visiting residents mentioned that they were off to Berlin to visit Emigholz, and they’d try to get a copy for me.  Which they did (thank you, Gary and John–a million, million thanks).  So I’ve been immersed in this amazing bit of video ever since, along with its companion pieces on Maillart, Sullivan, Goff (!), and Perret.  Parabeton captures 17 Nervi projects and contrasts them with 10 ancient Roman examples of concrete.  The argument here is as simple as it is rich; Nervi’s work both continues and contrasts with  ancient traditions, and concrete is as versatile a building material as one can imagine.

Emigholz’ method in all of these architectural films (part of a series called Decampment of Modernism) is to let the buildings speak for themselves–unnarrated, beautifully shot sequences that gradually reveal both detail and whole.  The shots are all perfectly illuminated (it must have taken weeks of waiting to get some of these) and accompanied only by perfectly captured ambient sound.  That sounds simple, but the ‘soundtrack’ is brilliantly engineered.  And the buildings are captured as they are, with the accretions and decay that mar them shown unapologetically (a subtle theme throughout these documentaries is the aging and occasional ruin that progressive examples of modernism find themselves subject to).

These films are, of course, the sorts of things I’d watch no matter how well-crafted.  It might take a bit more faith for civilians to sit down for 100 minutes of dialogue-free scenes of raw concrete.  But these are extraordinary pieces of cinema and photography (even the Hollywood Reporter was on board).  Highly recommended for architects, engineers, and film lovers, even though still difficult to obtain–information on screenings and purchase here.  Definitely one to watch for.

l’aquila, abruzzo


A sobering day trip today to L’Aquila, the city in Abruzzi that was devastated by an earthquake in 2009.  The 6.3 quake killed over 300 residents and damaged thousands of buildings, devastating the largely medieval center.  Today, the center is still almost entirely empty, its buildings scaffolded and reconstruction crawling along, beset by rampant corruption and the influence of organized crime.  

We were fortunate to see first hand the renovation efforts on the Forte Spagnolo, a 16th century structure that suffered significant damage.  Those efforts are heartfelt but clearly not making much headway–the damaged parts have been stabilized and much of the rubble cleared away, but nothing substantial has been done other than a few tension rods that now hold up a precariously-tilting cortile.  Like much of the rest of the city, the forte stands under the shadow of a large tower crane that stood suspiciously idle.

It’s hard to see a good outcome here.  Much of the city has returned to normal, but the center, the heart of the place, is still largely walled off and patrolled by military police.  There’s evidence of some renovation work in commercial structures, but for the most part the city’s traditional tourist center is still a ruin, as are its churches.  The stifling influence of corruption is evident in the dozens of rented tower cranes and scaffolds, and in the explanation for the extraordinary death toll, which is widely blamed on shoddy construction, especially in a university dormitory where many of the fatalities occurred.  (For comparison, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake occurred in a far more populous region, was magnitude 6.9–or about eight times stronger than L’Aquila, and it killed only 63).


It was a rare opportunity to see buildings from various eras laid open, with their construction clearly visible–a bit like an anatomy lab.  The forte renovation was particularly telling, as the sixteenth century masonry survived far better than the nineteenth century addition, which was clearly built of hollow tile terra cotta.  You can see the rubble stonework and the thick plastering that went into the walls of the upper, residential area of the fort there.

ImageWe ended the day with a visit to a small, largely abandoned hill town nearby called Santo Stefano di Sessanio.  With a  population of just over 100, the town has been sort of happily cannibalized by the tourism industry–there’s a hotel dispersed throughout the village that rents out refurbished medieval houses for a hefty price.  The town is a local center for the Slow Food movement, and lunch consisted of three full courses of local pasta and salumi.  The abandonment of these gorgeous but remote villages is a growing concern in the region, and the takeover by tourism is understandably controversial.  Like L’Aquila, there’s no perfect answer here–from a preservation standpoint it’s good to see some sort of profitable use they can serve, since that at least ensures continual maintenance and upkeep.  But the town is also no longer a working town.  The medieval fabric remains, and it’s probably more pristine than it ever was to begin with, but the life of the place has been entirely replaced, and that’s an equally sobering prospect.

As with so many other things in this country, a day of beautiful things and complex explanations…

pier luigi, meet ove…ove, meet pier luigi

ImageA minor but entertaining find today in the archives.  Nervi was hired in 1963 as a local consultant for Sir Basil Spence’s British Embassy, near the Porta Pia in Rome.  The design engineer whom Nervi was to support?  Ove Arup, leading a newly-reformed office and busy with the Sydney Opera House, among other projects.  That year, Arup finished a small, structurally expressive footbridge in Durham, and Nervi wrote in the spring of 1964 to express his admiration.  That personal note isn’t in the archives, but Arup’s reply is:

“My Dear Nervi,


“It gave me great pleasure to receive your kind and generaous note about the Durham Bridge, and I thank you for it.


“I am almost ashamed, when I consider that I have never written to congratulate you on your much greater achievements–my excuse must be that these are by now taken for granted, and that I could ill aford the time for such heavy correspondence!”

The two were roughly contemporaries, though Arup’s turn as a star engineer was just beginning, and Nervi’s was in full swing.  Nervi was also impressed by Spence, writing after a visit to Coventry that the 1962 Cathedral there was “…the only beautiful Church of modern times I have ever seen.”  Given that St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, designed by Marcel Breuer with Nervi as engineer, had just been completed in 1961, that was singular praise indeed.

The Embassy project, delayed several times due to budget cuts in London, was finally completed in 1971.  Nervi’s role was entirely advisory, lending his opinion on contractors and suppliers and (perhaps most critically) on Italian tax code.  But he also weighed in on several technical matters, including seismic codes and locally available concrete.  Just before Nervi’s note on the bridge, Arup’s trusted associate Ted Happold wrote to Nervi to introduce a young engineer who was to visit Rome to gather infomration on Italian steel and aggregates.  That young engineer?  Robert Silman, who after a year at Arups in London went to work for Amman and Whitney in New York and then, in 1966, to open his own practice, now one of New York’s blue chip preservation engineering firms.  Silman has also taught structures to architects at City College, Yale, and Columbia for years, and the list of his illustrious alumni includes your humble narrator.  

Only connect, as they say.

chicago spire back on track?


Courtesy Chicago Architecture Foundation

There’s a buzz this weekend around the news that Shelbourne North Water Street LP has found a backer to help it out of bankruptcy, possibly paving the way for work on the dormant Chicago Spire to start up again.  I’ll confess that the mechanics and legalities of the finances are well beyond me, but the support of Atlas Apartment Holdings LLC out of Northbrook is nearly the first positive news the project has had since work stopped in 2010.

As Lynn Becker points out, Atlas isn’t exactly a household name, and Shelbourne left plenty of burned bridges as the project folded in the wake of the 2008 housing crisis.  Chicago’s market has recovered, but most of the investment right now is in rental apartments, not in condominiums, which make up all of the Spire’s proposed program.  The proposed influx of investment would only get previous debts paid off, leaving the question of financing the project’s re-commissioning and construction open.

There’s been plenty of speculation that getting the Spire re-started, built, and sold could in fact be possible in today’s market–after all, if there was ever a project geared toward the very healthy 1%, this is it.  Lots of comment pages have pointed out, though, that even in a hot market the relatively small apartments (on average) seem out of step with the cost of going so tall, and with financing based on a luxury model.  And with Calatrava’s press recently, some of the shine he brought to the project may have, um, dimmed a bit.

But to my mind there are even basic logistical problems with the design that still raise some concerns.  One of the few published floor plans shows a total of eleven passenger elevators to serve 1200 luxury condominiums.  That’s a ratio of over 100:1, where we usually think of 60:1 or 70:1 for high-end developments (even lower end apartments are often around 90:1).  Coupled with the fact that neighbors have pointed out that dead-end North Water Street isn’t really built for another 1500 cars, there are still some figures here that seem based in the weird optimism of the pre-2008 crash.

Granted, I’m not a huge Calatrava fan.  While he’s alluded to Chicago’s skyscraper tradition before, this one seems more in the Masonic Temple vein than anything else.  There’s a part of me that would like to see this, if for no other reason than to settle the “nation’s tallest” debate for a little while (remember, Chicago already has the country’s tallest building, because the top of that thing in New York is, um, just a spire).  It would be a long, long haul from this first step to get work started on the ‘bathtub’ again, but stranger things have happened.

This week’s news has at least been enough for the Chicago Architecture Foundation to put the Spire back into its city model (see above, and thanks for the pic!), so at least there’s some construction work going on…

Rome is fantastic…

…but I do miss this place.  Kamil Galimski’s killer time-lapse of Chicago has been bouncing around the web this week, and it’s worth all four minutes of your  time (if you’re reading architecturefarm, you have four minutes of free time…)  The shot of the clouds flying by the Hancock alone is a beautiful, beautiful thing…




A fine Fellow’s walk this week through Garbatella, a 1920s ‘suburb’ built for displaced workers from the Centro that was wildly successful and that is now one of the city’s most desirable residential quarters.  It’s a neat stylistic history of Italy’s fascist years–neo-Liberty style apartments and facades in the first phases, followed by increasingly rationalist and eventually monumentally Fascist blocks in the later phases.

Style matters less, though, than the cleverness of the plan, which nicely segregates pedestrian traffic from automobiles, provides shared back gardens (now mostly paved over, but still functioning as social spaces), and accessible commercial and social functions like cinemas, shops, and a large church.


I was happily out of my element–housing isn’t my academic “thing,” but anyone can recognize a good neighborhood when they see it. And the range of styles was a happy thing to see–as long as the basics of pedestrian geometry, residential density and openness, and sight lines get taken care of, you can dress it up however you want.  Some of this stuff has aged better than others, but throughout the place was inhabited, bustling, and clearly alive.  And the rain held off through lunch and a long walk home…at least until about 85% of the way up the hill.  

drawing nervi

palazetto sectionI’ve been surrounded by colleagues making beautiful things these last few weeks, so I’ve taken a break from the Italian-English dictionary and concentrated on pulling together some pilot illustrations for the Nervi project.  Drawing has always been a good chance to learn the buildings I’m studying, and there’s a crying need for new explanatory diagrams and images of Nervi’s work; while there are fantastic contemporary accounts that are well-illustrated, we’ve got much better tools now to graphically explain how they work and how they were put together.  So one of the goals–much like the Chicago project–is to update the canon of images with some ultra-clear visuals to supplement the text.

Here’s the problem, though.  Nervi’s work is fairly easy to understand, but it’s a bear to actually draw.  The Palazetto dello Sport (section up top, there) was, as I’ve argued, the result of a country-simple building process–make eight versions of the same basic diamond-shaped pan, reproduce these 108 times each, lay them out on a spherical surface, and connect them with a topping slab and you’re pretty much there.  That process is simple, but the resulting form is not, and I think this touches on just how different Nervi’s process was from most of his contemporaries.

PrintThe archives have tons of what I’d call component drawings–working out the sizes and configurations of the actual pans, for instance, that went into the Palazetto‘s ceiling.  There are also a lot of laying-out drawings, showing the overall geometry of his roofs, almost always in plan, and scaffolding drawings, usually in section.  All of these were used to work out the elements, and the construction process.  There aren’t all that many architectural  drawings, showing what the finished structure will look like, and this is evidence of what you might call an empirical, bottoms-up design method.  In other words, Nervi usually approached these projects as problem-solving exercises–how do we span a basketball court and seating, for instance, or how do we get a bridge from A to B given supports at C and D.  That’s very different from the more traditional, top-down methodology of, say, the Beaux-Arts, which was interested in the construction details and problem solving only after the architecture–spaces, forms, proportions, etc.–had been decided upon in an esquisse.  Nervi’s generative concepts emerged as much from construction as they did from abstract ideas about space and form, and the drawings in his archives show this.  The sections and perspectives showing what it would be like to be in the spaces themselves usually came dead last, whenever a client needed to be convinced or a press release needed a compelling image.  That’s not to say that Nervi didn’t care about the resulting architectural effects, just that the overall guiding concept often emerged from the constructive processes involved.  And he spent plenty of time and energy massaging these processes, their components, and their patterns to tell a better visual story–his version of ornament.

I’ve found that the only real way to get these traditional architectural drawings–sections, reflected ceiling plans, isometrics–done is to base them on cuts of actual digital models.  That means building components and assembling them on the laptop in an process analogous to the construction itself, and then taking slices of the finished object to start the 2-d work.  Again not a bad way to learn the building and the way it came to be.

The architects we use to teach drawing–Corbusier, Palladio, Wright, and (yes) Kahn–all began with drawing; “the plan is the generator.”  Details, methods, ornament were then all subsequent and subservient to this beginning.  For Nervi, the component was the generator, and the empirical, building-up process he pursued is, I think, what has made his buildings difficult to draw and such a healthy challenge to the compositional tradition.

new design-tech edition shipping 3 March

coverOr 27 February, depending on where it’s coming from.  Either way, the second edition of Design-Tech will officially be available at the end of the month.  Super excited about this, as it’s been a year’s worth of work to update, revise, correct, and generally spit-polish the original into a more usable, up-to-date textbook.  And a shout-out to my co-authors, colleagues Jason Alread and rookie Rob Whitehead.  We’ll have to delay the launch party until I’m back from Rome, of course…

Further details over there to the right, or at Routledge’s website…